Abusive Athletes: Where do we stand?
Image Credit: Flickr user Jeff Weese via CC. Ravens runningback Ray Rice signs autographs for the fans after the morning session of training camp on August 5, 2009
This is part two of a two-part series on domestic violence in professional sports. Read Part 1
In 1993, NBA superstar Charles Barkley wrote and appeared in a Nike ad where he stated “I am not a role model. Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” This struck up a controversy at the time, and even Vice President Dan Quayle promoted it as a “family-values message”. While the message is still true, times have changed since Barkley’s said it 22 years ago. We are now in an age of around the clock coverage of everything, including sports. Great plays are not shown once on Sportscenter, and read about in your local paper the next morning. They are played over and over again, across multiple networks, and shared on Twitter and Instagram. One in every 5 tweets about television is about ESPN. Athletes and sports are a staple of popular culture. It’s hard to argue the glorification of professional athletes. The question then becomes: what happens when these “heroes” have a fall from grace?
First, let’s look at how these athletes get to be put on a pedestal in our society. Over the last 20-30 years leagues have shifted from promoting teams to promoting individuals. Without question the most successful league at this is the NBA. David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner from 1984 to 2014, is credited with raising the popularity of the NBA in his tenure – a tenure that coincided with the introduction of the league’s most popular and greatest player, Michael Jordan (drafted into the NBA in 1984). Stern realized what he had in Jordan, not mention bi-coastal stars in Los Angeles’ Magic Johnson and Boston’s Larry Bird, and made them the face of the league. By focusing on the individual fan, interest grew beyond their own favorite team. But what happens when Johnson contracts HIV from sex with multiple partners, including relationships conducted while he was married? What about the knowledge of Jordan’s gambling problems? Now that they are the face of the league, the league is invested in keeping their reputations clean. This is an argument for why the NFL did not acknowledge the tape of Ray Rice knocking his then fiancée (now wife) unconscious in an Atlantic City casino.
Elevating these players and increasing their popularity has also led to global brands signing these players to massive endorsement deals. NBA star Kevin Durant signed a deal with Nike in 2014 that could net him over $300 million. Jordan Brand, an arm of Nike, brought in $2.25 billion in 2013. Rice’s jersey was the 28th most-purchased jersey among NFL fans in 2013 (roughly 1,700 players play in the NFL each year).
And those endorsement numbers pale in comparison to the revenue teams/leagues make. The NBA signed a new TV deal in 2014 that will make the league $24 billion over 9 years, or $2.66 billion per year. That’s a 180% increase from the league’s previous deal, thanks in large part to athletes like Durant and LeBron James, who could become a billion-dollar athlete behind NBA contracts and endorsements. The NFL’s TV contract with CBS, Fox, and ABC is worth $27 billion over 9 years. On top of that, ESPN pays $1.9 billion per year, and DirecTV $1.5 billion per year. Athletes are big business, with leagues, teams, and endorsers highly invested in these players’ success and reputation.
Enter the media. Charged with providing the public with an objective view of the state of the nation, the media is often caught in the middle of these issues. As we discussed in Part 1, Floyd Mayweather punished media members who were outspoken about his history of domestic violence by asking to have their press credentials revoked.
HBO/Showtime agreed. Reporters spoke up about those crimes, and were rewarded by not being able to do their job further. Sports Illustrated wrote an article in 1994, critical of Michael Jordan’s transition to playing baseball. Since then Jordan has refused to speak with SI. NFL broadcast channels rely on good ratings, while the primetime (Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night) games on those channels are determined by the NFL. It’s in their best interests to keep the NFL happy, and not dig up the league’s dirt, so they do not get games that will draw poor ratings. It’s certainly the media’s responsibility to raise issues and take a critical stance, but access to players, teams, and quality programming is their business, and they are also mindful of biting the hand that feeds them, while still reporting the news as they should.
So where does society sit in all of this? Do we praise these athletes for their “heroics” in the game, and ignore their activity away from it? It was definitely due to the social outcry that Ray Rice was strongly reprimanded by league and team. Had that video not existed or surfaced, Rice would have received a 2-game suspension and no one would be talking about it now. The fact is the leagues and teams have invested too much to blow the whistle on themselves. But they understand that without the fans there is no product. Therefore it lands on fans to not turn a blind eye to these incidents. To hold leagues and teams accountable for their employees’ actions. To stand-up for justice – right and wrong versus wins and losses. And truly, we are on our way. As mentioned in Part 1, the NFL has recently developed a policy on domestic violence, the NBA already has one, and Commissioner Rob Manfred said MLB will “continue to work on the development and the finalization of a comprehensive policy.” Then fans can distinguish between abusers with athletic ability and true heroes.