Criminal issues have certainly disgraced professional athletes with endless cases of murder, gun violence, domestic violence, drinking and driving, child endangerment, performance enhancing drugs, gambling, unauthorized videotaping, stolen crab legs, whatever the problem, there are daily scandals in the sports world.
The modern era of bad boys in sports dates back to 1994 when OJ Simpson may or may not have murdered his ex-wife, Nicole. He was acquitted, although he certainly endured a public execution and ended up in prison in 2008 anyway.
One problem in demonizing actions is by thinking something is new or shocking. However, the sports world has always been full of misappropriations. Athletes cheating or breaking the law is not new, or particularly shocking. It’s somewhat natural.
Athletes of All Ages Have Tried To Cheat the System
Performance enhancing drugs, for example, have been around a long time. They’ve only been highlighted more recently by rule changes regarding designer steroids. Still, doping has always been an issue. It was an issue going back to ancient Greeks using opium juice in the original Olympics and there are records in the 1940s of cyclists using amphetamines to help increase endurance. Across time, the supply has been different, not the culture.
The same can be said for gambling in sports. It is infrequently discussed enough to only be associated with Pete Rose or the 1919 Chicago Black Sox. These incidents were understandable in context of how they occurred and in context of history. From amateur to professional sports, gambling has been problematic in every era.
George Bechtel was banned from baseball in 1876 for conspiring to throw a game, and that was at a time when bookies circulated through the stands taking bets as if they were cotton candy vendors. As a 19-year-old semi-pro in 1907, future baseball hall of famer, Walter Johnson was purchased by Payette to pitch one game versus Caldwell with a heavy amount of betting. The original football golden boy and winner of the 1961 NFL MVP award, Paul Hornung, along with teammate Alex Karras, were suspended for betting on football. Denny McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games to go with Cy Young awards in 1968 and 1969, was suspended in 1970 for gambling and quickly destroyed his baseball career on a path to prison.
Players in the old days were not paid ridiculously high salaries as they are now. Baseball players were sometimes banned for requesting higher contracts prior to 1915. It took the formation of the Federal League in 1913 for player rights to be granted by American or National League owners. As the highest paid baseball player of his era, Ty Cobb made $20,000 in 1915, or roughly equivalent to just under $500,000 in 2015 dollars. The highest paid in 2015, Clayton Kershaw, makes over 60 times Ty Cobb’s adjusted-for-inflation salary.
It was assumed that players conspired with gamblers because they weren’t paid appropriately. As economics changed, players started to be paid more fairly and gambling became less of a problem overall, though the high salaries of modern players have resulted in high stakes gambling in many cases. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley have been disgraced by gambling. Golfer John Daly is infamously known for his huge gambling losses. As well, modern day soccer players have lost millions in a psychosocial culture of gambling.
Gambling and doping are somewhat taken for granted as part of sports culture, but more violent behaviors, like murder (Aaron Hernandez), armed robbery (Clifford Etienne), child abuse (Adrian Peterson), and domestic violence are subject to harsher criticism. Whatever the social ill, there are many professional athletes guilty of transgressions. A Wikipedia list of crimes committed by athletes is longer than any team roster, many with mafia-like crimes.
Athletes have a drive to be competitive, a tenacity and fighting spirit. They have a desire to win at all costs. And when players of rough sports, like football, are so willing to throw their bodies into other bodies, how does such reckless abandon keep contained? That must be difficult, particularly for players from poor backgrounds subjected to violence as youth and/or with little education. To top it off, violence would seem more likely when condoned by coaches, such as the New Orleans Saints offering incentives for injuring opposing players.
Sometimes, giving someone millions of dollars just opens the door for millions of problems. That is the primary difference between the ages. In either case, it is not up to the athlete to behave. The athlete’s job is to compete at high levels. It is up to society to set the standards and provide the support, or lack of support, for player’s paychecks.
Leveling the Field
The big question becomes what penalties are appropriate? Should life be so strict as locking the door and throwing away the key?
No endorsement should ever be given to Ray Rice’s elevator incident and I personally would support a permanent ban in his, and similar cases. However, it’s also important to consider the element within human nature. Giving people a second chance provides hope.
Nobody is perfect. People know from the start that they will make mistakes. In fact, doctors in training necessarily need to make mistakes to learn. The differentiating factor separating a doctor’s success from failure is “knowledge of the repercussions and instill a character that doesn’t allow them to be the least paralyzed by the fear of the responsibility placed on their hands.” This means exactly that we must accept faults without being tied down by them.
There is much encouragement in learning and growing from mistakes and not being permanently locked away from another chance. The idea of the possibility of living only in fear and without hope is enough to make people more lenient toward criminals.
That much is evident with general prison populations. Most of the millions of prisoners in the United States will eventually be released and return to the public. With no hope or support, there absolutely will be a high recidivism rate. Oregon is admittedly progressive compared to many states, but still a heavy majority of Oregonians support rehabilitation efforts and services to prepare prisoners for reentry through job training, mental health, drug treatment and education. There is no reason to expect convicted athletes also wouldn’t benefit society better by having a support network. Some may say that due to their celebrity status and exceptional situations they would have even more need for certain services.
It is worth noting, however, that Oregonians also support close supervision of ex-prisoners. Basically, that means giving second chances, but with a short leash. My argument for not endorsing criminal activities while suggesting standards for athletes be in line with other people in society is similar. That is why Aaron Hernandez will serve life in prison. That is why Ray Rice shouldn’t get the golden path he had prior to his knocking out his wife. On the flipside, paying Sean Payton the richest coaching contract after a year long “vacation” is not congruent to what would happen in the rest of society.
When we let individuals off easy, we are not setting examples for the rest of society. Still, a second chance is crucial for the hope of future society. These are not individual problems because there are too many individuals committing the crimes. These are societal problems. Society needs room to breathe and recover from these problems.
Building Hope and Enforcing Accountability
Giving hope and holding people accountable can happen together. There are other avenues for Ray Rice beyond the football field. As a leader, or role model, maybe coach, Rice can still accomplish many great things. That’s up to him to show the strength to rebound from a reasonable punishment. Removing him from the game is part of the price paid for his actions. Holding him accountable makes the system fair and sends the message that assaulting other people is not okay.
Society’s expectations for celebrities are pretty strict considering how many average people have problems staying out of trouble. This makes it problematic to expect more from athletes, yet we often judge them differently. What we need is the balance of toeing the line between knowing what is right, understanding consequences and feeling hopeful that we can succeed in the world despite lamentable actions.
Volunteer programs are one way that people can atone for mistakes. Even where people may come from poor backgrounds, the glamour and the spotlight may be too overwhelming. It is always significant to get people back in touch with more unfortunate situations to realize how bad things can be and how to correct problems to achieve better outcomes. That experience is too valuable to deprive from an individual and society.
Fans are the ones that have the ultimate power to hold athletes accountable. Fans support them with tickets, cable subscriptions and buying from advertisers. Society, in general, continues to offer massive financial support to pro sports leagues, even where they bash poor behaviors. In the end, people seem to still need entertainment in times of crisis. Modern life is full of endless war and strife, resulting in refugees in Hungary, Greece and Syria and elsewhere. At the same time, the Washington Post estimated that six million civilians have been killed by US interventions since WWII. We continue to support this carnage with tax dollars, so in some ways fans continuing to pay athletes for violence and cheating makes sense.
From my perspective, such social support shouldn’t make sense. While I am all for rehabilitation programs and giving outlets for the disgraced to continue to be successful, that doesn’t equal paying to support a destructive culture. There is enough entertainment to go around that I can spend my money elsewhere, so I focus on the betterment of society rather than being entertained by how bad boys can be. As long as fans give any attention, there is no room to complain. Athletes may be bad, but then we all are.
Daniel is a freelance writer and observationist, former English teacher and failed comedian. His interests include mindfulness, poverty, the environment and support for disenfranchised people worldwide. He is an ardent champion of terrestrial, freeform radio and a DJ at Radio Boise.