Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why NFL players avoid the "thug" label

This story from Aaron Wilson of The National Football Post about the accusations of domestic violence against St. Louis Rams' running back Steven Jackson is horrifying. According to the piece(which picks up on a TMZ report), Jackson allegedly attacked his girlfriend, Supriya Harris, in March 2009. She was nine months pregnant at the time and gave birth 10 days later. Here's the key part:

"In a complaint filed with the Las Vegas police department, Harris claimed: "Steven became enraged and pushed me to the ground, repeatedly."

And she alleged that the Rams runner: "forcibly grabbed my arm and flung me against the door. I was crying and trying to protect my stomach from the blows, as I was 9 mos pregnant. .. continued to shove me against the door until his nephew ... interceded and yelled, 'uncle, she has a baby, stop.'"

Harris said she was "bleeding heavily," after being smashed into a door handle."

This is a horrifying story. If there's any grain of truth in this whatsoever, Jackson should face severe punishment from both the law and the league. Commissioner Roger Goodell has come down very hard on offenders during his tenure, so I would expect the same from him here.

What bothers me, though, is that this story won't get anywhere near the amount of coverage something like the stupid Gilbert Arenas - Javaris Crittenton gun story drew. When NBA players goof around stupidly with guns without actually hurting anyone, the whole league gets branded as "thugs" and we're in for sanctimonious moralizing from columnists, talk-show hosts and everyone else. Yet, over the last decade alone, the NFL has had a ridiculous amount of incidents that were far more severe than the Arenas-Crittenton flap, such as Ray Lewis' involvement in a situation that led to two people being stabbed to death, Donte' Stallworth pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter after running down a pedestrian while drunk, Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg in a nightclub, James Harrison's domestic violence arrest (which led to this piece looking at many of the other domestic violence cases in the NFL), Shawne Merriman's domestic violence arrest, and Marvin Harrison's alleged involvement in both a shooting and a murder. These incidents are reported, but they're rarely the subject of moralizing columns and they're almost never used to impugn the credibility of the entire league and its players the way the Arenas-Crittenton feud has been.

Why is this? Well, there are plenty of reasons for it; I had a good discussion on the matter on Twitter with National Post columnist Bruce Arthur (who wrote one of the best pieces on Arenas, by the way) and PPP, the editor of Pension Plan Puppets. We touched on several of the factors involved, including the perception of the NBA, the higher visibility of players (thanks to no helmets), the relative popularity of the two leagues and the discipline David Stern hands out. However, I think it all boils down to two main factors.

The first factor in my mind is the nature of the game. Basketball is a physical sport, but football, by nature, is much more physical and extremely violent. We read about players such as Vikings' defensive end John Randle saying "I want to kill that guard!", or Bears' linebacker Dick Butkus saying " I never set out to hurt anyone deliberately - unless it was, you know, important, like a league game or something," and we laugh it off (quotes from Jonathan Rand's excellent 300 Pounds Of Attitude, which I'm planning to review here soon). We think, "What warriors these guys are!" and we glorify them for their violent urges. That isn't necessarily wrong, but we need to establish firm boundaries about what's acceptable and where and we need to make it clear that we love them for their skill and their intensity, not just their violence. If players grow up hearing about guys like Butkus and Randle, and hear about them through the prism that it was their violent urges that made them great, aren't they going to try and cultivate their own violent urges, and wouldn't that make those urges more likely to spill over off the field?

This leads to a problem in coverage, because it's more difficult to call out a James Harrison or a Shawne Merriman for violent behaviour off the field when you've just been praising their violent behaviour on the field. I don't think that has to be an issue; we should be able to clearly draw a line between athletes' play on the field and their behaviour off it. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that many people are interested in doing that.

The second factor is even more important in my mind, though, and it has to do with how the league is marketed. It's not the Shawne Merrimans or Donte' Stallworths who are seen as the faces of the NFL and plastered all over commercials; it's the Peyton Mannings and Brett Favres. The NFL's not a league of violent criminals, it's a league of goofy white guys who play pickup football in Wranglers and watch movies on their Sony Bravia televisions! I'm sure at least part of that's thanks to race, but another big part of it is thanks to the glorification of quarterbacks (which I wrote about way back when). That's why Michael Vick's dogfighting charges, and not any of the murder, manslaughter or domestic violence cases, were the first scandal in a long while that caused any damage to the league as a whole. However, even those were quickly swept under the rug and blamed on Vick as a lone bad apple.

I'm not arguing that all NFL players are thugs or that all NBA players are pure as the driven snow. All I'd like to see is some consistency in the coverage of the league's issues. Personally, I fall into the camp that each player is responsible for their own actions and not reflective of the league as a whole. Thus, I'd argue that all of these incidents should be covered thoroughly, but as individual cases, not indictments of one league or another. However, if you want to moralize about how Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton's stupid ideas on how to use guns are responsible for the decline and fall of western civilization, by all means be my guest. Just make sure you apply the same standard to the NFL while you're at it.

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