Listening to all the discussions over National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL’s responses to its current abuse issues, my mind went back to 2007. Back then Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was suspended for his involvement with gambling and dog-fighting. Not everyone was happy with the suspension. I remember fans protesting outside the Falcons stadium, chanting “Let him play!”
I have no idea how representative those fans were of all Falcons aficionados, but it seems clear all of us have been guilty of creating the environment that gives celebrities, whether actors, musicians, or athletes, the sense of special entitlement that permits them to believe they can get away with bad behavior and still be cheered and admired in the public arena. When was it, I wonder, that those able to throw or catch balls or block players of the opposing team were made into role models or heroes just because they did well at accumulating points on the scoreboard?
Consider how we honor students in their high school years. The pep rallies rouse “school spirit” for football and basketball teams, but there is nothing equivalent for other student achievements. There are no pep rallies for the band, choir, or non-athletic clubs and groups. Local TV stations will feature the “Athlete of the Week” and, of course, devote considerable coverage to Friday night football. Few intellectual or artistic accomplishments get this sort of support. Nothing else students do, apparently, contributes to “school spirit.”
In other words, early on, we put athletes on a different plane from everyone else. After all, if your local school district has the choice to computerize more classrooms or upgrade the school’s stadium, which way will the coin toss go? Friday nights usually trump the other days of the week. And that’s our choice.
Then comes college. What names spring to mind when you hear the words Penn State? I’d wager most of us would think of Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. But beyond the scandal, judging from the news we’ve been seeing over the past years, Penn State is known primarily as a football program with, nearby, a number of buildings in which other secondary things are going on.
That’s true all over the country. I recall teaching at a Texas college where golf and baseball coaches felt teachers should give their players special privileges not available to other students, especially regarding class attendance. “They’re only going to miss four or five classes,” they’d argue. Recreation should trump education. And it does. College athletic programs add up to a celebrated multi-billion dollar enterprise which defines the reputations of the schools it is a part of. It’s easy to see that in the eyes of some, all non-athletes are essentially support systems for the home teams.
Then comes the NFL and the really big bucks and accompanying national fame. But how does fame translate into hero worship? True enough, there is no shortage of athletes who are nothing short of inspirational. These are individuals who demonstrate courage and character off the field, and are indeed role models for the rest of us to admire. But to earn their places as idols on the pedestals we erect, they should need to have something more than the ability to catch the long passes or punch holes in the defensive line. We need to strike a balance between appreciating sports figures and valuing leaders in other endeavors.
There’s nothing wrong with cheering for your favorite teams, but games are just games. The stars of these competitions should be seen in proportion against the men and women who make real sacrifices to make this world a better place. Or be measured against men and women who make lifetime commitments to public service in the classroom, in law enforcement, in the military, in medicine, or in social services. Where are the cheerleaders for these exceptional people? And why oh why should we be expected to cheer for football players who think beating up women deserves only a two-game suspension?
Well, I suspect that, as with many other stories widely and continuously reported in the media, it won’t be long before no one at all will be talking about players abusing women or children. While advertisers complain about potential damage from these reports, not one has pulled their sponsorship from the NFL. There is no decrease in viewership. Instead, NFL team owners and fans alike are quietly chanting behind the scenes, “Let them play.” They, despite their crimes, will, sooner or later. After all, athletes are entitled because we mere mortals anointed them as our Friday night and weekend afternoon gods. And these are gods we created in our own image.