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Rice, Peterson And The Morality Of Professional Sports

Michael Clifford

Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions.

For those who may have been in an Amazon rainforest for the past week, it hasn’t been a very good several days for the NFL. There was the release of the video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée, followed by complete ineptitude of Commissioner Roger Goodell to both initially handle the situation properly, and then (allegedly) lie about not having access to the elevator tape. Then, on Friday afternoon, news broke that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had been indicted on a charge of negligent injury of a child. This stemmed from Peterson allegedly whipping his four-year-old child with a switch, essentially a tree branch. The images are available elsewhere for those who wish to see exactly the damage done.

This isn’t about what occurred in the NFL this week. It’s pretty safe to say that knocking out a future wife with a left hook and whipping a small child to the point of bleeding are both reprehensible, and this is something that should be obvious to most people.

The question is as follows: Why do people care so much about the conduct of athletes away from the field?

It’s not a question that’s asked with the intention of alleviating the seriousness of these actions in any way. It’s a question that’s asked because this is fairly representative of society as a whole.

According to statistics gathered by the US Department of Justice, about one-quarter of women in the United States have been victim to domestic violence, with nearly 1 million cases per year. For child abuse estimates, those are put at nearly 700 000, with over 3 million visits by Child Protective Services. These numbers are staggering.

So I ask the question again: Why do people care so much about the conduct of athletes away from the field? This isn’t a problem remotely exclusive to the sports world, and yet Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have been plastered across not only ESPN, but NBC, CBS, and every major news outlet in the Western world. The vigor with which these cases were reported in the news made it seem like these men were serial killing people by the hundreds. The fact is, in terms of probability, these disgusting acts were an inevitability, and they are perpetrated by athletes much more often than the general public would like to admit: Floyd Mayweather pleaded guilty and served time for domestic abuse and harassment charges; Tito Ortiz was arrested for felony domestic abuse, only to have his partner recant the allegations; Chad Johnson head-butted his wife less than two months after they were married, and pleaded no contest to a domestic battery charge; Jason Kidd pleaded guilty to domestic abuse of his wife in 2001; Semyon Varlamov was arrested on a charge of domestic abuse, charges which were later dropped; Bobby Hull’s ex-wife described several incidents of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s, one including a time he pointed a loaded shotgun at her. I could go on, but I think the point is clear.

Here’s the thing: Mayweather is still boxing and making hundreds of millions of dollars; Ortiz fought later that year in the UFC, and had six more fights total (so far); Chad Johnson is now playing in the Canadian Football League; Jason Kidd played for more than a decade afterwards (which included a DWI charge) and then became the coach of the Brooklyn Nets; Semyon Varlamov played two days later and was nominated for a Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender; Bobby Hull is currently the ambassador for the Chicago Blackhawks. These are all men who abused (or were at least alleged to have abused), and all went to continue their careers in one way or another. That is another topic for another day.

People care about the cases of Rice and Peterson because these aren’t a he said/she said type of situation like Varlamov or Ortiz (however likely the abuse was), or guilty pleas to avoid a prosecution. These are instances where photo/video evidence were made public, and they were graphic. It’s one thing to hear about abuse; it’s quite another to witness it.

That’s one reason why almost everyone is up in arms about what these men did.

Another reason why people are so upset is that this isn’t what sports are supposed to be.

Sports are unifying; we hear that every Olympics. I lived that unifying feeling during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. For that event, Canada wasn’t just a country, it was like a small community.

We lived this as kids. Sports taught us about dedication, about sacrifice for the good of the team, about hard work, and about respect. Sports are supposed to build character, and are supposed to help children build confidence.

But maybe it’s time to stop holding professional athletes to this threshold. These aren’t kids on a football field learning how to sacrifice for a team, they’re professionals being paid millions. We have a hard time differentiating the two, and that’s where part of the outrage comes from.

Again, why do people care so much about the conduct of athletes away from the field? It’s because their conduct isn’t the lesson we were taught as kids. In fact, they are the complete opposite. Yet we still hold these athletes to a standard that, statistically, some of them will never live up to. This isn’t fair, though, because these athletes aren’t kids building character on a basketball court, these are professionals providing entertainment for a very financially-sound living.

Even worse, they are representative of what happens every day, and every hour. Yet the outrage, at least until this week, was deafeningly silent.

Maybe these poor excuses for role models will ultimately serve a purpose beyond entertainment. In that sense, there is the potential for the cases of Rice and Peterson, and the ensuing public outcry, to effectuate change precisely because they are professional athletes, and precisely because everyone now knows what abuse, domestic or child, looks like. It would be a service beyond anything they will ever bring to a football field.