Even as they breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when murder charges against Ray Lewis were dismissed, the NFL’s poobahs reeled from another black eye to their league.
Lewis, the All-Pro linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, did not kill anyone after all, but he pleaded guilty to a crime; he lied to police about what he saw and heard when two men were stabbed to death during an altercation with the player’s entourage.
The best claim that Lewis can make for himself was that he chose to hang out with knife-toting punks who could not have more obviously represented trouble had the word been tattooed onto their foreheads.
Yet, in a perverse way, the outcome of the Lewis trial could provide an encouraging sign for pro sportsand not because an athlete with a million-dollar defense team dodged a murder rap. It’s because he admitted guilt when he didn’t have to.
Collectively, our Media Geniuses are still scratching their pates over Lewis’ decision to plead guilty to obstructing justice. The prosecution’s case was so laughably weakthe only witness who placed him in the fatal fray turned out to be a bozo with more fraud in his past than Milli Vanillithat almost no one doubted that Lewis would be acquitted and walk away.
Perhaps his attorneys merely urged him not to let go of the bird in hand. The certainty of one year’s probation might have proved more appealing than even a remote risk of a conviction by a fickle jury, followed by life in prison or even the death penalty.
On the other hand, if you choose to give Lewis the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he concluded it was time to own up to his responsibility to tell what he knew about the killings, even if that information implicated his friends.
Whether he comes across as honest or simply opportunistic depends on what consequences follow his actionswhich, in part, depend on others.
The NFL should suspend Lewis for several games not just for admitting a misdemeanor, and not for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for being in the wrong place with the wrong guys to begin with.
The Ravens should (and probably will) demand that Lewis hang out now only with Rotarians, Sunday School teachers, and the Osmond family. At least for the time being, Ray will have to hew to a different standard.
No more 5 a.m. Super Bowl after-parties, no more porno films with rap impresarios, no more invitations to armed Thug Lifers to cruise around in the Navigator limo.
Maybe it shouldn’t have taken two deaths and a trial to come to this.
In between barroom brawls and spittle-hurling exhibitions, Charles Barkley often liked to remind folks that he was no one’s role model. (There’s one blessing you probably forgot to count today.) And for the most part, we don’t expect Sir Charles, or Ray Lewis, or any other star to serve as an exemplar for our kids.
But that argument has it all backwards. It’s right for the wrong reasons. It’s not that big-time professional athletes should set the standard for others to follow. It’s that athletes should adhere to the standards that we, as a society, demand of ourselves, and that any organization would expect of its employees.
An editorial commentary in last week’s Sports Illustrated noted that the parents of a boy seriously injured by a foul ball in Detroit were suing the Tigers for negligence. The team, demanded the plaintiffs, should erect a protective Plexiglas wall at the edge of the stands down the foul lines.
Whatever the theoretical merits of a wall, in practice the cure is worse than the disease. European soccer leagues, the editorial noted, attempted just such a solution in response to field-storming hooligans.
But instead of taming them, the restraining walls made the fans even more violent. Put them in cages, the stadium operators discovered, and people tend to behave like animals.
Perhaps that is what we have done, in a sense, with big-time professional and collegiate athletics.
It’s not that athletes can’t suppress their feral, competitive sides when they leave the field. Rather, we have treated them the way Indiana University admits it heretofore approached Bobby Knightwith foggy standards for what constitutes unacceptable behavior.
There are no rules in pro sports, after all, against consorting with shady characters (as long as they’re not gamblers). Teams wouldn’t discipline a talented player who is surly to paying customers (paging Albert Belle) or chronically blows up at officials (Rasheed Wallace, hello-oo!). I can’t imagine too many other jobs in which employers would allow such behavior while you were officially representing them and wearing their uniform.
Maybe that’s a result of confusing rights with privilegesas if playing on a big-league team confers upon you the right to flout the law (as long as you can plead it down to a misdemeanor), behave thuggishly, or even act as if you own the place. Even more, maybe it’s that we’re so obsessedas team owners, college athletic directors, and fanswith winning that we impose few expectations or responsibilities on our sports stars except to bring home the W’s.
If players sometimes behave like animals, it’s only because we so often tolerate it, or even passively encourage it.
It’s probably true that the reputations of some of our sports legends could not have survived the scrutiny of our media today. If Wil Cordero is a pariah in baseball for beating his wife, imagine what punishment we would now demand of Ty Cobb, who once pummeled a spectator. Faster than you can say ”John Rocker,“ Babe Ruth’s career would have tanked had ESPN been around to report the drunken threat he once delivered in a train car: ”Any woman still here three minutes from now is gonna get raped!“
Still, the media’s unrelenting, warts-and-all intrusiveness shouldn’t diminish our expectations of athletes.
Maybe, as Tennesseans, we should howl when the football staff at the flagship university representing our state seems to view plea bargains as just another step in the process of establishing eligibility for blue-chip athletes.
Maybe the NFL should extend its personnel policies a few steps further, mandating suspensions or counseling not just for those who use drugs or act violently but for any who have run-ins with the law.
Maybe teams should more actively view athletes as representatives of their organization’s values and culture rather than game-breakers and dollar-makers.
The Braves’ demotion of John Rocker last week for threatening a sportswriterand, whatever else management said, Jughead’s exile had much more to do with his control over his mouth than over his pitcheswas a hopeful sign. The team, naturally enough, did not want its image bound up with that of an unstable bigot, even if that bigot possessed a surpassing fastball.
It’s impossible to tell whether the Braves would have acted had not Rocker become such a cause celebre. But that, too, offers hope.
It means that, if the outcry becomes loud enough and the threat to a team’s perception by the public becomes serious enough, the organization will enforce a code of conduct.
Which means that, ultimately, the character issue is in our court. Ask not that Charles Barkley be a role model for you. Ask what you should demand of Charles Barkley.