It takes more than ‘bad apples’ to instill de-humanization

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.

Sayreville, nearby towns and the Raritan River (Photo by Doc Searls)

Sayreville, nearby towns and the Raritan River (Photo by Doc Searls)

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 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.

11 comments on “It takes more than ‘bad apples’ to instill de-humanization

  1. DK Fennell says:

    This is a very important and trenchant observation.

    I wonder if this is mainly a suburban or middle class phenomenon, since most urban (and poor) schools have long since eliminated (or drastically curtailed) sports.

    Suburban schools (based on my own fairly large but still unscientific sampling) on the other hand have defended sports (particularly football) even while drastically slashing academic subjects and arts-related extracurricular activities.

    This latter phenomenon has convinced me that we are a sports-addicted society. We so badly need to worship sports “heroes” that we bilk a generation of education to allow a few to strut about as though playing brutal games constitutes a virtuous life. This skewed priority cannot but help to engender the feelings of entitlement you rightly condemn.

    • I suspect this is a widespread phenomenon across demographics. Steubenville is a rural town with a high poverty rate (according to the U.S. Census) and a declining population, although there is no shortage of suburban and middle-class towns that over-emphasize sports. At the higher-education level, one need only look a few miles west of Sayreville to Rutgers University, New Jersey’s state university, where the administration has decided to cut spending on education and focus on football. What an awful misplacement of priorities.

  2. The message pounded home repeatedly by the corporate media that the woman’s role is to be glamorous and sexually attractive to men repeatedly emphasizes their role as male playthings without rights or identity of their own. So long as the corporate media remains the primary source of information and values for most Americans, young men will persist in seeing women this way.

    • The ubiquity of the corporate media, its endless stream of images and messages, flowing from what appear to be “independent” sources, is what makes it such a powerful conveyer belt.

      But boys are also socialized as youngsters by the men around them and their peers, not only by mass-media images, so we need to tackle the structural issues as well, which of course are intertwined with the pervasive media distortions you rightly raise. Those doing the socializing are consuming the same media as well as replicating the backward ideologies they grew up with.

  3. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Once athletes reach a certain level that is usually evident by college, or in the case of Lebron James by high school, they cross over into the realm of entertainment and are groomed as such. Team sports, at a primal level, tap into our tribalistic tendencies which are manifested in modern day terms as fervent patriotism/nationalism. Professional athletes/entertainers also provide the “circus” utilized by the real elite to keep the masses both entertained and (mis)informed as evidenced by almost any Hollywood blockbuster.

    You have made a convincing argument that dehumanization is not about problematic individuals but must be viewed as a societal problem. The tragedies that occurred in Steubenville and elsewhere cannot be separated from the cultural contexts that they exist within. Admitting to shortcomings and making amends are not among America’s strong suits. In the dehumanizing lottery, it’s only a matter of time before your number is called.

  4. Alcuin says:

    This is one of the most interesting posts that you’ve written recently, SD. I’d like to see you develop the theme further by linking the worship of individuality in America to capitalist culture in general. I see the obsession with “sports” as one of many thousands of ways that the capitalist ethic is expressed in this country. The only person that counts in capitalism is the capitalist and the only person that counts in “sports” is the star. Yes, team “sports” requires coordination and cooperation, but the end goal, of annihilating the opponent, is little different from that of the capitalist, is it not? My short take on the process is that capitalism developed in the 15th century in England and as a result of that process, hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers were forced to migrate to the cities and, when they could not survive there, they were forced to emigrate to America, where the streets were allegedly paved with gold. Of course, that wasn’t true, but the psychic shock of being ripped from a social support network, however meager, and thrown into the wilderness (almost literally) had to have had enormous psychic repercussions. I’d love to see someone explore that aspect of capitalism. Few of the readers here would dispute that America is the most capitalist country in the world (though China may be a close runner-up) so it can’t be a surprise that a thinking person could take just about any aspect of contemporary life and show how it is an expression of capitalist culture. Not that many have done so, of course.

    Capitalism has extremely deep roots in this country – it colors our every waking moment. Going to church on Sunday doesn’t help and in fact, reinforces capitalist culture, as many can attest. Mega-churches, anyone? Capitalism is the nervous system of America and I don’t know if it can be somehow modified before it kills us all. Perhaps an increasing awareness of how every act, on a daily basis, by every American, is an expression of capitalism would help. But it might not – exposing the virus to bright sunlight may not kill it, either. Bleach? What brand? Ah, there I go again, being a capitalist!

    “Sports”, like “education”, “religion” and many other institutions in this country, is a training ground for capitalists. Those who don’t conform to the rules end up on the outside with their noses pressed against the window looking at the luscious candies inside.

    Life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?

    • The maintenance of capitalism would be impossible without a “worship of individuality.” Much propaganda props up that worship, not least of which is the reduction of “democracy” to the choice of more corporate products than ever before, as opposed to having the ability to make decisions on the issues that affect you, your workplace and your community.

  5. Andrea M. says:

    ? Nationalistic Gladiator syndrome ?

    • A widespread malady, alas.

    • Alcuin says:

      The core principle of capitalism is the commodification of things so that they can be sold for profit (which is the surplus value – the difference between the wage paid to the worker and the price the commodity is sold for). Once this commodification has taken place (things are converted from use-value to exchange-value), the worker becomes alienated from his work and, in a lot of respects, alienated from other people because those people are also commodified – they exist to be paid for services, not for who they are or their place in the social order. The entire social fabric is rent asunder. I see “team” sports as having two core purposes: (1) the restoral, on however meager a level, of some kind of a social fabric (the “team”) and (2) the creation of a reason for living, which capitalism has stripped from the individual. That reason is to destroy the enemy, for the profit of the team owners, of course. There is a reason that football and other “team” sports are so wildly popular in the United States, which is the most thoroughly capitalist country in the world, though China is not far behind. Capitalism and sports go hand-in-hand and, as SD states, capitalism would be impossible to maintain without the worship of individuality. “Team” sports, as the term is understood in Western society, do not exist in socialist cultures, because in those societies, individuals exist within a social fabric of reciprocal obligations. To be shunned or placed beyond the pale in such societies is tantamount to death.

      Capitalism is rotten to the core but people don’t realize it because they live within it and to them, as Peter Hudis says, there is no alternative. I highly recommend watching this video. It is 1 hour and 24 minutes long, but Hudis speaks in plain English (no academic jargon) and he makes his case very well. The title of the video is Is There an Alternative to Capitalism and in it, he is talking about his book, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, published in paperback by Haymarket Books in 2013.

      Every ill in contemporary society can be explained by examining how capitalism has ripped apart the social fabric that existed before it appeared on the scene. Capitalism is a human invention and it can be “uninvented” – it is not a reflection, as many believe, of “human nature”.

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