Athletes aren’t heroes. They never have been. They’re just mortal men and women who happen to be really good at a handful of children’s games we, as a society, have decided to turn into big business. Sometimes it is all too easy to forget that when we see them drag an entire defense on their back into an end zone, or when we watch them throw down a violent dunk over a 7-foot defender. We love the highlights and the on-the-field heroics so much that we are more than willing to look past the occasional moral stumble. But why is that the case?
I’m sure you’ve heard by now about Ray Rice, the 3-time Pro Bowl running back for the Baltimore Ravens that was recently made infamous for rendering his then fiancé unconscious in a casino elevator. The incident was brutal. It was caught on film, and thus cannot be ignored like other headlines about domestic abuse that occasionally roll through the ticker at the bottom of your Sports Center telecast. I’m sure that you’ve also heard about the paltry 2-game suspension the NFL handed him for his actions.
Two games is nothing. In 2010, Jets’ head strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi was suspended indefinitely for tripping a player on the sideline during the course of a game. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor was suspended 5 games for receiving impermissible benefits while attending the Ohio State University. He was swapping memorabilia for free tattoos. Heck, Plaxico Burress got 4 games for shooting himself in the leg in a public setting. There have been four 2-game suspensions handed down by the NFL since 2006. The offenses for the four suspensions are as follows: allegations of dog fighting, stomping on another player’s arm during a game, illegal helmet to helmet contact during a game, and knocking a woman unconscious and dragging her out of an elevator.
The ever image conscious ESPN proved to be a far sterner employer than the NFL, as they gave First Take’s Stephen A. Smith a one-week suspension for just talking about the Ray Rice case. Granted, Smith’s comments were wildly inappropriate (we’ll get to that here shortly), but shouldn’t the person who committed the crime be held at least, I don’t know, three times as accountable as someone who was discussing the crime?
So what did Smith say? Here is his exact quote:
“What I’ve tried to employ the female members of my family — some of who you all met and talked to and what have you — is that … let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions, because if I come — or somebody else come, whether it’s law enforcement officials, your brother or the fellas that you know — if we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you.”
The implication in his comments that caused the backlash is that women can, in some way, “provoke wrong actions.” Smith later apologized and claimed to have misspoke. He very well may have. I hope he did. But there is nothing in this world a woman can do, short of mass terrorism or threatening to take the life of another, which would in any way remotely begin to justify violent action against her. I don’t know the specific details of the Rice case- what the argument was about, what words were said- but I don’t have to. It was wrong, and we shouldn’t be okay with it.
Most people weren’t. In fact, public outrage over the underwhelming disciplinary actions taken against Rice has caused the NFL to reevaluate their policy on domestic abuse. They are now considering implementing a minimum 6-game suspension for first time domestic abuse violations. The National Football League is a corporate money making machine. This is not a bad thing, it is only a reality. They will only change their policies when their policies are no longer acceptable. Society decides what is acceptable and you are a part of society. Keep that in mind as you go through life. Refuse to be alright with things that are wrong. Refuse to be quiet about things that trouble your heart.
Be careful about who you put on a pedestal and pay attention to why you put them there. It’s okay to love sports, to revel in athletic feats and cheer your heart out on Sunday afternoons. It’s okay to root for your favorite teams and admire the skill and ability of your favorite athletes. But take a moment to realize that sports are just games and there are much more important things in life. Kids, don’t make athletes your heroes. Chances are, they will let you down and lead you astray. Find someone who stands for something. They don’t need to be perfect, but they should be honest and kind hearted, and they should wield their power gently. If they happen to be able to throw a football 40 yards on a rope or smash 500 foot home runs, then great. But don’t let those physical gifts be your determining factors. Parents, be a hero to your children. You don’t have to be perfect, just try your best. Don’t accept things that are wrong and be careful what you worship in front of your kids.
I’m not asking you to boycott the NFL or to show up at Ray Rice’s doorstep with torches and pitchforks. Ray Rice has expressed interest in becoming an advocate for stopping domestic abuse. I don’t know if his intentions are pure or not (the timing is of course suspicious), but I hope they are. As wrong as what he did was, he deserves a chance to prove that he is genuinely remorseful. Janay Palmer, Rice’s former fiancé, seems to have forgiven him. The couple is now married, and they claim that the incident is now behind them. Whether or not you decide to forgive Ray Rice is your own choice. Just don’t base your decision on his ability to run with a football.