Beat em' when they're down and beat em' again for good measure before they can get up. The beat down supposedly is not the American way of dealing with those that are down. The ground rules radically changed the moment Marion Jones, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds and O.J. Simpson were dumped in a court docket. With them, the beat down has been on with a vengeance.
Let's look at them. Marion Jones. She gave her medals back voluntarily, came clean about her steroid use, did a profuse mea culpa, will probably do some jail time, doesn't have a nickel to her name, and is permanently disgraced. But that's not enough. The International Association of Athletics Federation ( IAAF) screams for more gore. They will wipe her records from the books, demand that she repay $700,000 in prize money, and that the other women that ran on the gold medal winning relay teams with Jones give their medals back. There is not a scrap of evidence that they cheated.
This is the same IAAF that waxed fat off of Jones, raking in millions in promotional fees, soaring attendance at meets where she ran, and endorsement deals. This is the same IAAF that didn't lift a finger to go after some other big time (white) cheaters in track (the Greek Olympic silver medalist runner-up to Jones for example).
Barry Bonds. The hate Bonds mania rose to a shrill pitch long before his indictment for lying to a grand jury. The fans, sportswriters, and media talking heads feasted off Bond's homerun exploits, the MLB wheels that watched in giddy delight as the fans dashed to the ballparks to see Bonds and admitted cheaters whack the ball out of there. In the process they jingled the turnstiles and resuscitated America's sinking favorite pastime. The MLB wheels did nothing when steroid use wasn't banned or illegal. The same bunch now has suddenly turned into pious saints on Bonds. The key players who say they'll testify against Bonds are a disgruntled trainer, an ex-mistress, and the best man at his wedding and tainted business partner.
Michael Vick. Dog fighting is cruel and reprehensible. But it's also legal in many countries, cheered on and reveled in by bettors, promoters and fans in this country, and winked and nodded at by law enforcement and prosecutors. Vick, as Jones, copped to his guilt, did mea culpa on top of mea culpa, and groveled to PETA. It didn't make a whit of difference. The state sniffed blood and a little notoriety and piled charges on him on top of those of the feds. Though he single-handedly rung his team's cash registers, and revived a dismal performing, attendance deflated Atlanta team, the Falcon's management demands every cent of his pay back. The ultimate insult is that the feds demand that he pay nearly a million dollars to them for keeping the confiscated dogs.
The Juice. O.J. has a good case that the sports stuff that he went after was his. The cast of characters lined up to testify against him are a motley collection of con men, shysters, hanger's ons, druggies and convicted felons. Yet, the press and prosecutors are in ecstasy reminding one and all that Simpson could get life in prison when, not if, he's convicted.
Jones, Bonds, Vick and Simpson were one time black sports icons. But there's a price, a steep price, to be paid for resting on that high perch. One misstep and they become the instant poster boys (and girls) for all that's allegedly wrong with sport and society.
There are two reasons for that. When Jones burned up the cinders, Bonds tore up the bleachers with his shots, Vick darted up and down the field, and Simpson successfully juked his way from Hall of Fame glory into the broadcast booth, they became the gatekeepers for the storehouse of fantasies and delusions of a sports crazed public as well as advertisers, sportswriters, and TV executives that are in desperate need of vicarious escape, titillation, excitement, and profits. The maligned four were the ultimate sports heroes that fulfilled that need.
They were expected to move in the rarified air above the fray of human problems while raising society's expectation of what's good and wholesome. They were rewarded handsomely for fulfilling that fantasy even though they are terribly flawed persons as are most sports icons.
The other reason for the beat down is they're black, rich and famous. The hurt the black super stars caused when they betrayed the collective self delusion of sport as pure and pristine is layered over and under with jealousy and resentment. That's evident in the constant fan and sportswriter carping about how spoiled, pampered and over paid black athletes supposedly are. The first hint of any bad behavior by them ignites a torrent of self-righteous columns and commentary that reinforce the stereotype of the crime prone, ignorant, untutored, bonehead black athlete.
Jones, Bonds, Vick and Simpson have had their day in court, the court of public opinion that is. They were tried, convicted and sentenced long before they had or will have their trials. Their sentences are cruel, but given whom they are, not unusual. It's called the beat down.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press)