The Heroes We Idolize in Sports

"The Americans are certainly hero worshipers and always take their heroes from the criminal classes."

While this statement by playwright Oscar Wilde is a harsh portrayal of the American psyche, his allusions are derived from public perception. We place our heroes on a gilded pedestal of fame--cultivating their larger than life attitudes and blindly worshiping their public façade despite incidents of reckless irresponsibility and questionable morality. And in the realm of hero worship, few followings can rival the adoration of sports fans. Professional athletes are propelled into the public spotlight, becoming overnight demigods and amassing an enormous following of loyal fans that are devoted to a team or city for generations. In exchange for athletic prowess, we create a different standard of humanness. Do athletes deserve a free pass?

On May 31st, Brandon Marshall, a receiver for the Denver Broncos, was charged with seven allegations of domestic abuse against his former girlfriend Rasheedah Watley. This is not Marshall's first indiscretion. He has a laundry list of prior police encounters including bar brawls, disorderly conduct and a DUI in 2007. Marshall has publicly displayed a pattern of physical violence, and yet neither the Broncos administration nor the NFL took any major action to hold Marshall accountable for his decisions. In August 2008, Marshall was originally suspended for the first three games of the season for his transgressions against the NFL personal conduct policy. However by the end of the month, NFL commissioner Goodell had reduced the penalty to just one game. An NFL spokesperson stated that the option to reduce the penalty had been on the table, as long as Marshall complied with counseling and other unspecified conditions. Marshall's one game suspension is the equivalent punishment of what a NBA player would receive for committing seven technical fouls during the playoffs.

Marshall is the most recent addition to a group of athletes who chose to communicate through violence and got caught. Ramon Castro, a catcher for the Chicago White Sox, pleaded no contest to an allegation of misdemeanor indecent assault after being accused of raping a woman in his Pittsburgh hotel room in 2003. He was placed on probation for a year and is still playing baseball. Jose Canseco, who played for the Oakland A's and Texas Rangers, was accused of running his car into his wife's car in 1989. He continued to play baseball and despite pleading no contest to a charge of domestic abuse against his second wife, he was able to evade probation. Jason Kidd, point guard for Dallas Mavericks, was arrested and pleaded guilty in January 2001 for assaulting his wife. He continued to play basketball while attending anger management classes. During their divorce and counter-divorce arguments in 2007, the wife asserted that Kidd had broken her rib and smashed her head into the console of a car during their marriage. Sean Burke, now a goalie for the Jersey Devils, pleaded guilty to beating his wife in February 1998 and received the stringent penalty of anger management and a $200 fine. In 1994, Troy Smith, a former basketball player at the University of Louisville, pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his infant child's mother, Kelly Dwyer. Smith served one year of his prison sentence before being released on probation.

These few examples are a testament to the magnitude of violence within the realm of professional athleticism. These cases represent the extreme scenario in which excessive violence or repeated physical abuse leads to arrest. According to Jeff Benedict and Don Yeager's book Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL, "21 percent of the NFL's players have been charged with a serious crime. The docket begins with assault, rape, and domestic violence and keeps spiraling out of control."

Most athletes that abuse, however, do not get caught. Every minute there are dozens of undocumented cases of verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical abuse occurring between athletes and their partners. And yet, the code of silence between athletes protects our heroes from public judgment and persecution, restraining girlfriends and wives under an invisible haze of victimization.

The public assumes that professional athletes can compartmentalize their aggression, but behavior cannot be channeled into an on and off switch. When athletes have difficulty differentiating between appropriate boundaries of sport mentality and violent behavior the result is abuse. There is a pattern to this violence: jealousy leads to desires for retaliation causing impulse rage and culminating with a severe physical incident.

As dedicated fans, our immediate response is to blame the victim. We saturate the media with baseless accusations: the victim is a gold digger, she is looking for a monetary settlement, she purposely got pregnant, and she lied about the assault. The validity of these statements is irrelevant. No one deserves to be abused. Violence cannot be regarded as an appropriate substitute for communication. Athletes have come to expect impunity-the public backlash by the media and fans, the club owners, and the coaching staff reinforces this attitude.

In absolving athletes of responsibility, we contribute to the cycle of abuse.

We should instead level the playing field and require athletes to adhere to basic principles of right and wrong. Communities must stand together in opposition; fighting against the silent acceptance of domestic violence and challenging our heroes to role model healthy relationships and constructive communication. We need to demonstrate to youth, who often idolize these athletes, that abuse is reprehensible.

Through public condemnation, it will be possible to reverse the mentality in professional sports that athletes are above the law. Slowly, communities and league owners across the country are vocalizing support for behavioral standards. Professional baseball teams, notorious for unmitigated incidents of domestic violence and aggression, have become leaders in the movement to end partner abuse.

On July 3rd, the Washington National and Becky's Fund will co-host the first Domestic Violence Awareness Day at Nationals Park when the team plays the Atlanta Braves.

"We are very proud to partner with Becky's Fund on this very important issue that sadly affects thousands of women who are shamed into silence," commented Chartese Burnett, Nationals Vice President of Communications and Community Relations. "With our prominence as a professional sports team and our dedication to being a good neighbor, we are committed to utilizing our resources to positively impact the health and well-being of our local community. We are hopeful that the voices of abused women will be heard on July 3 at Domestic Violence Awareness Day at the Park."

When a celebrated member of the community steps forward and volunteers time, energy, and access to the public and the media, it generates attention to an epidemic of violence infecting our homes, schools, campuses and workplaces, often concealed behind closed doors. We hope that other leaders and role models throughout the country will follow the Nationals' example and step up to the plate for this important cause. If we reach a handful of young men and women at an event, the effort is worthwhile.

As a society, we need heroes- the belief in individual greatness, a team to be loyal to, a David versus Goliath memory, but our heroes should be role models as well. A person who is not only awe-inspiring on the field, but worthy of respect during invisible moments outside of the public eye. We are looking for the athlete who will stand against domestic violence, opposing the status quo and calling on his teammates and peers to love with their hearts instead of their fists.

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