The question as to whether professional athletes should (or shouldn’t) also be role models is not a new one. Back when he played in the NBA, Charles Barkley spearheaded a controversial marketing campaign that led with his line “I’m not a role model.” His opinion at the time was that all he should be expected to do is contribute to his team’s success on the court, not lead a personal life that others should emulate. Of course, the tremendous contributions that he has made to his hometown in Alabama show that he does consider an athlete’s responsibilities to extend beyond the court in certain ways.
Over the last year, several events involving players in the National Football League have pushed the league to take on a new level of scrutiny with its players’ personal conduct. If you think about it, if the video of Ray Rice knocking his fiancée out cold in an Atlantic City elevator had never emerged, the debate might not be happening at all. However, once the nation and the sports betting fans saw him hit her – even though he had already told the commissioner what had happened in a private meeting – a switch flipped in the way that people perceive the situation. What had been a two-game suspension – a verdict that most Americans seemed to accept as suitable – became an indefinite suspension, and Ray Rice’s team released him. Even when an arbitrator overturned the indefinite suspension, no team would sign Rice. Even now, in the midst of an offseason when many teams are on the hunt for that next quality running back, no one has picked up Ray Rice.
The situation of Adrian Peterson was even murkier. It came out that he had used a switch to punish his son, a toddler at the time. It wasn’t (once again) until visual images came out that the outrage started to build, though. The images of the cuts and possible scarring on the lower body of Peterson’s son showed a level of excess in the use of the switch that outraged many. After the outrage, once again, came an indefinite suspension – which a judge later overturned.
Consider the case of Greg Hardy. No pictures or video evidence has yet emerged, but according to the initial criminal complaint, Hardy threw his girlfriend at a bathtub, and then threw her on top of a couch that had a bunch of assault rifles on it. He was convicted but then appealed and asked for a jury trial; in the meantime, he seems to have given his girlfriend enough money to have her disappear – beyond the reach of the district attorney’s office. So he walked on the appeal – and now the Dallas Cowboys have signed him. The league suspended him for 10 games anyway, but the furor appears to have died down in Dallas.
At what point should the players that appear on the field for our teams maintain high levels of character? There was a sense that Michael Vick should be allowed to come back after serving his prison time for running those dogfights and for cruelty to animals because he had paid his debt to society. There’s also the argument that when you want athletes to pursue their sport with the utmost levels of aggression and intensity – and then to go home and be nice to everyone – that you are asking for trouble. The bottom line, though, is that we want our teams to win. This means that players who push boundaries of clean play on the field, such as Ndamukong Suh, will stay – if they can help their teams win. It also means that players like Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson will stay on the field – because they can contribute. One wonders if Ray Rice would have an NFL home by now if his 2013 season hadn’t been one of his worst.