July 31, 2014 1 Comment
By Mark Yost
ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith and The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg have ignited a firestorm with their comments about the latest incident of domestic violence and athletes. Smith was suspended by the cable sports network for telling women, in the wake of Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice’s modest two-game suspension for basically cold-cocking his girlfriend in an elevator: “Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.” He has since apologized.
Goldberg came to Smith’s defense, basically saying that he was just being honest. “You have to teach women, do not live with this idea that men have this chivalry thing still with them,” the outspoken gabfest host said. “Don’t be surprised if you hit a man and he hits you back.”
While their comments have, as usual, been blown out of proportion by the 24-hour news cycle that must feed itself on whatever’s available, the sad fact of the matter is that Smith and Goldberg are basically right. Women who hang out with professional athletes shouldn’t be surprised when the relationship turns violent.
In just the past few weeks, University of Texas football players Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander were charged with the sexual assault of another student in an on-campus dorm; University of Georgia lineman Jonathan Taylor was accused of chocking and punching his girlfriend; Alex Figueroa and JaWand Blue, linebackers for the University of Miami, an institution of higher learning run by former Clintonista Donna Shalala and no stranger to these incidents, were charged with raping a 17-year-old student after they plied her with alcohol; and recently, former New York Giant Luke Petitgout was accused of assaulting his wife, not his first assault.
In short, forget about head injuries and whether or not the Washington Redskins name is offensive; there is an epidemic of domestic violence in college and professional sports, and no one seems to care.
I’ve been writing about the business and culture of sports for The Wall Street Journal for nearly 20 years, but even I was taken aback when last fall I reviewed “The System,” by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, a book that catalogued the most egregious examples of a college sports culture that’s out of control. For instance,while male athletes on average make up just 3% of the college population, they account for 19% of the assaults on women. Most disturbing was their retelling of a Brigham Young University rape case in which the state brought in its best prosecutor but lost because, as jurors said afterward: the football players who had repeatedly raped a fellow student after drugging her “had suffered enough. They lost their scholarships.”
This isn’t an isolated incident. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of rape last season and several reports, including an in-depth investigation by The New York Times, found that the case was not investigated vigorously because of Mr. Winston’s status as a football player in a town that is football crazy. According to the accuser’s attorney, Patricia Carroll, the investigating officer – not some booster, but the police – initially told her that her client “needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.”
What this should tell us is that the problem isn’t with the players, but with a culture that continues to not only tolerate, but excuse, violent behavior that is systemic. The guilty parties aren’t the athletes or the women, it’s us, the broader culture that continues to revere these athletes, buy their jerseys and tickets to their games, and hold them up as role models.
I know some of you are rolling your eyes at the fact that I’m blaming “the culture,” but it’s a problem that goes well beyond college and pro athletics. The Ray Rices of the world don’t come out of the womb ready to slug the first woman they see. This is learned behavior, reinforced by fans who forgive and forget.
It begins when many of these kids are just 10 years old. That’s when they show up at events like the Amateur Athletic Union’s basketball championships, held each year at Walt Disney World and scouted by some of college basketball’s top coaches. This is when the adults who are supposed to be looking out for these kids – parents, teachers, coaches and advisers – tell them to forget academics and focus on athletics. They tell these kids – especially inner-city black kids – that sports is their ticket out. And so, they’re passed along by well-meaning teachers, and eventually get admitted to colleges with seventh-grade reading comprehension and sixth-grade math skills. And the colleges don’t care; these kids sell tickets and get boosters to write checks. Besides, in the case of basketball, many of these kids are on campus for just one year. September to April, really, declaring for the NBA Draft shortly after March Madness, their prime reason for being allowed to enroll. Then, before they’re 25, they sign their first million-dollar contract and have agents and yes men to handle it all. And then, albeit too briefly, we wonder why they get into trouble after years of conditioning them that they’re special and the rules don’t apply to them.
Not even the president is immune to this cultural cancer. Case in point: Barrack Obama has held up point guard Derrick Rose, who grew up in the gritty Englewood neighborhood and is one of the NBA’s biggest stars, as a role model for Chicago kids. Apparently long forgotten by the president and an all-too-forgiving sports media is the fact that Rose was accused of cheating on his entrance exams to the University of Memphis. The NCAA, no paragon of virtue when it comes to policing academics or athlete behavior, found enough evidence to vacate the entire season Rose was at Memphis. But by then, Rose had moved on to the NBA and his coach, John Calipari, the Tony Soprano of college sports, had moved to Kentucky, becoming one of the highest paid basketball coach in the country. Apparently, all that is forgotten (and forgiven). When Rose came back from a knee injury last year, the president Tweeted: “Welcome back, @DRose. #BullsNation.”
In short, the problem isn’t them, it’s us. And until we demand better from our athletes, Smith and Goldberg are right. Women better not provoke them.
Mr. Yost is the author of “Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics.”