Back in February of this year, NFL running back Ray Rice was caught on camera dragging his unconscious wife out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino, after allegedly punching and knocking her out. In response to this, the NFL has issued Rice a two-game suspension and small fine when the season begins in September. There has been a lot of justified outrage over this. Many people are furious that the NFL has set such an inadequate precedent when it comes to dealing with domestic abuse. Considering the fact that wide receiver Josh Gordon has received a year-long suspension for smoking pot, a measly two-game suspension for domestic abuse is beyond problematic; and according to what I have seen so far, it seems that most of the outrage is over that kind disparity, with issues involving respect for women and misogyny getting slightly less attention. As I said, the outrage over this is justified, but this is not a problem exclusive to the NFL. The problem here is cultural. There are some disturbing double standards involved, and an even more disturbing message being sent to young boys about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
There are two double standards that spring directly to my mind with this story. The first is the attitude of many in the professional sports world over criminality vs homosexuality. Since being drafted earlier this year by the St. Louis Rams, defensive end Michael Sam has faced harsh criticism by many who feel that the presence of an openly gay athlete (Mr. Sam came out before being drafted) in the locker room could be “problematic” or “uncomfortable” for other teammates. There seems to be a lot of concern over players changing and showering with a gay man, but not a single bit of concern over players sharing the locker room with a violent criminal. Given the fact that the NFL would have to shut down if they purged all of the criminals from their ranks, this double standard is a serious problem. The second double standard is the way we view professional athletes vs everybody else in society. If I were to beat my wife, I would be charged with assault. If I committed any crimes at all there would be consequences, and the same is true for all of us. Why is it, then, that pro athletes are given a free pass? Why is it that a conviction for an NFL star usually means community service, whereas a conviction for the everyman usually means jail time? Are we that selfish, that craved for entertainment, that we are willing to sit idly by and accept this behaviour as long as we get to watch the Sunday game? We treat athletes differently by giving them an undeserved pedestal to perch on. We have created these double standards, and it will be up to us to either do away with them or let them continue.
Now, I have written plenty about the need to educate our children about respect. I have written about the fact that misogyny could easily be eradicated if we would all raise our young boys to respect a woman’s personhood, right to bodily autonomy, and right to dignity. In my piece on July 19th, I wrote about the damage done to our culture with the simple phrase “boys will be boys,” and I’m not the only one. There are many people doing their level best to educate on these issues, and when a public figure like Ray Rice is only given a two-game suspension for punching his wife and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator into an open hallway, the message sent to young male fans is that you can get away with this behaviour. Contrary to messages of acceptance and equality, the NFL is setting a terrible example for young children who will be more deeply influenced by this cultural juggernaut than by anything else. When academics talk about the systemic propagation of patriarchal ideals, this is exactly what they are talking about. The most profitable and culturally influential industries are used to promote certain ideals through often subtle means, and most of us don’t even notice. This is a problem that we must identify and work to correct.
It’s a very sad commentary on society that the outrage over this is the most promising thing about it. Outrage should be automatic. Action should be the promising result in these situations. I am not the least bit surprised that the NFL has once again set such a terrible example, but I am saddened by it. I would love to suggest a way that the social damage done by this could be countered, but unfortunately I can only hope that those of us working to teach the next generation how to think and behave toward one another can get our message through. This is a difficult time in our history, a time when people are discovering that the status quo is not always right. We are living in a time of questioning and change. Double standards and outdated ideas about gender norms and roles have no place in today’s world. To the NFL, shame on you. To Ray Rice, you should be in jail. To Michael Sam, thank you for being who you are. To everybody else, let’s live by example. We have to let the next generation know that nobody is entitled to harm another person. We have to let them know that everybody deserves to be treated equally. We have to let them know that the actions of criminals with pro sports contracts are examples worthy of shame and contempt, not of admiration.