If we want to understand why so many professional athletes engage in sexually predatory behavior, or, at minimum, act so entitled, we can’t do so without taking a look at the cultures surrounding high school athletics.
The path to athletic entitlement passes through many Sayrevilles and Steubenvilles. There is not necessarily anything unique about Sayreville, New Jersey, or Steubenville, Ohio, nor their high school football teams, however much they serve as examples. The Steubenville case, in which two football players were found guilty of the rape of a girl who was not only raped while unconscious but dragged naked from party to party as a trophy, surely exemplifies towering senses of privilege.
Incredibly — or maybe not so surprising in light of the town rallying around its football team rather than the rape victim — one of those players is back on the Steubenville football team this fall. A convicted sex offender, who must register with the authorities for the next 20 years, is allowed back on the field. So much for athletics as a “privilege.” Worse, the Anonymous activist who drew attention to the rapes and the local culture of impunity is facing several times more jail time than the convicted rapists.
It remains to be seen what will happen to the seven players (so far) on the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team charged with sexual assault, hazing and other counts. This case is distinguished by the players allegedly assaulting younger teammates. Here again, nearly as shocking at the inhumanity of such cruel hazing, is that many people in Sayreville chose to rally around the football team, demanding a reversal of the decision to cancel the remainder of the season rather than justice for the assault victims.
No different were the reactions of many Pennsylvania State University students, when the years-long sexual assaults of young boys by an assistant football coach, and the indifference to it by head coach Joe Paterno and the Penn State administration, were finally uncovered. Rather then react with anger at a monstrous breach of trust, some students staged a riot because Paterno was fired and, more broadly, the Penn State community complained that the penalty on the program was too harsh. Forgotten were the victims of the predatory assistant coach, who was enabled by too many who saw football as more important than the educational mission of the university.
These are not isolated cases outside ordinary parameters of behavior, but rather lie on a continuum. Rather than single out these towns, the questions to ask are these: Why has athletics been elevated far above its actual level of importance? What does the acceptance of this brutality say about the United States as a society?
A national pattern, not a handful of ‘bad apples’
It’s not as if hazing or bullying are something rare. Approximately 28 percent of children in grades six through twelve experience bullying, according to Nobullying.com. That has consequences: A 2011 Harvard School of Public Health study found that male bullies are four times more likely to grow up to physically abuse their female partners. Alfred University researchers believe as many as 250,000 members of sports teams in the U.S. have been subject to hazing, including 68,000 subject to what it terms “unacceptable initiation activities.”
The sports section of a typical newspaper features ample coverage of local high school football teams, and coverage, even if less in depth, of other high school teams. Why does this country care so deeply that someone can run with a ball and knock others over while doing so? The student who excels in math and is headed to a medical career in which she might make a discovery that cures a disease, or the student who is a natural in physics and will become a scientist, are not only unknown but perhaps even a target of abuse while adolescents.
For all the famous universities within its borders, the United States is an anti-intellectual society and if you doubt that, ask yourself how George W. Bush became president.
How many United Statesians can name more prominent scientists than prominent athletes? Millions, I would guess, but the U.S. is a country of hundreds of millions.
It is a country obsessed with being “Number One.” Fans need their football team to be “Number One” by dominating opponents and allowing nothing to stand in the way. The country needs to be “Number One” by dominating other countries. The football team of course doesn’t have to turn brutality on its more vulnerable members; it doesn’t even have to be brutal toward an opponent on the field, merely more skilled. But violence is inherent in the sport. Violence is inherent in dominating other countries.
A seamless transition from one to the other? No. Football in itself doesn’t make a young person violent or cruel. It’s only a game. But when a young man is treated as a star because he is successful on the field, and begins to receive special treatment and allowed to skirt rules that apply to others, it is no surprise that strong senses of privilege arise. That privileged young man is continually bombarded by social and mass-media messages that reinforce individualism, glorify violence, impose inequality between men and women, and present macho behavior as the standard to emulate.
If seen as objects, some will treat as objects
When women are so frequently depicted as objects for the pleasure of men, can it be a surprise that some adolescents, the Steubenville rapists being but one example, literally treat young women as objects to do with as they please? And when the messages they receive are that they can do whatever they want because they lead the football team to victory — when the coaches, school administration and the surrounding community all signal that — then we have something beyond simply young men out of control.
That the Sayreville hazing — more accurately, if the accusations are proved true, sexual assaults — was directed against boys and not girls changes nothing. What else could such outrages be other than an attempt to sexually humiliate the targets? Bullying, hazing and sexual assault are all too often dismissed as “boys will be boys.” Behavior in the Sayreville locker room that likely started as moderate forms of hazing unchecked morphed into sexual assaults, and this escalation had to have built over years.
Reading through readers’ comments underneath the stories New Jersey’s state newspaper, The Star-Ledger, has been running online, I couldn’t help notice that even those who believe the allegations and endorse the suspension for the year of the football team mostly defend the head coach’s character and claim he could not have known.
I do not know if the coach knew. I do find it hard to believe he didn’t, but if he really didn’t, it was because he didn’t want to know. He should have known. But, despite these displays of public support for the cancelation of the football season, the concomitant support of the coach demonstrates a lack of seriousness in confronting what has happened.
Only a few can win when the economy is a lottery
Athletics is also inseparable from the “lottery economy” that the U.S. has increasingly adopted. Millions of dollars potentially await someone who makes it to the top, but the odds are little better than a lottery — few will cash in as a tiny percentage of high school athletes will play in college and a minuscule percentage of college athletes will become professionals. Far more enter this lottery with delusions of winning than are realistic.
It is little different for the economy at large. Astounding riches are showered upon a handful of entrepreneurs who had lots of luck on their side. The overwhelming majority will earn little or nothing from their ideas. (Of 1.5 million patents in force in the U.S., only 3,000 are commercially viable, according to a U.S. patent office spokesman.)
Bill Gates is frequently listed as the richest person on Earth. Why? His company is incapable of delivering a good product; its high profits are the fruits of an accidental monopoly. IBM was dominant in computer hardware and when it introduced a personal computer, it handed Microsoft a license to supply the operating software, which Microsoft originally bought from another company. Once clones of the IBM computer were introduced, Microsoft was in the best position to provide their operating software. A monopoly was born, and that monopoly was leveraged to force widespread adoption of other Microsoft products.
Movie stars, singers and athletes rake in millions, tens of millions, of dollars. They give us want we want, it is all too easy to say. Perhaps, but is the value of the entertainment provided truly worth hundreds or thousands of times more than a scientist whose work makes the world a little better or the teacher who educates the citizens of tomorrow or everybody who wakes up and goes to a boring job so they can keep a roof over their family’s heads?
And it’s not necessarily the inventor who cashes in. We’d have to conduct research to find the people who invented the Internet. They are not likely wealthy. Yet a handful of people who were in the right place at the right moment, handed an accidental monopoly, are worth billions and, in the case of Bill Gates, believes that gives him the right to impose a privatization agenda on education and impose a top-down corporate model on health care that ignores root causes. In a world that values expertise instead of money, would an engineer who foists mediocre products on the world be taken seriously when straying into fields in which he knows little?
That is but one side of celebrity culture, the same money-driven culture that glorifies football players and allows some of them to believe they can use and discard other human beings, dominate them, as they wish. Impose serious and appropriate punishment on those who deserve it, certainly. But those athletes who run amok are not simply “bad apples,” they are a product of a society becoming more savage, more unforgiving, more unequal as we are pitted against one another and told we must rip out each other’s throats to survive.
It can be a short road to de-humanizing others, whether the people in a far-off country, or minorities and women at home. In a dog-eat-dog world, most dogs will be eaten, no matter how much macho strutting is indulged.