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Somehow the huge chasm between the lectures and classes on
non-violent conflict resolution and real life grows wider and wider.
Primary school children are suspended from school for bringing a butter
knife in their lunch box, while professional athletes are held to
completely different standards.

During the National Football League playoffs last December, Orlando
Brown, right tackle for the Cleveland Browns, forcefully pushed referee
Jeff Triplette to the ground after a penalty flag thrown by Triplette
accidentally hit Brown in the eye. For this behavior, Brown was
indefinitely suspended. On Tuesday, the media reported
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue lifted Brown’s suspension.

The case of Orlando Brown is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident
in the NFL. At the time of the Super Bowl XXXIV, a report on the
criminal history of the players of the two competing teams was released.
According to APB online,
“there will be 13 players on the field Sunday who have been charged with
a total of 20 crimes, ranging from minor criminal violations like Yancey
Thigpen’s failure to pay a speeding fine to Leonard Little’s involuntary
manslaughter conviction in the alcohol-related killing of a woman.
That’s an 11 percent arrest rate for the participants in America’s
biggest sporting event.”

On the heels of a great Super Bowl game, violence erupted in the
upscale Buckhead section of Atlanta. When the dust had cleared, two men
had been knifed and another NFL football player, Baltimore Ravens
linebacker Ray Lewis, was arrested and charged with murder along with
two of his “longtime associates.” The trial, which has been put on a
fast track, is scheduled for May 15. Ray Lewis is free on a $1 million
bond while his two associates languish in jail. This week, the CNNSI web
site is doing a five part report entitled “Bloody Monday, The NFL Struggle Against Violence”
using Ray Lewis as a case study. It’s not only violence in the NFL; it’s
in all professional sports.

Take the case of Marty McSorley, a professional hockey player for the
NHL Boston Bruins. McSorley has a history of abusive behavior for which
he has been fined and suspended. Before the last incident on Feb. 21, he
had nine previous suspensions. Three times, he was suspended for
“spearing” and once for eye gouging. In the latest incident, he used his
hockey stick as a club, hitting Donald Brashear across the head while
Brashear had his back to McSorley. The blow sent Brashear crashing to
the ice with a Grade 3 concussion. The NHL lost no time in announcing
McSorley’s punishment. Newspaper headlines pronounced his suspension for
21-games a “record.” McSorley’s punishment includes forfeiting $72,000
of his $402,439 salary, which could have been $96,292 more if he had not
been “bad conduct free” for the past 18 months. This act of pure
aggression should have led to McSorley’s eviction not only from that
game, but also from the hockey profession. After all, if it happened on
a street corner, the charge could have been attempted murder.

Some may say that it is not surprising that professional athletes,
especially those that participate in violent sports and become rich
celebrities at a very young age, get into trouble with the law. We
expect athletes to be able to be very aggressive while playing their
sport, but never lose their perspective. Besides the latest incident
with McSorley, there is boxer Mike Tyson: young, aggressive, famous,
and rich. He spends time in prison for raping a young woman; gets a
year’s suspension from boxing; and when he returns to the ring bites his
opponent’s ear off. You would think those in charge would learn, but the
temptation of the almighty dollar still reigns, since people still pay
to watch Tyson maim other human beings.

Yet unacceptable behavior on and off the field is handled very
differently from one professional sport to the next. Under the rules of
Major League Baseball, New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry has been
suspended for one year for failing a drug test a third time, and Atlanta
Braves pitcher John Rocker was fined $20,000, and suspended until the
end of the first month of the season for expressing his opinion of New
Yorkers. Both athletes’ suspensions are longer than the suspension given
McSorley or Brown even though neither Strawberry nor Rocker physically
attacked another human being.

Strawberry is a gifted outfielder who has been given several chances
to become drug-free. Thus, Major League Baseball has thrown the book at
Darryl Strawberry in order to make a strong statement about drug use.
John Rocker, the immature Atlanta Braves relief pitcher, who after being
heckled in New York City, the training ground for professional sports
hecklers, publicly insulted a large portion of New York City’s
population.

Even a New York Times editorial rightly condemned Rocker’s boorish and intolerant speech but questioned
his punishment: “We are troubled by its decision to go the additional
step of fining Rocker for a mistake that involved offensive speech
rather than physical misconduct or violations of the law. Rocker was
assessed $20,000 and suspended from spring training and the first month
of the season. This diminishes the principle that the best response to
hateful speech is constructive speech and public condemnation.” It’s
very ironic that on Tuesday when the Atlanta Braves began spring
training, they held classes on diversity training without the
participation of the person who needs it most, John Rocker.

This type of disparate treatment of athletes sends mixed signals to
those most influenced by the behavior of athletes: our children,
especially male adolescents. It clearly illustrates that codes of
conduct, if they exist at all, are arbitrary in nature, and that we are
a nation of contradictory do’s and don’ts. We say we believe that
everyone should be judged not by their external appearance but by their
accomplishments, and then we watch “How To Marry A Millionaire,” Jerry
Springer, and countless other programs that focus on aberrant behavior
and external appearances. We deplore violence but revel in such violent
activities as football, boxing, and wrestling. We promote diversity,
while attacking people who don’t agree with the current political
correctness. Thus, we should tolerate atheists and sexual deviants, but
not religions that do missionary work; encourage those who want to ban
guns, but not those who believe in self-defense and the Second
Amendment; and defend those who say or print sexually explicit
material, but not those whose speech or writings run counter to today’s
political correctness.

In addition, we have this fairy tale notion that entertainers, sports
figures, and political candidates should be more virtuous than the
population as a whole. We want these “idols” to be paragons of virtue,
but when they aren’t, we explain away their behavior by saying “they are
only human.” What hypocrisy! Today, calling names has become worse than
throwing sticks or stones. Abusive speech is considered as bad if not
worse than abusive actions.

Under the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, the right to freedom
of speech is recognized. Thus, a John Rocker as well as anyone else has
the right to express his opinions and everyone else has the right to
argue and disagree. But when expressing one’s opinion, no matter how
distasteful, leads to punishment in excess of punishment meted out for
unwarranted assaults, something’s wrong. We have to put back some sense
of proportion into society. Calling names should not be punished more
harshly than throwing sticks or stones. Abusive speech is not equivalent
to violent, life-threatening abusive actions.

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