Wednesday, September 10, 2014


The sports world is giving us some ugly distractions from the everyday. I have erratic internet service on my phone at work, so messages get interrupted. Which means I sometimes get updated on a day's worth of news within minutes. Therefore, I discovered within seconds that the NCAA had essentially ended its penalties against Penn State and that the NFL career of Ray Rice is likely over.

There's a lot of talk on both issues about the extent to which the punishment fitted the crimes that Penn State and Rice committed. It's not surprising that there is so much talk because the crimes at which each of these figures were at fault were ghastly and for which there is no logical means of evening up or restoring the damage caused. In part, sports fans have erected pedestals for these programs (Rice isn't a program, but he's in the NFL, and that's a program). How does one punish, or even respond to, a fall from Olympus?

I was disturbed and remain disturbed at the disproportionality of the punishment heaped on Penn State. I thought the four-year ban on postseason play was excessive and demeaned the commitments of the current athletes. I thought the banishing of the 409 wins earned by Joe Paterno was Orwell-esque. It's like saying Richard Nixon wasn't president for Apollo 13 because of Watergate. It seemed like a heavy-handed response from a hypocritical organization (NCAA) that heads up an institution with questionable means behind how it earns money relative to how it compensates the athletes. At the same time, I'm disappointed in how slowly the legal process is prosecuting the men who served as higher-ups at Penn State at the time.

Now I'm irked at the heavy-handedness by which the NFL has come down on the Ray Rice issue. It seems like a rush to consequences and a rush to punishment. It seems like piling on. He's been banished from the sport. Though the suspension is "indefinite," Rice is a running back in the NFL who is 27. A couple of years out of his career means it's over. He was an employee of the NFL who has been exiled.

I live in a professional world where procedures are in place that protect the rights of the accused as an investigation is conducted and as tempers cool. Teachers who engage in misconduct are placed on "administrative leave" until conclusions can be thoughtfully drawn. They're removed from their place of employment but not banished until it's determined that banishment is warranted. Such is true even if there's incontrovertible evidence about the misconduct. In short, there's a process: remove and protect the accused, investigate, engage along the way with law enforcement, draw conclusions with evidence.

In the cases of the NCAA and NFL there's simply one step: REACT!

I don't say this because I condone what Penn State or Rice did. It seems to me as if both are guilty of something awful and terrible. In a nation based on the rule of law with a Constitution that affords due process rights, it's inconsistent to have haphazard processes by which someone acts as prosecutor, jury, judge, and executioner as the head of the NCAA and NFL do. I respect decisions made as part of a fair process more than reactions to horrible events. Further, heavy-handed authority figures make mistakes, as Roger Goddell did with his initial not-very-thought-out-or-investigated two-game suspension of Rice.

Moreover, these reactions mask a deeper problem with both the NCAA and NFL. Transgressions are a fact of life within those entities. Player misconduct, unaccountable coaches, unethical relationships between adults and students, covering up legal issues to be out of sight from law enforcement, substance abuse, domestic abuse, cheating . . . these transgressions are abundant in the NCAA and NFL. Usually they're out of plain sight. However, when some of this ugliness surfaces, as it did in these two instances, the authority figures respond with shock and awe to "make a statement."

But the transgressions continue.

I'd rather see the parties, the NFL in particular, own the problem than make exiles of troubled individuals who commit evil, criminal acts. How is Rice to be rehabilitated? How is Rice to be given a chance to be made useful again? If he can't be integrated back into society, why would another abused spouse come forward and forfeit the gravy train that an abusive (but wealthy) spouse provide?

There is no component for forgiveness and rehabilitation in the approach the NFL has taken with the kind of criminal misconduct in which Rice allegedly engaged. That is irresponsible, and less likely to move our society toward ridding ourselves of an evil like domestic abuse. Why isn't the NFL harnessing its awesome financial resources to get Rice into therapy? Why isn't the NFL conducting trainings for its players and coaches to warn and educate about domestic abuse?

It appears to me that civil, criminal acts occurred at Penn State and in that elevator in Atlantic City. We have laws in this nation that, when prosecuted correctly, offer some sense of justice toward those guilty of those acts. We also have a tradition of due process and respect for law. Remove and protect, then investigate thoroughly, then draw reasonable conclusions. And if the conclusion is that the individual has committed transgressions so great they forfeit the right to play, then let it be. That is banishment I can respect. My objections with the NCAA and NFL aren't with the penalties imposed but rather with the lack of process by which those penalties are imposed.

No comments: