I was talking to several entertainment, sports and celebrity managers in Los Angeles this week and they lamented the loss of decorum in America today. The last time I looked up "decorum" in the dictionary, its definition -- "Behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety" -- strikingly contrasted with America today.
This word -- popularly used just a generation ago -- is not about pomp and procession a la the Royals. Decorum is about basic rules of conduct -- respecting your elders, giving someone else your chair, not yelling "liar" at the State of the Union, not elbowing a fellow athlete, not hiring prostitutes while on the president's watch.
Despite its decline, based on how Americans have responded to these more recent public displays of bad behavior, I'm convinced that most Americans want a return to decorum. Many across the world called us prude when, during the summer, we were appalled that the French head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, would hit on an American hotel maid. By contrast, the French thought that it was no big deal.
Now, with the current Secret Service prostitute scandal, Americans are clearly voicing that we want our public figures to conduct themselves appropriately, with decorum. We don't want the Secret Service paying for sex while working for the president. We believe that, when representing our country, they need to be better than that. Call us prude but we felt the same way about images of a blue dress, cigars and sex in the Oval Office.
Also, in the theatre of war, whether with the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses, the recent pictures of soldiers gloating amidst war-casualty body parts, or the burning of the Quran, we expect our military, who also represent our nation abroad, to conduct themselves with decency.
But a quick look at the headlines reveals a nation bereft of decorum. People are more in your face. Many teens expect to give respect only after they get respect. There is more road rage; more raging parents on their kids' soccer fields; more bullying in schools.
And then there are professional sports. For the last of couple weeks, the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal revealed that Saints players rampantly bought into a culture that encouraged -- then paid them bonuses for -- the intentional targeting, injuring and sidelining of opposing players. And earlier this week, Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace was suspended for 7 games, losing $347,849 in salary, for elbowing opposing player James Harden in the head.
No, not World Peace! What's going on here?
Two of the sports managers I spoke to lamented "sportsmanship" used to mean rules of decorum that included civility, respect, fairness and a level playing field, all of which were obviously breached by both the Saints and World Peace.
They also believe that these recent lapses represent a cultural decline in professional sports -- that, whether with baseball and steroids, basketball and greed, or football and "pay-to-injure," the stakes and competition of sports have outpaced classiness, noble intentions and decorum. They believe that the Saints episode is the tip of the iceberg -- that many players across many teams intentionally ground their opponents (to the approval of their coaches and teammates). The Saints may have formalized the unwritten rules, but the negative behavior is rampant. In the unrelenting culture to compete and perform, much like some of the excesses of Wall Street, injury presented a competitive advantage.
Interestingly, there may be a strange, inverse relationship between loss of decorum within the professional arena and outside of it. Off the field, Saints players were model citizens, involved in charity and community service. Lakers' General Manager Mitch Kupchak said the same thing about World Peace that "Metta has for the most part been a model citizen." He even raffled his championship ring for $500,000 and gave the money to charity. Nonetheless, for behavior on the field, where the competitive juices flow, he's been suspended 10 times.
I asked the sports managers how the Saints scandal is any different than Enron. At Enron, the competitive culture drove senior executives to fabricate financial records, resulting in the biggest corporate collapse in history, loss of jobs and havoc with investors and employees. But Enron executives were among the most charitable "players" in Houston when they were "off the court."
They said that the roots of the behavior were the same -- a culture that promotes competition as opposed to doing the right thing. But they pointed out that in many ways, the recent sports violations are worse -- while Enron killed a company and caused great harm, lack of decorum on the field or court can kill or permanently injure others. The evidence of harm isn't hidden. It's often immediately and dramatically apparent.
Our culture influences us. Just as we can't separate air from water when there's an environmental disaster, we can't completely inoculate ourselves and our children from the effects of bad role modeling in sports, politics or entertainment. But at the end of the day, we do know right from wrong. When enough of us recognize the damage that our nation's loss of decorum is causing and insist on a return to the rules of respect -- as so many have with our response to the recent military sex scandals -- we can turn the tide and bring decorum back to America.
This was demonstrated this week by a University of Colorado freshman girl who turned out at a rally to hear President Obama speak. Pushed by both paparazzi and Secret Service, driven closer and closer toward the president, the yogurt she had placed on the ground accidentally spilled onto the president's trousers. She could have blamed those who pushed her but instead, she apologized to the president. It wasn't really her fault, but she chose to be respectful instead, diffusing an otherwise awkward moment.
Doing the right thing by treating others how you want to be treated sounds so simple. And it is. But who ever said simple wasn't important or timely?
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