Nowadays, fans air grievances with teams via social media, but until owners feel the sting in their pocketbooks, it’ll be business as usual.
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Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice went viral for all the wrong reasons this past NFL season when TMZ went public with the brutal footage of him knocking out his now-wife Janay in an elevator. Then it was Adrian Peterson’s turn in the spotlight, as the Minnesota Vikings running back spent the season answering for the bloody whipping of a child.
Before any of this, there were rape charges levied against NBA forward Michael Beasley, currently with the Miami Heat. Hope Solo, the star goalie of the Seattle Reign and the United States Women’s National Team, was arrested on charges of domestic violence against both her sister and teenaged nephew. Chuck Knoblauch, the former Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees second baseman, was only months away from his induction into the Twins’ Hall of Fame when he was arrested on domestic violence charges for beating his now ex-wife. Slava Voynov of the Los Angeles Kings was arrested for hitting his wife after she needed to be hospitalized. And there was Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and accusations of sexual assault.
The list goes on and on (“sincere” apologies to those who feel they’ve been singled out here), but most of the aforementioned have something in common: they still have jobs, or can easily get one. And this isn’t sitting right with some fans.
In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, professional teams no longer have the luxury of sweeping unsavory incidents involving their employees under the rug. This, in turn, leads to public cries for greater social responsibility and accountability on the part of the teams and their owners. Most leagues have paid lip service to the prevalent issues of domestic violence and performance enhancement by instituting policies on paper and hiring dedicated personnel — but it’s still an open question as to whether those policies are treated as mere suggestions.
Case in point: The Dallas Cowboys recently signed defensive end Greg Hardy to a one-year, $11 million-dollar contract. Hardy, you might recall, was convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence after hitting and threatening to kill an ex-girlfriend. While Hardy was appealing his conviction, the victim disappeared, and the charges were dropped.
The signing sent the Internet into an uproar, accusing the Cowboys of condoning domestic violence. The Cowboys struck back, shrewdly positioning Charlotte Jones Anderson, team executive vice president (and daughter of owner Jerry Jones) as the face of this decision. Jones himself admitted that they brought Hardy in to make a better team, and that that the Cowboys organization doesn’t believe in “throwing anyone away.”
Jones Anderson, on the matter:
“I’m a mom. I’ve got a daughter, I’ve got two sons. This is a serious issue for me, personally. I want my kids to know that domestic violence is not acceptable. But I also want them to know that if they make a mistake, no matter what the issue is, I’m not just going to throw them out. I’ve got to help them come back and make a better choice.”
The Vikings reportedly feel the same way, as they have no plans to jettison Peterson. Roethlisberger remains a Steeler. Solo is still the public face of both the Reign and the WNT. Voynov still skates for the Kings, and Beasley has re-upped for the second time with the Heat. Only Rice has no definitive NFL home after being released from the Ravens following his arrest, though there have been rumblings that it may only a matter of time until the specter of ElevatorGate fades enough to make him attractive.
It’s worth asking, of course, if these athletes, and others convicted of crimes, should be allowed to do the jobs they were hired to do — especially since their off-field activities were not directly related to their on-field duties. Is punishment in the court of public opinion enough?
It’s not a question that team owners have wasted a ton of time pondering. When it comes to owning a professional sports franchise, there are basically two driving goals: to win and to make a profit. The two are inexorably linked. In order to make a profit, the team must have fans. Fans like winning teams. A team can’t win if they don’t have good personnel. So what happens when the good players, or team employees, go bad off the field? What’s an owner to do?
“Ride it out” is the most popular option, mainly because it works. Despite all of the #outrage expressed in the Twitterverse, owners remain hunkered down with their public relations people to weather storms until they recede, and they can go back to business as usual. Sales of tickets and merchandise have not been unduly affected by any of these scandals. Stadiums and arenas are still sold out. Players are still in demand for charity events. Social media stokes sound and fury, but in the end, means nothing. For the owners, if it doesn’t make dollars, then it doesn’t make sense, and if the bottom line remains in the black, then keep on keeping on.
Jones, for what it’s worth, doesn’t think it’s the owners’ responsibility to be the moral police of their players:
“I recognize all of those statements that, if you want to look at it that way, could be conflicting,’’ Jones said. “There’s no question that Jason (Garrett) wants a team that is made up of the finest character players and the finest talent that you can have. The real world is that you don’t get all that. One of the things that we need to do at all times is be looking toward becoming a better football team. That’s all of our jobs.’’
Former Cowboy quarterback and Fox commentator Troy Aikman agrees, and stated that Hardy was hired for defensive pass rushing, period. He, too, is leery of leagues allowing the personal lives of players to trump the professional:
“But I think it is a real slippery slope when you start and you get involved as to whether or not you deny someone the opportunity to make a living. We all make mistakes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to go out there and do what you do and earn a living. But I understand the reaction to it.”
To a degree, this sentiment also affects the NBA. Last year’s one-two racial firestorm combo involving Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry occurred mere months after former Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling was banned for life from the league.
The Hawks, a team that had barely clung to relevancy in the years since the dunkalicious Dominique Wilkins retired, were on fire — the best team in the Eastern Conference. The team boasts resident All-Star sharpshooter and three-point specialist Kyle Korver, along with Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schröder, Jeff Teague and Al Horford — all courtesy of Ferry, the grand architect who signed them all.
Does Ferry deserve a second chance at the helm of the ship he rebuilt, or at least somewhere elsewhere in the league? Or should he be left on the sidelines due to his poor judgment? Many have come out in his defense, including Horford, but it remains to be seen how the new ownership of the Hawks (the sale of the team is still pending) will handle Ferry. Will they welcome him back with open arms, or quietly allow his leave of absence to become permanent?
Other industries are notorious for forgiving their stars when they keep messing up — Hollywood, in particular — but professional sports tends to hold grudges, if they are selective ones. Legendary Cincinnati Reds hitter Pete Rose still hasn’t been reinstated from a lifetime MLB ban due to gambling charges back in 1989. Tiger Woods is only absent from the links due to back injury, not because of his publicized affairs. Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France wins for taking performance-enhancing drugs, and lying about it and manipulating people afterward. Former Olympic track star Marion Jones served jail time and had her medals vacated for the exact same thing.
But what do fans really want? If issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, doping, and gambling were really so important to our society’s collective psyche, pro teams would have gone bankrupt ages ago. It is the fans, after all, who send a message to the owners about what is acceptable every time they purchase a ticket or a T-shirt.
In the ongoing saga over the petition to change the racially insensitive name of the Washington Redskins football team, sales of the team’s jerseys have dropped, and federal trademarks have been stripped away, despite owner Dan Snyder’s insistence that he will never change the team’s name. Yet the team still has no problem making money.
For most fans, nostalgia and tradition trump societal mores, but that sentiment becomes a conundrum when they simultaneously expect pro athletes to “do the right thing.” When the players can’t or won’t, and the owners have no vested interest in dispensing justice, those who prefer to root for touchdowns and slam dunks, and not punches and pistol whips, have little other option but to stay home and quit watching.