by Jeff Laughlin
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in America’s most popular game. He still stands heroically as the benchmark for how sports can set societal standards.
In 2014, most of those standards do not need help. Television, movies and social media basically run the conversation when it comes to societal shifts. So, when some of the worst humans in sports all decided to act out over the past two weeks, it left very little room to celebrate sporting events.
For people who like talking about sports, we abhor weeks like this.
What sports actually took place — Team USA basketball winning gold, whatever NASCAR race may or may not have occurred, college and professional football, the end of the PGA season, etc. — stood small next to the overwhelming evidence that athletes’ worrisome behaviors still trend toward aberrant.
I watch sports to specifically avoid talking about spousal battery, ingrained racism, casual drug use and child endangerment, but sometimes it can’t be avoided.
So, here’s what we learned: assault, child abuse, racism and drug use — at least when it costs you hefty paychecks — are awful acts and should be punished.
Unfortunately, we already knew that.
That’s what makes the debate on sports and humanity the least interesting argument running. Every time an athlete does something deviant, the world demonizes him as though society’s house does not overflow with detestation and demolition.
The real question should not be what is wrong and right among athletes and their bosses, but what, any longer, can sports teach us? The great metaphors of athleticism no longer stir the collective pot. Now, the main trendsetters in sports are championing the collective pot, as it were. The modern athlete stands as less a barrier-breaker than a relaxation enthusiast.
We all want accountability, and when we got it this week — Ray Rice’s expulsion from the league for knocking his fiancée out — we demanded more justice. Goodell must also be at fault.
Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson turned himself in for being a racist, in that he does not really understand socioeconomics or race relations. So he essentially fired himself. And that took his GM, Danny Ferry, with him. Ferry’s memorandum on Africans and basketball ranged between utter nonsense and despicable idiocy, depending upon the viewpoint. Either way, he’s likely gone. That might not be enough either.
Adrian Peterson will likely face a hefty punishment, too. The debate surrounding the Minnesota Vikings running back’s “whupping” of his child resonates so strongly with people that the debate differs only slightly from “Should we use nuclear weapons?”
Oh, and Wes Welker probably did some party drugs, which will account for 1/10,000th of the brain damage he’ll receive by actually playing football. He got a 4-game suspension.
In our rush to judgment, we’ve forgotten about the shift in culture. At some point, society realized that sportsmen were not great at anything other than sports. The stories about Babe Ruth drinking and cavorting became the historical legend. Wilt Chamberlain’s sexual exploits curry more interest than his brilliant statistics. Barry Bonds being a self-motivated “cheater” stretches longer than any of the home runs he crushed.
And that is totally fair. Athletes’ moronic behavior should soften their iconoclastic images. Ray Rice should be banned and Adrian Peterson should talk to a judge about acceptable limits of punishment for defenseless children.
But this has to stop.
We fetishize our demonizing. We lambast the public who celebrate these idiots. We wear out our soapboxes on issues we already defined. And what we are left with — what remains the only actual known known — is the idea that we should have stopped looking to athletes to lead us long ago.
The dialogue devolved from Lou Gehrig’s beautiful, heartfelt retirement speech at Yankee Stadium to David Ortiz’s “This is our f***ing city, man,” and the slide did not come gradually.
The debate does not have to mirror or mimic that ignorance, though. Quit calling for people’s heads and rest on your laurels. Don’t hit your fiancée. Don’t beat your child senseless. Don’t take drugs if it might cost you your livelihood. Don’t say abhorrent things about people around you. And don’t judge everyone based on televised stupidity.
We know what Ray Rice did was wrong. Now, we need to remember why we never should have looked to him to teach us anything in the first place.