Monday, September 22, 2014

Athletic Exceptionalism

In the past couple weeks we barely digested the brutality of the Ray Rice video before Adrian Peterson’s story filled the airwaves. And by week’s end Florida State’s Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston was revealed as perhaps the biggest jackass in modern sports after a string of incidents – part comic, part cruel, part criminal.

NFL star Ray Rice was caught on tape slugging his fiancĂ© in the face (who went on to marry him), fellow NFL star Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse after “spanking” his 4-year-old son, and Winston, who was accused of sexual assault last year and cited this past April for stealing crab legs from a grocery store, was last week documented standing on a table on Florida State’s campus shouting vulgar obscenities at female students.

There are two ways to be outraged about these cumulative offenses – offences that add to an already long list of offences from top-shelf athletes. The first is the abuse of women and children by individual perpetrators. But the actions of the organizations charged with policing the behavior of these individuals bothers me even more.

When individuals fail us in a moment of anger or passion or vulgar stupidity, that’s one thing. When organizations that have supposedly consulted in reasoned calm and still resolved to fail us for the sake of protecting financial interests or avoiding organizational embarrassment, that’s another matter.

The child abuse charges against NFL running back, Adrian Peterson exposed the dividing forces that make it hard for organizations to take action – those defending the status quo, and the abusers. Retired NBA star Charles Barkley defended Peterson citing cultural and regional norms, saying that African Americans from the south simply spank their kids more. “Whipping – we do that all the time,” Barkley said.

When Barkley comments on social issues, he’s often like Dick Cheney commenting on national defense – they both specialize in being wrong.

When Peterson tore a branch off a tree and “spanked” his 4-year-old son, it broke the skin and injured the child’s scrotum. The debate here isn’t about spanking. It’s about child abuse.

I spanked my children, but not as a regular matter of course. Why teach children that violence is the go-to answer for a problem? Instead, I spanked them when their behavior was out of control or they’d endangered their own lives – perhaps run into the street. There would be time later for teaching moments, but at those instances I needed to dramatically get their attention in a flash. So I’m not against spanking. But if the palm of your hand on the back of a child's jeans isn’t enough, and you’re breaking branches off of trees for a weapon, and more importantly, if your child needs medical attention as a result of a spanking, then you didn’t “spank” your child, you abused them.

Debate over!

There are a lot of people who were raised in a lot of circumstances that gave them ideas about personal conduct that land them in jail. That’s not a reason not to put them in jail.

And our reactions are more than a little convoluted and contradictory.  We’re demanding legal action against guys who used violence or aggression in moments of need or anger – guys we love for the violence they use to win games for our entertainment.

But the bottom line: the NFL and NCAA have a problem on their hands and I believe it’s a problem with the athletic culture in this country. According to USA Today, since 2000 there have been 713 instances of NFL players having run-ins with the law that were more serious than minor traffic violations. For an elite, pampered class of individuals marketed as role models to kids and pitchmen in public service ads, that’s not such a great record.

We have to be a little careful in tarring all athletes over the actions of a few. I’m routinely dismayed by the media’s willingness to hold up examples of the extreme and sell it as the norm. The media sell violence, sex, and drama in much the same way Hollywood does. But the stories of top-tier athletes out of control are coming with such frequency it’s clearly more than just a few bad apples. Much as the Catholic Church had to accept that there was a systemic problem with child abuse among priests, the NFL and the NCAA need to accept they have a systemic problem with athletic exceptionalism. And they’ll have to face it and deal with it firmly and honestly, or a chunk of the public will turn their backs on these institutions, starting with the women they’ve been marketing to aggressively in recent years.

In the world of international politics, we speak of “American Exceptionalism,” the idea that America is so big and so strong and speaks with such moral authority that the rules restricting the behavior of other nations don’t apply to us. I think the same notion follows our premier athletes. They’re so big, so strong, so talented, and carry on their shoulders the hopes and dreams of so many fans, they are exceptional – the rules of social decency and criminal justice apparently don’t entirely apply to them.

If you’re like me, you routinely saw evidence of this athletic exceptionalism in high school and college – athletes given the best equipment and the most attention, parents who came for game after game and shouted with passion – but never came to the science fair, the spelling bee or parent/teacher conferences. I routinely saw athletes behave badly and pay no price, or saw higher ups cover for them. As a former teacher who had to grade athletes, I can't count the times I heard parents or coaches plead, "C'mon, he's worked so hard. Don't let one little mistake ruin everything this young man worked so hard for." In other words, don't give him the F he earned, give him a passing grade . . . so he can play ball Friday night.

Our actions show time and again what we value. The gravity that holds the rest of us to the earth does not weigh so much upon premier athletes. And I’m just cynical enough to imagine that if Ray Rice could be given no more than sensitivity training even though police had a video of him slugging his wife in the face, it’s likely the USA Today data hides the true number of incidents of abuse and misbehavior – the times an NFL player was allowed to walk without a report after telling a police officer, “Maybe you don’t know who I am . . .”

Think we don’t give preferential treatment to athletes? Next time you’re buying food or drink in the greater Indianapolis area, consider that our millionaire professional gladiators, the Colts, play in a stadium funded by taxes you’re paying on your beer, your latte, your dinner. And Jim Irsay, the owner of that team was caught last May intoxicated behind the wheel of a car filled with illegal pills and $29,000 in cash. For all my social media friends beating the drum for welfare recipients to be tested for drugs before they get their check - why don't we test Irsay and the Colts players? They take tax-payer money as certainly as any welfare recipient? 

Why don't we? Because they're "exceptional." The poor people who can't afford to attend the professional games we subsidize with our tax dollars will be tested, but not the boys at the top taking handouts. We even sanitize the language. The poor take evil "welfare" while the rich are "subsidized" with "job creating" public funds.

More than all of that, I’m bothered by how the NFL, the Ravens, the Vikings, and the University of Florida handled these situations. Forget for the moment about pampered individuals acting in moments of passion, rage, or arrogant foolishness, and consider the learned leaders – the boys at the top, who after careful deliberation in board rooms and consultations with law enforcement did literally the least they could do after investigating Rice, Peterson and Winston. They did just enough to say they’d done something – to cover their asses, but hardly enough to address the situations . . . that is until the public got a good look. The men leading these entities either don’t know what century we’re living in or they hold the spoiled child’s view of right and wrong: it’s only wrong when you get caught.

As long as we confer elite athletes with god-like status, some will act as if they are living exceptions to our rules.

Buy Kurt's book, "Noblesville"

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