Sad time to be a sports fan

Brandon Kleber

From elementary to high school, I have grown up in this inner-city public school system. I have learned and lived in a diverse setting, and though I am specifically referring to my educational environment, this diversity also characterizes my city… and my country.

But each day at school I have learned more than just the history of the world; I have also learned the realities of the world. And recently, the realities have not been pretty.

In the last month, I have seen American society at its worst. As I flip through newspapers, online news sources, and even my Facebook and other social media sites, I have been watching a constant stream of terrible news unfold from the world of sports.

From footage of domestic violence and audio recordings of racist remarks to murder trials and allegations of child abuse, sports fans and non-sports fans alike have spent more time reading about scandals and problems this month than what was actually happening on the field.

As another week in a row came with coverage of these stories and after reading headline after headline, I realized that sports are supposed to provide an escape from the world’s troubles. During this difficult time, though, sports fans all over the country and all over the world have begun to question their loyalty to the game, raising the question: What are fans supposed to do when athletes’ values stray from their own?

We, as sports fans and as members of society, have found ourselves in the middle of a very controversial and very interesting time in sports. But if you reach beyond the headlines, a few issues stand out. Here are five things that I learned in the last month:

1. There are no excuses for breaking the rules.

It is a sad time when the four biggest sports stories of the month involve domestic violence, racism, murder and drug use. There was the video of former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Rice, punching and dragging his wife in a casino elevator. At the same time, the Atlanta Hawks had to deal with a series of racist remarks from its owner and general manager. Then, there was one of the Orioles’ most popular players, Chris Davis, getting suspended after a positive drug test. And to top it off, the Vikings running back, Adrian Peterson, is appearing in court for child abuse charges. And did I forget Oscar Pistorius, the paralympic track star, getting cleared of all murder charges after shooting his girlfriend to death?

Why is it that sports fans and the general public look the other way when athletes or celebrities break the law? The NFL, NBA, and other sports leagues have a history of athletes doing the wrong thing. Major figures in sports get fined, suspended, arrested, and criticized all the time, but I don’t think there’s ever been such a major stretch of miserable events as this month. It has reached a point now that athletes, coaches, owners, or general managers acting badly or breaking the law is not even eye-opening anymore. But, though this is true, no matter who the person is or what the reason is, there is still no excuse for breaking the rules.

2. Nothing has or will change.

I grew up following sports through my family’s passions. I’ve had opportunities over the years to be a fan of the Atlanta Hawks, and as the NBA deals with another edgy situation involving racism, this time, for many Atlanta sports fans, it hits close to home. I’ve been following the stories and uncoverings related to the team in the past few weeks. I know that the general manager, Danny Ferry, was out of line by making racist remarks about NBA player, Luol Deng, during a conference with team owners, saying that “he has got some African in him.” I know that the team’s co-owner, Bruce Levenson, also did wrong by sending a racially profiling email in 2012, but I have accepted these truths, as have the two members involved. The question is what is going to come next, and what is going to change as a result. Clearly, after this month of events for the Atlanta Hawks, we can see the NBA did not eliminate racism when Donald Sterling was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers.

But what is more troublesome for fans across the nation is the underwhelming response to these incidents. The NFL, for example, was greatly criticized for its lenient two-game suspension to the Rice incident, and even its decision to eventually suspend him indefinitely from the league. The message that I got from their response to the scandal: Don’t expect anything to change soon. These events certainly are not unique to this time and place. We learned about Donald Sterling months ago and saw that a professional sports league was going out of its way to protect him. And then there is domestic abuse in professional sports that has been happening long before Rice, and unfortunately, it won’t end with him.

3. It’s not just about the game.

At what point in time did sports stop being about sports? At what point in time did the phrase “it’s just a game” stop applying? I guess the point when you scroll over the TMZ website and read about the Ray Rices and Donald Sterlings, whose actions and words distract us from anything else that is happening on the field or the court. We must remind ourselves that athletes are humans, too. But now sports has become less about sports and teams and more about morals and values. This was a month unlike any before it, and that is why justice must be served for these wrongful mistakes to be forgiven and forgotten.

If there was any justice, though, Ferry would be fired immediately. If there was any justice, Rice would never step foot on another football field, and Pistorious would get the maximum sentence. If there was any justice, Peterson would not touch another football.

But that’s not the reality. The games go on. Nothing really changes.

Here’s what troubles me, though: The Ravens fired Rice, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely, but without the video evidence of him in the elevator, Rice would have pretty much gotten away with it. And that’s where the justice is involved. Everyone, including the league, the team, and the fans were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because we, as fans, place these stars on pedestals. The desire for our team to win beats all, even when it comes to crime and justice. Think back to last year when Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman trophy with rape allegations over his head.

And if the fans want justice, what about Ray McDonald, the San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman, who was facing felony domestic violence charges and yet still playing? Or Greg Hardy, the Carolina Panthers defensive end, who was found guilty of assaulting his girlfriend and threatening to kill her, who is also still playing? Apparently, they are lucky because they did their abusing far from a video camera, but have they not been punished because we can’t see it? That must be it, because from what I’ve read, it sounds just as bad as what Rice did to his girlfriend. Now that we know the severity of domestic violence, though, how are fans who felt so strongly about Rice leaving not demanding that McDonald and Hardy go too?

4. You can’t hide.

Despite media coverage of these events, despite punishments that are handed down, despite criticism of all parties involved, we don’t seem to be breaking the pattern of ill-behavior. With abuse charges piling up for players like Rice and Peterson, and continuing racism in the NBA, both the NFL and NBA may be losing control of their well-renowned reputation and image. But what can we take away from this? You may have a career, you may be a great guy, both on and off the field, but nowadays, with technology and social media in the world that we live in, there’s no such thing as a private life. There’s no such thing as hiding from the public. I’ve learned the world of sports is no longer separated by this veil of secrecy: the door is wide open.

5. A single moment’s mistake can ruin a lifetime.

Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, O.J. Simpson, Michael Vick, and now Ray Rice. What do you think of when you hear those names? Do you think of Woods’s 14 majors or Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins? How about that when Simpson retired, he was the second-leading career rusher in NFL history? I wish it were that simple. I wish athletes could only be remembered for what they did on the field, but it doesn’t work like that. Even as a sports fan, I remember those players in a different light, for what they did off the field, as well. Each of those men are just a small example of athletes and celebrities who are remembered for all the wrong reasons.

American society and sports fans are great at putting these people on a pedestal, only to celebrate when they are caught and punished for their wrongdoings. It’s a phenomenon that has always been present in the world. And though some people’s reactions are that of indifference, sometimes, in sports there are stories that are impossible to ignore. Take the Ray Rice incident, for example. Or Donald Sterling and the racism in the NBA. They can overshadow the game altogether and make us forget all about the pedestals that these players are standing on. But like all controversial stories, it will soon pass.

There will come a day when no one will care anymore, and they will be added to the list of players I created at the start of this, who will always have an asterisk next to their names. It’s an unfortunate fact that, a lot of times, misconduct off the field can overshadow a player’s greatness and accomplishments on the field. It isn’t fair, but it’s the way things work in this world. As I was growing up, my parents always told me something about reputation: that you can do so much right and spend years building up your reputation, only to have it destroyed by one mistake. I don’t think what Rice and others did was done for a good reason or planned, but it proves the fact that even the greatest images can be destroyed by a single moment.

I have always been fascinated and enjoyed the world of sports. The innocence, the competition, the pluses of what sports represent. I enjoy seeing or reading about the accomplishments that athletes and teams can achieve. And as do hundreds of thousands of other people in the world. Sports is a huge thing. What I’m seeing, though, is that the fun of the game and the newsworthiness has increasingly become about controversy, bad behavior, crimes, and punishments. Sports news is now more and more about the off-the-field behavior, rather than the feats of athletes on the field, and that makes me pause to be regretful, and to have reminiscence about what sports should be and have been. It’s very disappointing that the joy and the innocence isn’t as captivating. It’s very disappointing that the competitiveness to do well for a team, rather than for an individual, is gone. It’s very disappointing that behavior off the field is defining the lives of athletes.

So here we are, another month upon us, in which games will be played, players will step on the field, and fans will cheer and boo. Some will forget about this month; I, along with thousands of other sports fans, should not.