Violence and the culture of star athletes

One week after the final frenzied seconds of what's been called the greatest Super Bowl, the image still lingers: Tennessee Titan receiver Kevin Dyson, straining to stretch the football into the end zone.

But in recent weeks, another image has become almost as indelible in the minds of sports fans: the picture of a football player in handcuffs.

In the past month, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens and Rae Carruth of the Carolina Panthers have been charged with separate murders. The arrests follow nearly a dozen high-profile arrests of pro players on charges ranging from assault to sexual battery. But the allegations against Lewis and Carruth - no active National Football League player has previously been charged with murder - have prompted the sports world to look more closely at the trend toward extreme violence among athletes.

While the NFL argues that the problem is overstated, some say the spate of recent arrests stems from a long-entrenched leniency toward sports stars in America. The attitude begins early, allowing high school and college players to escape responsibility for violent behavior such as thuggery and roughing up women. Some sociologists say the feeling of invincibility that comes with multimillion-dollar NFL contracts doesn't help to check bad behavior - and that the trend toward serious violence reflects a shortcoming within professional football, if not society at large.

"This long string of high profile arrests within the NFL ... is bringing much-needed attention to a phenomenon that has existed for years and is getting worse," says Richard Lapchik, director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "Whether it is a matter of perception or reality, the increased focus on a real problem will hopefully increase the likelihood that existing programs to help will be expanded."

Sorting out perception versus reality, however, is a complicated process. For its part, the NFL stands behind its record on crime.

"We have fewer incidents involving NFL players than society at large has," says Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "Any number of studies have shown that."

Beyond that, he claims that new programs were begun in 1997 to use counseling, fines, and threat of suspension to deter players from violent crime. New penalties for alcohol abuse, as well as leaguewide counseling, anger-prevention programs, and treatment have helped lower crime statistics among players, he says.

By the NFL's count, 38 players were arrested in 1997 for violent crime. That number dropped to 35 in 1998 and 26 in 1999. Convictions are down even further, they say. In 1997, there were 23 convictions (or accepted plea bargains) for violent crime. That dropped to 14 in 1998 and five in 1999.

"We feel the numbers are getting better and better," says Carl Francis, spokesman for the NFL Players Association. Noting that the league has increased the number of symposiums for players on lifestyle and emotional counseling, he says: "What else can we do?"

Moreover, he says, players also do a lot of good in their communities, including public-service announcements and charity work.

But many others - inside the league and out - say the NFL hasn't done enough, levying only modest fines of several thousand dollars for those who make millions. Many season-long suspensions, they add, have been for those who were already injured.

They cite two recent examples. Orlando Brown, a Cleveland Browns player who knocked a referee down, was suspended for the season. But he had an eye injury that would have sidelined him anyway. Cecil Collins, a Miam Dolphin rookie who was arrested in connection with a break-in at a neighbor's apartment, was suspended for the season although he already couldn't play because of a leg injury.

"These kinds of suspensions for players who are already incapacitated only increases public cynicism about the NFL's willingness to police its own with seriousness," says William Akin, a sports psychologist at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.

Another key reason for public cynicism is doubt about the NFL's criminal statistics.

In "Pros and Cons: The Criminals who play in the NFL," authors Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger found that 1 in 5 of the 500 players they surveyed for the 1996-97 season had been charged with a serious crime such as rape, weapons violations, driving under the influence of alcohol, or drug-related offenses.

"NFL teams are recruiting a new breed of criminal players, the likes of which should disturb all NFL fans," say the authors. "Gone are the good old days of NFL recruits having rap sheets detailing merely drunken brawls and vandalism. In are the days of lethal violence, rape, armed robbery home invasion, kidnapping, and drug dealing."

While most sports psychologists say the real statistics probably lie somewhere between the two claims, they say the current situation provides ample reason to look at the underlying reasons for violence off the field. And they say that professional sports should be striving not to equal the record of the public, but to exceed it and set an example.

"I don't know why people are surprised when they hear of arrests like these," says Drew Hyland, author of a book on the philosophy of sport. "[The players] grow up amidst a background of violence in society, in a sports milieu of structured mayhem in which they are coddled from junior high school to college. Then we put them in the most competitive arena imaginable under all kinds of pressure."

Mr. Hyland and several others insist that it would be highly unjustified to conclude from recent events that athletics, football, or the NFL breed criminal behavior.

"Sports, like life, friendship, and love, can teach lessons which are both good and bad, it's a two-edged sword," Hyland says. "The issue for Americans is: Why do we coddle athletes, and why is our society so violent?"

But most feel the current situation may open the door to more formal efforts to rein in such behavior.

The Center for the Study of Sports in Society has achieved notable results in gender-violence programs it has introduced to football players on 65 university campuses. Mr. Lapchik says one NFL team has been receptive to similar programs, and others may follow. Also, groups such as the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes have been formed in the wake of recent incidents.

"The answer to this is societywide," says Lapchik. "The fact that particular athletes are arrested for horrible crimes should not make the public think that all athletes or NFL football players are the same. But [the public] should realize that in the changing climate of society, these teams and leagues need to build in programs that will help athletes manage their anger and resolve conflict, and to better handle their celebrity, money, and status."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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