Last week, the football world watched in horror and/or fascination as Antonio Brown, through an escalating sequence of temper tantrums, managed to get himself kicked off the Raiders without playing a single snap for his new team. Then while the dust was still settling, and while sports writers were furiously typing up their postmortems, the Patriots pounced, rewarding Brown with a generous 1-year contract mere hours after his release.
Some people like to think that sports is just entertainment. Just a business. Nothing more.
I’m not one of those people.
Sports is a microcosm of what we choose to value — or choose not to value — as a society. The way we think about sports affects the way we think about politics, and money, and labor, and family, and criminal justice, and life itself.
Everything flows downstream into the culture at large. None of it is meaningless. Things matter.
It matters that an exorbitantly paid professional athlete publicly bashed his employer and then threatened to punch his boss in the face — an act which would have gotten any of us immediately fired and made us un-hirable for the foreseeable future — and that athlete not only went unpunished but was almost immediately rewarded with a lucrative contract from the most prestigious employer in his job market.
It matters that many fans of this athlete’s new team, along with fantasy football fans and NFL fans in general, immediately shifted into spin mode and started crafting a justification for the Patriots’ decision to reward this athlete. Justifications that somehow didn’t even reference, or make any moral judgment about, anything this athlete had done in the previous 4 days (or 4 months).
It matters that this isn’t the first, or the fifth, or even the fifteenth example in this decade alone of an NFL player being rewarded with fame and fabulous fortune right on the heels of doing something inexcusable.
And it most assuredly matters that this example, as ugly and unsettling as it is, doesn’t even compare with myriad other cases where the player in question did something genuinely menacing and destructive to the social fabric. Punching pregnant girlfriends. Abusing children. Abusing dogs. Sexually assaulting women. Even murdering people.
[NOTE: In the time since I began writing this blog post, Antonio Brown has been accused of sexual misconduct and rape in a civil lawsuit. I will not comment on these allegations since I haven’t read nearly enough about them to speak knowledgeably. To be clear, the entirety of this blog post is based only on what we knew before these accusations went public.]
All of the players referenced above were subsequently given lucrative contracts. Some of them have even been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame — or assuredly will be in the next decade.
All of this matters. Every last bit of it.
When I posted something on Facebook criticizing the Patriots for picking up Brown, multiple friends — including some fairly thoughtful people — either defended or downplayed the move. Some pointed out that it’s normal and simply to be expected. Some took a purely strategic approach, talking about how Bill Belichick will be able to rein in Brown’s antics. And some accused Patriots critics of being motivated by jealousy and resentment rather than principle.
Notably, none of them crafted a specific case for why it was defensible for a team to hire, and lavishly reward, someone who 24 hours earlier had threatened to punch his boss in the face.
In the end, the Antonio Brown saga says as much about us as it does about him. It reveals our tribalism and even our casual nihilism. Our willingness to silence our moral compass if our team will gain power (Patriots fans), if we might gain a little prestige or make a little money (fantasy fans who drafted Brown), or if we will be supremely entertained by a freakishly talented player (football fans across the board). Just as we’ve seen in the political realm, it exposes that we would rather consolidate power for our team and win at all costs than maintain a careful set of ethics that we consistently apply to everyone.
Die-hard sports fans, just like die-hard fans of politics, have never been known for consistency. Sports and politics have always brought out the worst in people, revealing double standards that are as deep as a chasm. Sadly, that is nothing new.
But to quote the new Joker trailer, “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?”
Maybe it’s because fatherhood has amplified my sense of the moral stakes in the world. But I’ve never seen people as willing to casually look the other way at wrongdoing because of a tribal affiliation — be it to a sports team or to a political party — as I have in the last 3 or 4 years. Or even in the last decade.
What we need in both realms is for individuals to embrace their own obligation to call out every moral indiscretion, regardless of whose team the wrongdoer plays (or politics) for, and despite the fact that it will impede our enjoyment of a national pastime or muddle up our clear-cut political narrative.
We should do this for the sake of our own moral clarity, but we should also do it for our kids, who are seeing all of this play out. Everything we say that downplays or ignores the toxic behavior of an athlete or a celebrity or a politician or a president that we like or support is heard loud and clear by the younger generation.
As I said earlier: Everything flows downstream. Sports is not a vacuum, and it should never be impervious to our core values.
If winning is everything, then everything will be lost.
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