In the Dead of Night

Yesterday morning, at about 12:52 Central time, 1:52 Eastern time, the Minnesota Vikings issued a press release explaining their decision to place Adrian Peterson on the Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission List. This rarely used remedy amounts to an indefinite suspension with pay for Peterson. In announcing the decision, the Vikings did what, it seems, all big business entities due in such circumstances: tout the organization’s own bona fides.

Here’s part of what the Vikings said in their statement:

“We are always focused on trying to make the right decision as an organization. We embrace our role – and the responsibilities that go with it – as a leader in the community, as a business partner and as an organization that can build bridges with our fans and positively impact this great region. We appreciate and value the input we have received from our fans, our partners and the community.

The statement continued:

“While we were trying to make a balanced decision yesterday, after further reflection we have concluded that this resolution is best for the Vikings and for Adrian. We want to be clear: we have a strong stance regarding the protection and welfare of children, and we want to be sure we get this right.

The entire statement set Mike Greenberg off, but these two portions in particular sent him into an unusual rage. He rightly mocked the idea that the Vikings have been leaders of any kind on this matter. It’s transparently true that the franchise is responding to a rapidly changing social and political landscape (the state’s governor called the Vikings out on their decision Monday to reinstate Peterson). They’ve displayed no leadership, only a predictable and craven attempt to have their cake (they obviously wanted Peterson to play) and eat it it too (by touting the deliberative “process” by which they tried to make this decision, when their hand was obviously forced).

Greenberg also sneeringly noted that it’s ridiculous for the Vikes to assert that they take a strong stance on the “protection and welfare of children.” What other kind of stance, after all, is there to take on that score? That they don’t really give a shit about the protection and welfare of children?

The Carolina Panthers, who decided yesterday to place Greg Hardy on the same exemption list, similarly tied themselves in knots trying to explain how their obvious craven handling of Hardy was somehow a reflection of their oh-so-laudable “values” as an organization.

In both cases and, indeed, whenever large profit-making entities try to talk about their “values,” it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes. When it comes to NFL franchises, to take the present example, the only “value” that matters to any of them is their bottom line. That’s such a banality, that it seems almost silly to say it out loud. But the Vikings need to tout their probity and good intent is a good reminder of how shameless these organizations are. Vikes’ owner Ziggy Wilf was convicted of racketeering last year for bilking business partners out of millions of dollars. He also spent millions lobbying state lawmakers, who rewarded his largesse with a boondoggle stadium deal that will provide hundreds of millions in subsidies to the billionaire Wilf. This at a time when Minnesota, like other states, has faced substantial budgetary pressure to cut programs to aid poor families. Which raises the question: How are those subsidies going to end up adversely affecting the welfare of children in Wilf’s cherished community?

Cheap shot? Maybe. But certainly not as cheap as the Vikings organization’s pathetic attempt to portray itself as a paragon of virtue at a moment when its actions are particularly worthy of contempt.

 

No debate

What’s been most interesting about the discussion over Adrian Peterson’s indictment on charges of child abuse is how many people have acknowledged having been subject to similar treatment when they were children.

On that score, the best commentary I’ve heard so far came from Scott Ferrall, the CBS radio sports talk guy best known for his very scratchy sounding voice. Ferrall, who is 48 years old, said last night that he was regularly beaten as a child. Ferrall dripped with contempt for anyone who claimed being beaten with a switch, or a paddle or name-your-implement was a reasonable form of discipline. Ferrall said it did not make him a better person. It didn’t teach him any important life lessons. It made him hateful, angry, defiant, hateful toward his parents, more likely to be violent himself.

The data on harsh physical punishment, it should be noted, strongly support Ferrall’s own experience. And there’s a good reason for that. When people beat their children, they do it because they are not capable of controlling their own impulses. There’s no larger lesson being conveyed, no clear-sighted vision for how best to raise children. Only uncontrolled, flailing anger, misdirected in the worst possible way.

At this point, I don’t really care what the NFL does. The outcome of the recent domestic violence charges/convictions against several NFL players and, of course, the indictment against Adrian Peterson reveal one thing above all others, when it comes to the NFL’s personal conduct policy: It’s a mess. It needs to be reconceived from the ground up. I’ve said before that when the NFL suspended Rice for two games, I think they genuinely thought they were taking an admirable stand on domestic violence. It was the most significant penalty they’d handed down for such a charge and, given that they were operating in a gray area of the league’s off-field disciplinary approach, they no doubt thought they were making a principled stand.

The blowback showed how far behind public opinion they’d fallen on the subject of violence against women and all the subsequent dissembling by the Commissioner is a by product of that. The conduct policy itself is predicated on a set of assumptions about what constitutes generally acceptable social behavior and about the “optics” of players transgressing those norms. Since what constitutes generally acceptable social behavior evolves over time, any policy predicated on policing those risks getting caught short. The NFL is in a particularly problematic part of the curve right now – on several fronts, the violence in and around the league is increasingly upsetting to much of the public. For a league built on violence, this is going to be a tough one to get out front of.

League of Non-Denial Denial

On Friday, it was widely reported that the NFL had submitted actuarial data for the proposed head injury settlement between thousands of retired players and the league. Those data were startling. From the New York Times:

The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

According to the Times, the NFL estimated that former players younger than 50 were eight times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia than the general population, with the gap between former players and non-players increasing with age. The League tried to pooh-pooh this data by arguing that it was over-estimating the incidence of brain-related illness in order to ensure full funding of the settlement money.

But it makes absolutely no sense for the league to provide estimates that it believes have no basis in reality. In other words, there is every reason to believe that the numbers it provided are a reasonable approximation of reality. Even if the league took its best guess and doubled it, that best guess for brain trauma would still be dramatically higher than the general population. And there’s always the possibility that the league is, in fact, providing a low-ball estimate.

This is a horrifying report.

 

Weekend updates

A few items of interest:

1) Nate Silver makes a quick and dirty assessment of Roger Goodell’s value to NFL owners. He points out that NFL franchise values have risen tremendously in the past quarter of a century; the average pro football team is now worth $1.4 billion and, cumulatively, NFL teams are worth almost twice as much as MLB franchises are. But in relative terms, much of that growth occurred before Goodell became commissioner in 2006. In fact, since 2006, the franchise values of the NHL, NBA and MLB have grown much faster in relative terms than has been true of the NFL.

There’s no argument here about how lucrative the NFL is. But whether Goodell is critical to the leagues continued economic success is another story. Silver’s analysis is, as he notes, just one way of evaluating Goodell’s value added.

2) in keeping with an occasional hobbyhorse of mine, I direct your attention to Craig Calcaterra’s long meditation on why baseball is, in fact, thriving. One point that Calcaterra makes is that it’s misleading to cite television ratings as a sign of baseball’s decline. It is true, of course, that viewership for baseball’s signature events has been eroding for some time. But Calcaterra reminds us that television ratings per show are down in general. The top-rated non football show last year, for example, The Big Bang Theory, drew a much smaller audience than All in the Family did when it was the top-rated show in the early 1970s. But no one looks at this as a sign of decline for the Big Bang Theory. Television has changed and football’s undeniable grip on ratings hegemony notwithstanding, baseball’s reduced national television audience means far less than many pundits presume.

3) In the wake of the all of the swirling controversy this week about Ray Rice’s assault and the NFL’s response to it, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig was asked about his sport’s approach to the problem. In his typical simultaneously obtuse and self-congratulatory, Selig said he couldn’t remember the last time baseball had had to deal with such an issue and that he was proud of how baseball “effectively” tackled the challenges it faced.

Selig’s memory on this score should not be mistaken for a presumption that baseball players have never been accused or found guilty of violence against women. Indeed there have been some awful cases in recent years. Bud just can’t remember.

The scope of the problem (Updates below)

Charlotte_Bunch

(Charlotte Bunch)

As more and more scrutiny accrues to Roger Goodell in what may be his undoing as NFL commissioner, what’s taking something of a backseat is the scope of the problem of intimate partner violence in particular and of sexual violence more generally. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) compiles a survey based on over 14,000 interviews in an attempt to create a statistical profile of these forms of violence. The survey shows that while women are not the exclusive victims of such violence, they are the preponderant ones and that a very large number suffer from these crimes.

Some data from the CDC survey, courtesy of the Boston Globe:

1) One in six women has been stalked.

2) One in five women has been raped at some point in her life (about one in fifty men have reported being sexually assaulted).

3) One in four women has been “severely physically assaulted” by a partner.

Collecting reliable data on sexual violence is notoriously challenging. Most advocates and experts dealing with these issues believe the existing data *understate* the extent of the problem. To the extent that Ray Rice’s attack on Janay Palmer Rice is bringing attention to the scourge of partner abuse and, in particular, the common experience of women who must live with the fear and actuality of violence in their lives, that’s a good thing.  But regardless of the numbers, the deeper challenge to confronting domestic violence is removing the idea that what happens behind closed doors is no one else’s business. The ultimately very public way in which Rice attacked Palmer Rice – with security cameras trained on him – distracts attention from the particularly vexing difficulty of transforming what often continues to be deemed a private matter into a public concern. After all, had Rice committed the same offense in their home, the fallout from this case would undoubtedly be very different, though the consequences for the victim would be every bit as detrimental.

Thirty years ago, the scholar Charlotte Bunch wrote a foundational article on the extent of abuse of women’s rights and highlighted what was, at the time, the human rights community, neglect of those abuses:

“Significant numbers of the world’s population are routinely subject to torture, starvation, terrorism, humiliation, mutilation and even murder simply because they are female. Crimes such as these against any other group would be considered a civil and political emergency as well as a gross violation of the victims’ humanity.”

Some time in the coming weeks and months, the furor over Ray Rice’s transgressions and Commissioner Goodell’s handling of the case will fade. If the pro sports leagues use this episode as an opportunity (even if a self-serving one) to adopt much harsher penalties for their denizens who are guilty of such crimes, that will be all fine and good.

But what will remain is a “civil emergency.”

Updates: Sara Bernard has an extraordinary article in the Atlantic, “Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness,” about the prevalence of sexual violence in much of that state and the obstacles to combating it. It’s a sobering piece.

Speaking of sobering, my buddy Danny sent me this graphic comparing the number of women killed by their husbands or boyfriends, between September 2001 and late 2012, on the one hand, with the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, as well as the death toll from the 9/11 terror attacks, on the other.

Later update: Katie Nolan, of Fox Sports 1, has an excellent commentary about the (limited) role of women in sports discourse. She says that women in sports media are generally allowed to “read headlines, patrol sidelines, and generally facilitate conversations between their male colleagues.” Not having “played the game” is deemed presumptively to disqualify women from discussing the weighty matters of play on the field. But nothing bars the likes of Keith Olbermann, Mike Francesa, Stephen A. Smith and Dan Patrick from opining about anything they choose, including profound matters such as racism, corruption and sexual violence, all while the women on set, if they appear at all, are supposed to “just smile and throw to commercial.”

Yes, there are some exceptions, like Jemele Hill. But the general division of labor Nolan describes is not debatable. Nolan concludes, “the truth is, the NFL will never respect women and their opinions, if the media it answers to doesn’t.”

Well, well, well (Updates below)

rogergodell

With the caveat that the AP report about the video is just one report and the story remains incomplete, it’s worth remembering a basic fact of life that media in general and sports media in particular have a hard time appreciating:

PEOPLE IN POWER LIE.

Part of the problem with a media universe in which insider access is so privileged is that the people charged with holding those in power accountable are themselves compromised. The reasons why this is so perilous a situation in the realm of politics are, I trust, obvious enough.

In the sports world, where the stakes are not as high, we give less thought to the fact that most in sports media are wearing multiple hats – as commentators, insiders, super “fans,” and, when it suits them, “journalists.” These multiple statuses have made some people in this ecosystem very rich and very famous. But if you’re cultivating friendships – and crowing about it – with the people you are covering, you are going to develop massive blindspots, even if you’re well-meaning and want to take your professional responsibilities seriously.

So when you’re friends with Roger Goodell, you might criticize his actions from time to time, but you’re going to have a harder time facing some simple truths about people in power, namely that, sometimes, they abuse their authority. Willfully.

It’s unnerving to live in a world in which those with power might actually look us in the eye, and with all the apparent conviction in the world, flat out lie. So we invest a lot of psychic energy, especially when we have some personal connection to those elites, believing them to be well-intentioned individuals who can be taken at their word.  After all, you wouldn’t expect your friends to bullshit you to your face.

But lie they do, at least some times, and almost certainly more frequently than the typical rube (namely, most of us) wants to believe. When it does happen, it should be less shocking than it is.

The old saw that power corrupts is a useful reminder even outside the realm of politics. Lord Acton’s claim that “Great men are almost always bad men” might be a bit overstated. But you could do worse as a starting point for trying to gain insight into the (mainly) men who sit atop powerful institutions.

Updates: In case anyone thinks I was speaking too abstractly, or tearing down straw men, Steve Levy just said to Chris Mortensen: “it’s hard to believe that Roger Goodell would stare into a camera and lie, isn’t it?” Mort responded by saying that, at this point, he needed to await further information to pass judgment, but that yes, certainly for those who know him and are friends with him, it’s hard to believe.

And this, from Cowherd this morning: “As I get older, increasingly I don’t trust power.” Among those institutions that Cowherd lists that have abused their power: “Wall Street. Check. The American church (sic). Check. Government, Check. Dictators. Corporate America.” And so on. They have all, Cowherd says, failed Lincoln’s test of character: giving men power.

“The NFL was starting to control all of the television networks and too much of our collective souls.”

About the newly announced investigation, former linebacker Jonathan Vilma has it right:

 

Atlanta Agonistes

I will try to elaborate on some of this later, but I wanted to mention the email that has led Bruce Levenson to decide to sell his share of the Atlanta Hawks.

The email and reactions to it illustrate some of the fundamental problems we have as a society (I hate that phrase, but…) talking about race. No, the email is not in the same category as Sterling’s bizarre and addled rant earlier this year. Or like the overtly racist comments that Danny Ferry passed along in evaluating Luol Deng.

Neither are Levenson’s comments *only* reflective of a businessman trying to “do his job,” as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jason Whitlock argued (the opening discussion in Whitlock’s piece, about how he tried to cultivate a multi-racial audience for his radio show in Kansas City is interesting and worth reading). Levenson’s email is all over the place. At times he is obviously frustrated with the assumptions he assumes southern whites are making about Blacks and how those assumptions – “racist garbage,” he calls it – are affecting attendance.

At other times, Levenson himself seems to be articulating his own assumptions about how the “blackness” of Hawks games, from the the dancers to the kiss cam, might be bad for business.  When he trumpets the fact that the audience at games has declined from 70% to 40% African American, there is no effort to analyze how that does or doesn’t affect the bottom line. It’s seems to be a given that it’s a step in the positive direction. The claim about the lack of fathers and sons also betrays certain biases.

Our discussions of race tend to be black and white. Either you’re a “racist,” or you’re being unfairly smeared as one. This binary is unproductive, obscures the deeper harms that racism inflicts and prevents us from achieving real insight about the role of race in American life. The Sterling episode was, in that regard, something of an unfortunate distraction.

Levenson’s email was, in part, an (unintended) lament about the lack of economic power of African Americans, and why that fact was bad for the business that is the Atlanta Hawks, given the city’s demographics. It also reflected the thinking of a guy who sees African Americans as constituting, in part (and I repeat, “in part”) a kind of alien culture in our midst. And that, too, Levenson suggested, was bad for business. There is no way to fully disentangle the intersection between American capitalism and race. Levenson’s trying to do so, clumsily. That doesn’t make him a villain, and his perspective, in its many dimensions is, one can assume, widely shared among sports owners.

Whether or not that makes Levenson a “racist” is less important than what it means for African Americans living in the United States.