Crime and Punishment: Do We Hold Athletes Responsible?

With Derrick Rose rape allegations arising this summer, we are once again facing a possibility of seeing an athlete go through the criminal process. What’s more important is that we are now also facing the guessing game of whether or not the punishment will fit the crime.

When the Derrick Rose news broke out, I caught myself in a conversation with a friend talking about the implications this had for both the Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose. We also discussed how the League may handle this. During this conversation, my friend said an interesting phrase: “I don’t think he’ll get off easy with this. He’s not Kobe.”

What he was referring to, of course, was the Kobe Bryant incident from years back. A famous athlete, facing rape charges. In that case, the trial fell apart as the main witness (and accuser) backed out of her testimony. Yet, it has painted Kobe in a particular light to people. Had the case actually gone to Trial, would Kobe be convicted? Where would he end up? Would it forever bar him from playing basketball?

There are other cases, both more recent and more violent. Ray Lewis has faced allegations of being tied to manslaughter for years and went on to cultivate a very successful NFL career.

OJ Simpson has never been actually convicted in his case. The list of athletes committing crimes and getting away with it goes on. Lawrence Taylor (statutory rape), Pacman Jones (assault and felony), Michael Irving (felony cocaine possession) among the few who did not face any charges or punishment. If it seems like I’m picking on the NFL here it’s because partially I am. If you go to the USA Today website you can eventually find a document that shows there were at least 713 incidents since 2000.

And even when we do get around to judging athletes within our justice system, the punishment does not often fit the crime. Ray Rice almost got away with assault on his girlfriend, protected both by the league and the team until the video surfaced. Oscar Pistorius got cleared of all of the premeditated murder and murder charges. Which means his punishment will be less. Donte Stallworth served only 30 days (30 DAYS!) after a fatal hit and run that was caused by him driving under the influence. By comparison, Mike Vick did 548 for his role in running a dog-fighting ring.

Vick is an important example here because he went through the rehabilitation system. He went into jail and came out, at least we are led to believe, a changed man. So far, there has been no concrete evidence to contradict that statement. What’s important is that through being put through the criminal justice system, Vick was both given the opportunity to change himself and has taken it upon himself to do so. What’s worrisome however is that we did not punish (or in some cases even judge) those convicted of harsher crimes.

Athletes continue to face reduced charges, preferential treatment or a combination of the two. Part of it is of course the money. They are able to afford better lawyers and better defense teams than us. Second, is the involvement of the respective leagues or organizations. The NFL has consistently demonstrated its unwillingness to stand with the law, the due process and the public. As the Ray Rice incident has demonstrated, sports leagues are more interested in protecting it’s dynamic stars (and role players).

The third part is us and our willingness to support people based solely on athletic merit. With all of the vitriol that Vick faced post his case, Ray Lewis still has fans all across the league. In 2013, his jersey sales lead the league. Does anyone even go back to the Kobe trial? We have consistently demonstrated that our outrage is short lived and will continuously be outlasted by our passion for sports?

Why? Perhaps for the same reason that these athletes get paid more than doctors, teachers, scientists and other important individuals making a difference. We pay them to entertain and we put them on the pedestal based mostly on athletic qualities. We communicate to them that these are the qualities that matter to us and everything else is just a by-product. “It’s not important,” we say, “you won’t be judged by it.”

But at some point that will have to change. We have to realize that we know nothing about these people outside of their athletic ability. Remember when the Baltimore organization stood behind Rice and spoke of him as a “nice guy” all the way up until the video release. And we need to stop making these assumptions for the same of both justice and social structure.

At the end of the day, if we go on the way we currently do, this will become systemic. The past history of sports and serious convictions is spotty. We are creating a system where people see themselves as above the law. A system where “rich athletes don’t go to prison for homicide – unless you kill a dog.”

But why? Is it because we view them as role models and want to protect that image? Because that has to change too. These are not moral role models. They are not intellectual ones at least. Yes, these athletes are testament to hard work, athletic ability not any other quality. We need to learn to separate the two and start thinking that because someone is really smart or good with the puck on ice they are also an exemplary human being. Especially when we raised these kids believing that they will never be judged on that particular merit.

We need to start judging them as any other member of society, based on ALL criteria without distorting it to favor one in particular. And that includes following the same due process as we would with anyone else. A fair trial and a punishment that fits the crime. Even then, we cannot guarantee the results (as evidence in other trials shows), but we need to at least get started with the process. Or then stop acting shocked when another athlete does something that is above the law.

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