Cheating, racism, domestic violence, homosexuality, and child abuse: all of these issues confront Americans in all facets of both public and private life. Most shockingly though, these important societal issues have been placed at the forefront of the public eye this summer through, of all platforms, sports. Unfortunately, it has been the athletes, teams, and leagues’ role as perpetrators, not groundbreakers, which have necessitated increased attention devoted to these highly sensitive and often polarizing topics.
The first major event sending shockwaves across the country occurred when aspiring NFL draftee Michael Sam announced in February that he is gay. His journey has been charted by the national media, from his pre-draft workouts, to his selection in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams, to his eventual signing with the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad just a few weeks ago. There has been criticism throughout his journey; many NFL teams have been accused of passing on him in fear of the “distraction” or “media attention.” The inherent implication is that teams don’t want a gay player in their locker room. Many have thus suggested that sports are way behind the rest of the world in incorporating employees of all sexual orientations.
Michael Sam’s journey is old news, however, compared to the Ray Rice saga. When the initial video broke showing Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of an elevator, the NFL suspended him for two games. Many thought this was too soft. When the second, more visually insinuating video broke, the national media went berserk. The NFL was accused of covering up the video, Roger Goodell’s job appeared in jeopardy, and the league’s reputation took a tumble. Money, superstars, and preservation of the on-field product appeared more important than a proper investigation of Ray Rice’s domestic abuse case.
At nearly the same time, the NBA faced another racism issue, on the heels of recovering from the Donald Sterling fiasco during the summer. Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson was found to have written a racially insensitive email describing his team’s fans. The email was uncovered due to another issue within the organization centered on racially derogative comments involving general manager Danny Ferry’s description of free agent candidate, Luol Deng. Levenson, fearing Sterling-like backlash, announced his intention to sell his share of the team.
Buried under the media firestorm covering Ray Rice’s domestic abuse story and the saga of the Atlanta Hawks, baseball suffered another mild blow when last year’s home run king, Baltimore Orioles star Chris Davis, was suspended 25 games for steroid use last week. The continued problem of steroid use in baseball will only further stigmatize baseball as a sport associated with cheaters.
If all these separate off-field dramas weren’t enough, the sports world is currently holding their breath as Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has been linked to not one, but two separate child abuse incidents, which are threatening to derail his career. It has been a rough couple of weeks for those in charge of America’s most prestigious sports leagues, leaving many to contemplate how we, as fans, should view our beloved athletes amid the culture of violence, racism, and cover-ups that sports have promoted internally for years.
What is left is a huge mess with consequences that are yet to be understood. Sports have a unique way of captivating Americans with drama, social cohesion, and spirited performances of its individual actors. We love sports because they are an escape. When athletes step on the field, it’s as if everything in the outside world stops. It is the only place where it is socially acceptable for an individual to scream at the top of their lungs for three hours and say whatever they desire.
Sports have long been associated with the American republican ideals of hard work, determination, toughness, and adversity. Pop culture glorifies the lessons learned through sports, as phrases such as “keep your head up”, or “think not of yourself, but of the team” are ingrained in the minds of young athletes globally. Sportsmanship is rewarded, work ethic is praised, and the combination of strength, skill, and intelligence is highly coveted.
However, the adoration of individual athletes constantly making decisions that display a severe lack of judgment and intelligence has presented a problem for contemporary Americans as they choose their role models. The increasing incidence of athletes running into trouble along with the increasing power of mass media to uncover information at warp speed has made it difficult for athletes to make mistakes that go unnoticed. Money seems to only blind those with power in the industry, leaving little room for accountability and adding incentives to cover up athlete missteps and punish only to appease the masses, but more importantly the sponsors. Parents are thus facing difficult decision about what kinds of athletic role models to expose to their children, if they ever choose to use athletes as role models at all.
Sports are becoming more associated with backwardness, liars, criminals, cheaters, and corrupt leaders than ever before. The aforementioned values instilled by playing sports don’t seem to be producing the intended results. The atmosphere is pervading down to the high school and youth level and the path to success is becoming more about the individual, and glory is becoming a corruptive tool rather than a reward. The more and more I watch sports, the more I begin to see not role models, but a modern version of Roman gladiators. To which I ask, is that your desired choice of role model?