March 16, 2015

Athletes: Citizens Above the Law?

Exploring the Impact of Bad Behavior in the NFL.

One side of athletics is full of glorified championships and gold medals and the other side is full of controversy and poor sportsmanship. Controversial issues range from youth sports being distorted by over-zealous parents, political ideations that overwhelm the culture of the elite athletics, and the sexualization (especially of female athletes) that saturates the news and media. Countless news stories have appeared over the years that indicate outcomes in athletics. Is it really possible for athletics to be biased? Where has the “not-so-functional” perspective come from, and where is it most evident? These questions leads into exploration of the NFL.

Bill Parcells, former NFL head coach with two Super Bowl championships, was recently interviewed by NPR on the controversial domestic abuse allegations involving Ray Rice, who was caught on camera punching his fiancé in an elevator. The NFL indefinitely suspended Rice, who appealed the decision and is eligible to play again. The NPR interview started with a simple question, “Could he play for you if you were coaching today?” The answer from Coach Parcells, “I'm pretty much a second-chance guy. I think if someone has demonstrated a true alteration of his behavior and true remorse for some of the things that happened, you could understand how you could kind of say, OK, let's see.” Now, some people might say, “Good for you Coach, I’m glad you are giving him a second chance!” But maybe people would change their minds when they look at the bigger picture and the message the NFL is sending to its followers (114.4 million viewers watched this year’s Super Bowl according to International Business Times) who see these football players receiving a “slap on the wrist” for unruly behavior. The interview continued to address the NFL’s culture as having lax rules about athletes’ behaviors and attempted to pinpoint Coach Parcells’ perspective on building athletes as individuals instead of a “winning at all costs” football team. The main points from the rest of the interview included key lines from Coach Parcells:

INTERVIEWER: How much of that was about your players' well-being, and how much of it was about winning?

PARCELLS: I'm glad you didn't ask me which came first…

INTERVIEWER: But I hear you saying - when you said you didn't want me to ask you which came first...

PARCELLS: Well, because...

INTERVIEWER: That it might have been about the winning.

PARCELLS: No because in all honesty, I don't like to see some kid on drugs, OK? And if - especially if he's one of your players, you like to see it less. Now, are you worried about the kid? Yeah, there's a degree of worry about what's going to happen to him should he continue. But are you worried about your own situation as well? The answer's yes. Did I save some kids? Absolutely. Did we fail with some? Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: What do you tell someone who would hear this and say, coach, it should be about saving these kids as the number one priority. It shouldn't be about winning.

PARCELLS: Well, this isn't high school football we're playing here. You know, you're - that's what you're charged with doing when you become a professional coach. I would probably, deep down, agree with that person. If you're a human and you see these guys going the wrong way - I felt an obligatory responsibility to try to stop it (Montagne, 2015).

Hearing this brings two things to mind. One, how can the outcome of a sporting season ever take precedence over an athlete’s wellbeing? And two, the description of the NFL seemed to imply a production line; the athletes serve their purpose to perform, we idolize them and put them “above the law,” and when their bodies are used up, they are thrown to the curb. So why does Bill Parcells’ decision in whether or not he would roster Ray Rice again matter? Well, it seems to be the perfect stereotypical depiction of an athlete “getting away with things” that the average person would not. It also highlights our society’s unhealthy obsession with out-performing others - the winning at all costs mentality. In that interview, a world-renown coach  stated that he would put all other things aside (even the character and safety of his team) to win games. But what is even more astonishing is how the choices of these sporting greats can so profoundly impact others, especially those who are following these players closely. Researchers studied fans’ reactions to law-breaking athletes and identified several interesting things:

  1. When a football player from fans’ favorite team engaged in criminal behavior, the athlete was liked more, found to be more loyal to his team, and was evaluated more favorably than a player (either from the same team or a rival team) who had not committed a crime, or than a player from their rival team that had committed a crime.

  2. Fans reported identifying more strongly with their team when a player had committed a crime than when a player from their team had not committed a crime.

  3. Fans react to criminal allegations to their favorite football player in a defensive manner.

  4. The laws for athletes appear to be different than the laws for anyone else.

  5. When an athlete breaks the law, the punishment is less severe and sports fans might be content with this idea (Dietz-Uhler, End, Demakakos, Dickirson, and Grantz, 2002).


Are people really content with this idea? And if they are, what is it that makes this behavior okay? In Nicole Robinson explored the notion that professional athletes feel they are above the law and summarized this entitlement using three main points. The first is that athletes are conditioned to believe that they are allowed to behave that way. At a young age, differentiation is reinforced when student-athletes are not required to follow the same policies at school in comparison to their peers. Most often this is seen with class attendance policies as travel requirements for sporting events permit athletes to be excused from class more so than the rest of the student body. The same occurs with grades; it is possible that some professors simply give athletes passing grades to maintain the athletes’ eligibility. As the athletes continue on to play in college, some ignore NCAA rules by accepting perks including dinners, cars, concert tickets, clothes, and jewelry. Robinson pointed out that 31% of professional football players admitted that they had accepted some form of extra compensation during college, ranging from a few hundred dollars to $80,000.

Robinson’s second factor is that athletic competition and the subculture of sports perpetuates drug use. In order to gain a competitive edge against opponents, athletes use drugs such as steroids and amphetamines. In addition to using these drugs for on-the-field performance, athletes take other drugs to alleviate pain from sports-related injuries, reduce stress, and prevent fatigue.

The third factor is that the subculture of men's sports devalues women and encourages violence, which is best exemplified by the pride male athletes take in being dominant, aggressive, and in control (Robinson, 1998). On the field, the culture encourages athletes to hit hard, play hard, and be tough. If an athlete fails to demonstrate his on-the-field masculinity to the satisfaction of his coach or team, he runs the risk of having his manhood challenged.

The combination of Robinson’s three factors of entitlement, substance abuse, and subculture of men’s sports lead to the belief that certain athletes are “above the law.” USA Today’s online database summarizes crimes committed by NFL athletes. The three most common charges in the database were DUI, assault/battery (including domestic violence), and drug possession.

When looking at the facts, it is astonishing to see how biased the system can be. This is not an attempt to say that all of sport is bad, or biased, or unjust, because we too are believers in all the wonderful things sport can do for people, however, it really puts a new perspective on the way we view our favorite athletes and our favorite teams. This information is not meant to persuade, simply to bring awareness. What is it that these facts say to you? How does the athlete above the law play a part in your own vision of sport? Think about it.

Written by Lauren Zallis & Dr. Michele Kerulis.


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