Sports fans and complicity

[one of only two sports i currently watch is hockey, and it also happens to be the one about which i write professionally. as such, i am posting this, which is only a little bit about hockey and mostly about the nfl (which i do not watch) here because i don’t have anywhere else to post it. i just felt like i had to type it all out or scream myself to death. read it if you want. whatever.]

My general stance on the National Football League’s fans is, basically, that they are gross.

I haven’t watched the NFL in several years. I didn’t stop for political reasons, but because the sport of football bored me. That whole “12 minutes of game play in three hours” thing just started to wear on me. But at this point, I’m glad I’ve been out for a while, and still feel bad that I supported the league for as long as I did.

The number of disgusting things you can say about the NFL is long and detailed. The apparent knowing willingness to allow their players to rack up head trauma after head trauma despite the knowledge of their long-term effects on health. The pandering to the lowest common denominator’s lowest common denominator. The casual racism, often masked by insidious code words. The double standards. The money-grubbing. The team-ransoming for public funds to build luxury stadiums that price out low-income people the league would rather not be seen at games. The overall prevailing negative attitude toward and treatment of female fans in particular. And so on.

And if you watch the NFL — or buy their jerseys, or attend their games, or support their advertisers — you are, by extension, complicit in all these problems because you have propped up the machine in some way. You are, by extension, morally reprehensible.

The reason, as outlined by Jeb Lund for the Guardian last week, is that you do all this because you like seeing big men in tight pants knock each other down. It’s really that simple. Your turning a blind eye to crass consumerism, abhorrent working conditions, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny, and turning over your money to some of the least vilified and most reprehensible analogs to the 19th-century robber-baron industrialists on offer in modern capitalism (at least Wall Street doesn’t also physically cripple the poor it rips off).

They profit, from your dollars, on something that any human being with the slightest ability of introspection knows in his or her heart is degrading — morally, physically, and societally — in myriad ways. All of this has been known and kindly ignored by everyone who’s supported the NFL for the last few years at least, taken as unfortunate part and parcel with consuming a sport they love. The only moral compass this league has is the one set to the Scrooge McDuck-sized vault of tax-exempt money on which it has fashioned its unassailable Iron Throne.

All of this, obviously, has been brought to a head with the NFL’s handling of the incident involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his then-fiancee-now-wife Janay, the latter of whom got knocked out by the former in an Atlantic City elevator last February. Rice got two games and no criminal charges (thanks to a plea deal) for the incident, likely because the only video initially made available to the public showed him dragging the unconscious woman out of the elevator like she was a heavy — and apparently “mouthy” — suitcase.

Two games is, you understand, just one-eighth of an NFL season, and does little to hurt Rice financially or professionally. It’s also one game apiece for the number of middle fingers extended to Janay Rice and all female football fans by the league in rendering this dickless decision. Did most people immediately change their thinking, reframing their view of him to include the fact that he’s a piece of garbage? Yes. But if that has no impact on his ability to take snaps and make money, then what, really, does he care? Most people were still pretty concerned about how this would impact his fantasy value; whether he’d become a second- or third-round pick instead of a slam-dunk first.

The whole thing was appalling. The way the league handled the investigation (interviewing Janay Rice in a room with her attacker, for one thing, isn’t even the lowest thing done in this case by human shitstain Roger Goodell’s part), and the way the Baltimore Ravens handled the aftermath (actually making Janay Rice all but apologize for her “role” in “the incident”) were basically indefensible. And when everyone, even the wide swath of media lackeys the NFL can lean on for a positive spin, basically says, “Oh yes this was deplorable,” you know exactly how deep into the mire the league dove to protect one of its star players.

As I was writing this, Baltimore terminated Ray Rice’s contract, which is a nice thing to do and all, but it comes a little too late, and is nothing but a PR move. Literally everyone knows that, and that the team’s first move, one it fell back on for months, was to support a coward who knocked out his fiancee. (If they really cared about provable criminal acts, they wouldn’t have continued to pay, and later commissioned a statue, for Ray Lewis.) A short time after — AFTER! — that, the league suspended Ray Rice indefinitely, something Goodell was too much of a stooge to do initially, because he knew he could count on fans not really caring that much. Only now, after the video (which they still say they never saw, if you can believe that) came out and made all involved in that defense look like the slimeballs they are. Still, people worried about the fantasy implications, and how this makes the league look (although here I may be stretching the definition of “people” by including Darren Rovell). And yes, you can still buy female-targeted Ray Rice merchandise from the league even after all that.

Lots of people just kind of accepted it as fact, and even gave Goodell a hardy thumbs-up when he said (in a shockingly leaked memo to owners!) the league would, from now on, view domestic violence far more seriously: Six games for a first offense, a lifetime ban for a second. This despite the fact that Goodell had broad authority as commissioner under the CBA to have suspended Rice for as long as he wanted. He essentially acknowledged that he acted as though he had handcuffs when he could, in fact, have freely done whatever he wanted to Rice (though, one supposes that “suspending him for two games” was exactly what he wanted to do, because that’s what he did.)

Which brings us to Sept. 8, when TMZ released video from the camera inside the elevator in which Ray Rice assaulted Janay Rice. I watched it against my better judgment, and it is revolting. Everyone is rightly furious, saying the suspension is now definitively “not enough” for what happened. But the thing is this: What did people think took place in that elevator before the video came out? There was never any doubt that this giant professional athlete punched a much smaller woman straight in the head, right? Was the idea of that not enough to get people upset, or were they privately wondering whether he’d simply put a rag soaked with ether over her mouth?

The NFL is now swearing up and down that officials never saw this video, and who gives a shit whether they did (which, P.S., they almost certainly did)? An NFL player knocked out a woman and got caught doing it because he was stupid enough, or a big enough piece of garbage, to do it in public.

That’s not to say that if this had happened in the privacy of their home, that Ray Rice shouldn’t have been in jail and banned from football for life, because he should have, but it is to say how brazen the attack really was; Ray Rice thought he was essentially bulletproof, and both the league and the justice system reiterated that while letting Janay Rice down spectacularly. He only got cut, months later, because the in-the-elevator video came out. And if this had been in their home, then we might never have heard about it at all. None of what happened is in any way praiseworthy, and if the Ravens and league were concerned with “doing the right thing” they would have banned Ray Rice months ago.

Also, let’s not ask ourselves whether this actually does anything to change his behavior, because boy is that answer uncomfortable. (The answer is “no.”)

Give it a year even after his being cut and he will probably be right back in the NFL, trying out a “redemption story” with some team dumb enough to give him another chance. He can play the game well enough that no one is going to care what he did last February if he can rush for 15 touchdowns in 2015.

Anything else that happened to Ray Rice, whether he was suspended for more games or fined or even outright banned from the league, as a result of this video being released? Please understand that it’s really only a PR move by a meat-headed, gutless commissioner. Goodell’s primary job, at its core, is to serve as a PR guy for the league, and take the blows so his owners don’t have to. That way, they keep raking in the money.

Which brings me back to complicity among sports fans in all this. Something else that’s been happening in the NFL lately is the backlash against the Washington team’s racist nickname, and data shows that its merchandise sales have dropped off 44 percent since the firestorm really ramped up in the last year or so. This is good news, but the same compassion suddenly given to First Nations people has not been extended to Janay Rice, or women in general: The Ravens’ home game on Sunday drew a sellout crowd, even though the team failed to make the playoffs last year. Maybe you think selling out the stadium following an 8-8 season makes them “good fans.” I think it makes them garbage people.

Of course, employing objectively bad people who have done objectively bad things is not solely the provenance of the National Football League. All sports are filled with rotten athletes who have committed crimes and gotten away with them to some extent, with minimal punishment, and soft treatment from the media as well.

Sports, essentially, don’t care about violence against women.

Three junior hockey players, two of which are NHL prospects, were charged with sexual assault last year; those charges were eventually dropped due to “no reasonable prospect of conviction,” which isn’t the same as “didn’t do anything wrong,” because only a small fraction of sexual assaults even lead to arrest, let alone conviction. All must be considered innocent until proven guilty, however. Before that point, though, the “adversity” Nick Cousins, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, faced was cited, repeatedly, as being something he overcame by being good at hockey. People have likewise defended the BU hockey situation to me, in one case by screaming at me that I didn’t know all the facts, because those “boys” — who were in actuality grown men and elite athletes — too, either had charges dropped or pleaded them down (the implication I heard a lot after that was that the two separate accusers in these cases lied). Drew Doughty, the best defenseman in the NHL, was accused of sexual assault but never faced charges.

Tampa Bay Rays reliever Josh Lueke, meanwhile, has continued to earn decent money in baseball despite his pleading down a rape charge from 2008, and not being a very good pitcher. Kobe Bryant, by virtue of his being an all-time great and coming off as likable to most basketball fans, has basically all but erased memory of his sexual assault case and settlement that would have blackened the career of most lesser athletes.

Even beyond sexual violence, the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball — among other sports — have serious problems with violence against women.

Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov faced domestic violence charges last year, and later had them dropped, and even as the situation was ongoing journalists circled the wagons saying that the accuser made it up. The charges were dropped due to the fact that prosecutors could not prove that the injuries Varlamov’s accuser sustained came from him specifically.

Major League Baseball’s record with domestic violence is pathetic. The NBA, well, here ya go.

The point of all this is women are treated like garbage in sports, and the frighteningly vast majority of fans give athletes, teams, leagues, etc. a whole lot of slack when things go from casually sexist (“Don’t you wish your goddamn wife would shut up during the game?! Go drink a few brewskis with your buddies in the mancave and talk about naked ladies and how much wives ruin your otherwise great lives!!!”) to violent. That includes when we have all the evidence in the world that things are and were and will be very bad indeed.

We do it because we love sports. And what does that say about us? You have to ask yourself if, at some point, you should stop loving that sport because of what it accepts and potentially engenders. Up until an hour or two ago, people were gearing up for Rice to play for the Ravens in Week 3. If this video hadn’t come out, how could you have supported him or his team in good conscience? How can you support the league that allowed him to walk essentially scot-free until it could no longer do so politically?

This is true of leagues in other sports, though to a lesser extent. They accept disturbing violent offenders, who acted against women, without much of a second thought. And so, by extension, do fans. We feed money into a system we know is broken and indefensible.

We see now that outrage works. It got Ray Rice cut from a lucrative deal and suspended indefinitely. But it has to be loud, and have significant backing evidence; there are still those who rail against “Outrage Hobbyists” as though people go around looking for the next physical or sexual assault case, or discrimination, over which they can fume and scream on social media.

But maybe they’re right, and you’re the one being irrational by feeding those systems. Maybe people are “outraged” all the time simply because there’s so much awful stuff in sports about which to be outraged these days. Maybe the outrage shouldn’t stop with the sports world pulling the curtain back on this one incident and finally doling out some too-late, richly deserved discipline before declaring that it’s done a good job.

Maybe we need to look at everything.

3 thoughts on “Sports fans and complicity

  1. Pingback: Links: Tuesday, September 16th | Love in the Margins

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