A few weeks ago, my boyfriend Paul sent me the worst text message I could have possibly anticipated receiving, "... I have terrible news..."
My heart started racing. I was positive that he had lost his job. Not because he didn't deserve his position, but because it was the worst possible scenario, and I subscribe to the law of my dear friend Murphy.
Before I could respond, my phone beeped: "Drew Brees's contract negotiations are not going well."
Sports? I hate sports.
After my boyfriend explained the latest football scandal to me, which took more time than I'd prefer to admit, I began to seriously consider the cost of America's favorite hyper-masculine institution to our society. Football is creating a culture of secrecy, entitlement, and violence under the guise of loyalty, character, and strength. The New Orleans Saints, the team Paul was raised to love, stands accused of operating a "bounty fund" that reportedly reached $50,000 to reward injuring star players of other teams (as well as key defensive plays). This kind of activity is a clear violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which promotes player safety, competitive integrity, and contract fairness. While Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams admitted, "... we knew it was wrong while we were doing it," former defensive end Philip Daniels was quick to race to the defense of the man at the center of the scandal. Although Daniels acknowledged Williams paid off big hits with fines collected from players for being late to practices and meetings, he told the Washington Post, "I think it is wrong the way they're trying to paint (Williams). He never told us to go out there and break a guy's neck or break a guy's leg. It was all in the context of good, hard football." This perpetual tendency towards allegiance and self-preservation, despite copious evidence of serious wrongdoing, is certainly not new in modern football.
The recent Penn State sex-abuse scandal left a tight-knit community in utter shock and devastation. When a 2009 episode of NPR's This American Life asked students why they pledged such unchallenged devotion to the school's football program, one young woman passionately responded, "They deal with every situation perfectly." The quote, however ironic, was a sad reminder of the responsibility these sports leaders have to their fans. While popular opinion concerning Jerry Sandusky remains largely uncontested, the institution's cover-up continues to be an issue of contention. One former student and sports writer, Michael Winereb, wrote, "I do not believe Paterno deserves our sympathy right now, and in fact, I walked around State College this weekend supremely pissed off that he did not live up to the standards he would like us to believe he set for himself. And I was not alone in that sentiment. And yet when I saw those televised shots of his house on McKee Street, something caught in my throat. The conditioned response to a man I've been raised to believe is the moral arbiter of our community."
Although a more transparent football program, something Paterno rigorously contested, would likely have prevented the repeated sexual crimes, there is something to be said for the Penn State code of honor. Students took immense pride in academic success, sportsmanship, and other positive attributes that Paterno regularly preached on campus. The notion that the actions of athletes and sports leaders do not seriously impact the lives of young fans is, unfortunately, a fallacy. Consequently, when the Philadelphia Eagles offered Michael Vick a two-year contract in 2009, following his 23-month federal prison and home confinement sentence for dogfighting and conspiracy charges, the belief in sportsmanship and character seemed subordinate. In a culture where millions of dollars are at stake and winning is of the utmost importance, ethics and reparation too frequently remain secondary.
While the sports world continues to speculate about the possible consequences the involved players might encounter, the fate of the New Orleans coaches was announced Wednesday. The NFL suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton without pay for the next season and banned former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely. In addition to a two-year loss of second-round draft picks and a $500,000 fine, Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended the general manager and the assistant coach, for eight and six games respectively. The harsh punishments, although certainly warrantable, are quite reminiscent of the tough penalties USC encountered just two years ago. In 2010, NFL running back Reggie Bush surrendered his Heisman Trophy, the greatest individual honor in college football, to the Heisman Trust board following the discovery of his participation in an amateur player payments scandal at USC. While the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) was publicly criticized for imposing harsh penalties on students who were not involved in the payment scandal, major improvements in the USC program resulted. For USC, extreme penalties forced leaders of the football program to make administrative changes; however, the question remains: did the culture of football actually change?
As America's favorite sport continues to be plagued with secrecy and scandal, I propose a public dialogue concerning the tendency towards self-preservation, the obsession with winning, and football's potential cost to society. Severe punishments, while certainly justifiable in this case, may further perpetuate football's inner culture of secrecy and in turn, seem counterintuitive. Making an example out of the Saints may initially instigate changes in the New Orleans program; however, the field of prevention generally deems deterrence an ineffective strategy. A change in social norms may not be an immediate solution, but it is likely the only reasonable, long-term solution for the widespread problems throughout football. As replacement USC Athletics Director Pat Haden, Rhodes scholar and former USC and NFL quarterback, stated, " Winning any way other than the right way is not winning at all."