Mike Kasdan takes a hard look at the roots of the privilege we confer on star athletes, and its devastating effect on society.
Today’s topic is privilege. Athletes and privilege.
The issue of athletes and privilege is in the news again.
This time, we have the breaking story of three UCLA basketball players who are accused of stealing sunglasses in China. Among them is LiAngelo Ball. His father, Lavar Ball’s comment so far? “Everyone’s making it a big deal. It ain’t that big a deal.” Now that there is an example of a parent sending precisely the wrong message, a message that perpetuates the problem.
To hear author and Good Men Project’s Director of Special Projects, Mike Kasdan, talk about this issue in connection with the UCLA story on CBS News Radio KNX In Depth, click here.
We first wrote about this issue back in 2014:
Let’s start with college and take a look at what privileges college student-athletes receive. Here are just a few:
- Athletes mentorship programs that pair freshmen with older student-athletes who already have experience getting out of sexual assault charges.
- At many Division I schools, personal tutors are assigned to each student athlete to supply them with free urine samples.
- At Ohio State, athletes receive complimentary transportation to and from crime scenes.
Alright, alright. I lied. The above examples actually are lifted from a satirical article from The Onion.
But it’s only funny because it’s uncomfortably close to true.
(The example about my alma mater from that same article also is funny, but for a different reason: “Athletes at University of Pennsylvania are granted unlimited access to the school’s private collection of Benjamin Franklin quotes.” Oh look, here’s one: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” And I wasn’t even an athlete there!)
Here are some real-world examples of “privileges” received by student-athletes. Warning, this is not The Onion:
- At Florida State University, athletes receive softer treatment from police for alleged crimes than, well, regular people.
- At University of North Carolina, basketball players get to attend classes that don’t exist; they totally ace them.
- At Alabama, the football coach who earns a $7M salary receives a free $3M home from the program’s boosters.
- A few years ago, at University of Miami, football players received thousands of dollars in cash, gifts,and even the services of prostitutes, from the program’s boosters.
Giving star athletes preferential treatment doesn’t begin in college. It starts much younger. The coddling, the entourages, the brushing aside of academic requirements (OK – we’ll say it: cheating).
But we sure do master it by the time those athletes get through the lavish recruiting process and into college.
In the New York Times recent investigative report on Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida examined nine cases involving FSU football players over a one-and-a-half year period. In three, minor civil citations were issued. In the remaining six, no charges were filed. The cases in which no charges were filed included several situations where players were shooting BB and pellet guns, an alleged rape by star QB, Jameis Winston, and a domestic violence call:
“Officers responding to a domestic violence call have a legal duty to investigate thoroughly, seek written statements from witnesses and from the victim, instruct the victim on how to seek help and, finally, forward their report to the local domestic abuse crisis center. But, according to their brief report on the episode, the officers did none of that. They did, however, find the case significant enough to notify their sergeant — “due to the fact that it was an F.S.U. football player,” the report said. The sergeant, a Florida State University sports fan, signed off on it and the complaint was filed away as “unfounded.”
Of course, entitlement doesn’t end in the pros. It only intensifies. The money is bigger. The stage is brighter. The stakes are higher.
In the NFL, the NBA, MLB, millionaire athletes are protected in the safe womb of the league. Winning on the field is the singular focus.
“The same atmosphere of willful ignorance [is promoted], the outside world seen not only as distraction but impediment to the task of winning.” As for off-the-field (AKA, life), athletes don’t really have to worry about it. Off-the-field tasks are taken care of by handlers, agents, and gophers.
Off-the-field transgressions – whether it’s Ray Rice’s act of domestic violence, Ben Roethlisberger and his alleged rape case, or Kobe Bryant and his alleged rape case, are swept under the rug, quietly settled, “taken care of.”
Let’s circle back; back to the beginning. Let’s take a look at how this phenomenon of privilege takes root and grows. Buzz Bissenger aptly described the societal roots of athlete’s privilege, in his excellent editorial, The Boys in the Clubhouse:
Sadly, and too often with tragic repercussions, athletes don’t distinguish right from wrong because they actually have no idea of what is right and what is wrong. Rules don’t apply. Acceptable standards of behavior don’t apply. Little infractions become bigger ones, and adults turn a blind eye. If someone gets into trouble, the first move is for an authority figure, usually in the form of a coach, to get them out of it.
When that doesn’t work, whether they’re high school quarterbacks or pro-ball pitchers, one of two things happens. Sometimes, especially at the high school level, the community rallies around the accused, wanting to believe that “boys will be boys.” As one Sayreville parent said at a local board of education meeting after allegations of sexually themed hazing by senior players emerged, “No one was hurt, no one died. I don’t understand why they’re being punished.” That happens at the pro level, too — just look at how long it took the Minnesota Vikings to remove Adrian Peterson from their roster after he was indicted on a charge of hitting his son.
If and when the tide turns against players, they are immediately cast as bad apples, single exceptions to an otherwise acceptable moral status quo . . . We don’t want to admit that in all these stories, it’s not about the individual, or the individual sport, but about the culture we have allowed to grow around them.
If we can’t break this negative culture that heaps privilege on athletes from a young age, if we can’t root out the adult and institutional enablers from the beginning, then by the time they get to college and the pros, where monied interests of massive proportions rule, it is far too late to do anything about it. Because by then we have raised an entire class of citizens that are held above the law, that receive an inferior education, that never learned personal responsibility or accountability.
We hold them up as our idols.
And then we act surprised when it all comes crashing down.
Originally published October 2014, this post is every bit as relevant in 2017.
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Photo Credits: Cover – Johnny Manziel ‘Money Gesture’ (Associated Press/Eric Gay); Miami Hurricanes (Associated Press/Jeffrey Boan); Florida State (Associated Press/Phil Sears)