What are we afraid of losing?
When Jose Reyes, or Aroldis Chapman enter the baseball field, or we talk about Joe Paterno or O.J. Simpson’s football legacy, what in our conversation reveals our fear? Digging deep, we’d have to see the ugliness of our response to abuse, and to do that through the spectrum of sports just isn’t any damn fun.
Through the years, when any player has committed violence against their wife or girlfriend, Major League Baseball, and fans, chose to ignore or regard it as a personal matter. With the implementation of the MLB Domestic Violence Policy, clear-cut punishment was established. The policy includes counseling, and reserves judgment independent of what the legal system determines, so it’s nothing to yawn at.
The policy calls on players to do better, to not lose their careers, but what those incidents continuously do is call on us to self-reflect. And not all baseball fans want that to be asked of them, because they just want to watch the game. In any argument with fans or other members of the media who don’t seem to know how to cover domestic violence and assault in baseball, they say all the things we always hear: that the perpetrator made a mistake, that those are personal problems meant to stay private, they say everyone’s doing all they can, and that the man who did these bad things isn’t the man they admire. It’s no different than when we say, “He seemed so nice. He doesn’t seem like the type.”
But that’s make-believe. We don’t develop our feelings about athletes based on what we know about them as people. We become fans because, numbers. Speed. Power. Athletic prowess we don’t have.
What the recent incidents involving Chapman and Reyes, and those from the past show, is that we’re still unable to talk about domestic violence and sexual assault on a human level. We want heroes, because being human is hard. You could see the failure in our society, as sports fans, in response to the explosive unravelling of Penn State, in light of the horrific acts of sexual abuse PS assistant coach Jerry Sandusky committed; all of which revered PS football coach Joe Paterno allegedly knew about. Paterno was regarded as a hero, because he was a legend in football as the longtime head coach of the Nittany Lions. Don’t bother with the bit about him being much more than that, or that he was a guide in many people’s lives, because I and you know many people who’ve provided loving guidance in our lives. He was revered and protected for his football career. The response wasn’t, ‘What about the children?’ It was, ‘What about poor Joe?’ Many are still talking about that statue. Few talk about the victims.
When many talked about football player Ray Rice, they didn’t talk about how Janay Rice’s life was affected by the beating she endured in an elevator at the hands of her husband. Nor did everyone empathize with her in the aftermath. The majority of the discussion was about what would become of Rice. When the Mets re-signed Reyes, fans found it too difficult to discuss anything other than the sweet narrative of Reyes coming home. He’s shown he’s making good effort, but it’s not the end of the story, as teammate David Wright suggested by saying Reyes had done enough to earn a second chance.
The DV policy can’t resolve what we don’t see. If we choose not to recognize our failure in holding athletes on a pedestal, we’re denying they’re human. We’re good at that. When favorite players don’t live up to expectations, fans have no problem calling a player ‘garbage’ or ‘a bust.’ It’s only when the player doesn’t help their team win on the field that they care about an athlete’s humanity. They want them sent back to the minors or traded away. But hit your wife, shoot a gun in her vicinity, and, hey, come on, he throws 100+. Give him a second chance.
You can witness how high the pedestal gets raised in the recent ESPN documentary ‘O.J.[ Simpson]: Made in America’. When the former football star was on trial for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown, even the jurors were explicit in their relation to him as handsome and charismatic. One juror, an older woman, retained her disgust that any woman would stay with a man who beat her. O.J. was somehow more sympathetic than his victim, who was so brutally murdered by Simpson, she was dressed in a turtleneck at her funeral in order to cover her slashed throat. The documentary was about many things, particularly race, especially in Los Angeles, as well as the despicable history of the LAPD, which can arguably be blamed for O.J. riding away into the Las Vegas sunset (at least for a while, until his later incarceration for theft and kidnapping in a hotel, in regard to personal memorabilia). But it was also very much, at its core, about our response to domestic violence, and how society and the justice system fails victims.
We watch athletes run, throw, hit, round the bases with arms outstretched, charge toward the 50 yard line and bounce the ball in victorious exaltation. We root, root, root. Essentially, we fall in love.
The shock-response is very similar to our shame as victims of violence; when the person we love abuses us, we must face the reality that we didn’t know that person as we believed. We ask ourselves how someone we love could do this to us. Why isn’t he/she as great as we’d hoped? Why aren’t they living up to the image they’d portrayed? We can’t be wrong about that. We can’t love something or someone so passionately and now view them as a heartless monster. We do not just turn off our love. And so, we deny. We look away. We preserve the image we initially witnessed. Otherwise, our hearts break. And who the hell wants to feel that?
Ultimately, we’re afraid of losing our best selves to reality. We have faith in people. When we observe athletes, we’re witnessing them doing things we dream, or maybe never dreamed, and we want to emulate them in any way possible. That’s our strength as human beings. But it becomes a weakness as sports fans.
Fans are often unable, or unwilling, to admit athletes aren’t heroes. And when they fail, as humans do, our notion of them as superhuman is destroyed. But talking ourselves out of leaving doesn’t work when we’re abused. And it doesn’t work when we watch sports.
If the DV policy that the NFL and MLB implemented does anything, it calls on athletes to straighten up and fly right, so as not to lose their jobs. But it also calls on us to care more about something that is a cancer in our society. Violence against women and children, violence in any relationship, is the dark dirty thing we can’t stand to look at. It’s just easier to turn on the game and forget those horrors exist.
We can still root, root, root for athletes. But we must also root for the hero who overcomes violence, who stands up for victims, and for themselves, knowing how painful that will be. We can call on ourselves to be better, just as we can expect athletes, male and female, to be great examples. We’re also examples, in our community, in our families, and when we raise our hands to celebrate our favorite athlete. It’s not wrong of us to ask them to stand for something, and to reflect on our own desires and weaknesses when it comes to dealing with intimate violence.
So when you find yourself uncomfortable about a domestic violence PSA during the Super Bowl, or when Aroldis Chapman is asked about shooting a gun off or choking his partner, ask yourself what you’re afraid of.
If we get over it, we can do something truly good in the realm of sports. We can celebrate athletic achievement, but we can also make a societal shift, and see sports as a powerful tool to reach men and women, boys and girls, who connect to sports as if it’s religion and romance.
But, first, you have to end that unhealthy relationship. And that’s not easy.