(with apologies to Tyler Stenson).
Matt Bai, the prominent political journalist, has a forthcoming book about the Gary Hart/Donna Rice scandal that, in 1987, torpedoed Hart’s presidential ambitions and, in Bai’s account, changed the nature of American politics. Political coverage and tabloid news converged. According to Bai, we’ve never been the same.
In his Sunday Times magazine excerpt from the book, Bai writes that philandering by politicians was a long-standing practice. Among the more devoted practitioners were LBJ, JFK and FDR (beware of presidents known by three initials!). Before the 1980s, sleeping around was not considered a matter fit for public concern and political journalists who were aware of such peccadilloes kept it to themselves. But for a variety of reasons, Hart was caught flat-footed by a changing norm. His conviction that what he did behind closed doors was not anyone’s business reflected Hart’s belief that the old rules still applied. He had the misfortune of being caught behind the curve.
Michael Oriard’s terrific book, Bowled Over, about the evolution of college football from the 1960s to the BCS era, is chock full of interesting instances of the phenomenon of changing norms and how things looked prior to those changes. To take one of many examples, in 1967 Sports Illustrated interviewed UTEP athletic director George McCarty. UTEP, formerly Texas Western, had made basketball history the previous year by fielding the first all-black starting five to win a NCAA men’s division one basketball championship. So what did the the AD who presided over this landmark in collegiate athletics think of black athletes: according to Oriard, he told Sports Illustrated that “the success of the ‘n—-r athlete’ in college sports” was attributable to the fact that he was “a little hungrier” than the white athlete. And, McCarty continued, at UTEP, “we have been blessed with having some real outstanding ones.”
By the way, while coaching Texas Western’s basketball team in the late 1950s, McCarty recruited the school’s first back player. McCarty, as far as I am aware, continued on as UTEP AD for three years after the SI interview without any clamor for him to lose his job.
By 1987, when the generally very well regarded Al Campanis, then general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, told Nightline’s Ted Koppel that the reason there was an absence of African Americans in Major League front offices was because they lacked the “necessities” for such jobs, norms had changed. Campanis, a baseball lifer who’d befriended Jackie Robinson when the two played together on the 1947 Dodgers, lost his job immediately.
Ten years ago, it took significant political courage to come out in favor of gay marriage. The 2004 Democratic nominee for President, John Kerry, favored civil unions (as did President George W. Bush), but opposed marriage equality. When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, that was, more or less, his position as well, and he continued famously to “evolve” on the issue for several more years after that. In 2004, by a 2-1 margin, Americans opposed gay marriage. Now, a solid majority favor it.
One could, of course, come up with countless other examples. The entirety of the show Mad Men is a testimonial to such dynamics.
The kinds of crap that Richie Incognito and other teammates subjected Jonathan Martin to in 2012 and 2013 were once nothing more than “boys being boys.” Sorry, times change. Ditto the Washington NFL team’s nickname.
The recent explosion in public debate about violence against women and, in recent days, child abuse, were certainly catalyzed by video and graphic photos. As many have pointed out, the evidence suggests that it is not true that NFL players are more prone to these and other violent and criminal behavior than are younger men more generally. Quite the contrary. And in the case of violence against women, it’s only speculation to suggest that the recent attention will result in a reduced incidence of such crimes (there is evidence that rates of intimate partner violence have been dropping in recent years).
Some norms evolve slowly. Others more quickly. The NFL isn’t responsible for the continuing epidemic of violence against women, nor is it responsible for the prevalence of what, in my view, ought to be legally unacceptable abuse of children, regardless of whether their parents think it’s good for them. But that the NFL is being caught flat-footed right now because it has responded too slowly to an ever-altering landscape of social acceptability isn’t something for the league or its defenders to complain about. It comes with the territory of being an especially high profile social space in a rapidly changing world.