Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Observations from the NFL's Parallel Universe

The National Football League is like another universe. It's got a lot of the same features as ours except everything is just a little bit more outrageous. Especially the hypocrisy.

For instance, there's a story out of Boston that's getting some play right now about the Patriots firing an 18-year-old cheerleader. Shouldn't the Patriots' hiring of an adolescent girl as erotic accoutrement be the story?

Hmm. An adolescent cheerleader. In the NFL. What could possibly go wrong?

This is an organization whose employees routinely find themselves in trouble because of strip club visits and dalliances of questionable judgment with the opposite sex. An organization powered by young, virile men in their physical and financial primes. Men who are fueled for most of their lives by testosterone and taught to intensify their more primitive/savage tendencies. Men who are usually too immature and naive to safely navigate the novel waters of celebrity and wealth.

Men who are insanely vulnerable targets to prurient predation.

And we're sending them to work in the same building with a nubile vixen who gets paid to shake her ass? Whoa.

Or how about all the hand-wringing and consternation over the current crop of New Orleans Saints, et alia, who have been shockingly pinched for using steroids or other performance enhancers?

Wait, you mean the human body isn't supposed to be 6'1" and 260 lbs. of pure muscle? No way.

You mean 6'6" men who tip the scale north of 280 don't naturally combine a 4.4 40 with a 60" vert? Are we sure?

Furthermore, didn't Shawne Merriman piss hot a couple years ago, get suspended for four games, and then win Defensive Player of the (same) Year? What exactly is the message we're trying to send here? I know a rule has been passed subsequently that prevents a repeat of this episode, but that it happened in the first place is the condemnation.

Then there is this business of guys like Michael Vick, Pacman Jones, Chris Henry, and (apparently) Larry Johnson.

Think about this. We give them passes or slaps on the wrist repeatedly, even as the offenses escalate, in an effort to teach them respect for the rules and laws of our society. However, in what is surely one of life's greatest mysteries, they fail to grasp that message and eventually do something unforgivable. Something that demands serious punishment.

Something that effectively ends their career. Sometimes their productive lives.

And we toss the book at them. Write 'em off. After all, they've had numerous chances to straighten up and fly right. They took those chances and used them to stray further from the path of righteousness. That's it; you had your chances and now it's over.

But step back from the picture. Who has failed whom?

If we were concerned about the individual's best interests, wouldn't it make far more sense to hit 'em the first time? To punish them appropriately when that punishment doesn't disqualify them from their chosen life's work? Isn't that what we, as a society, usually do?

Instead, we tell them the right message (your actions have serious consequences) while reinforcing the wrong message with our actions (your talent is a get-out-of-jail-free card). Not only that, our actions send them back into a world where the parasitic entourage further undermines our verbal message with words and actions of its own to the contrary.

And we're outraged when they put themselves right back in the crosshairs?

If you let an individual off the hook the first time, there are two possible outcomes: a change in behavior to conformity or a continuation of nonconforming misbehavior.

The same person who will conform when treated leniently will probably conform after appropriate punishment.

The same person who will continue to misbehave after appropriate punishment will probably continue to misbehave after lenience.

However, a person who will continue to misbehave after lenience may conform after appropriate punishment. Therefore, with lenience, we have lost an opportunity to teach that individual a valuable lesson.

Furthermore, we have lost an equally valuable chance to assess his/her psychological constitution. A person who fails to conform after experiencing the adverse consequences of his/her actions probably lacks such constitution required for the public scrutiny that symbiotically lives with a professional athlete.

Failure to conform after punishment tells us something useful whereas such failure after lenience tells us very little, almost nothing.

Of course, what we don't lose (at first) is money.

That initial offense can be ignored with little public fallout. And that means you can keep your revenue-generating superstar on the field. You can squeeze as much money out of him/her while hoping he/she gets the message. If the moment ever comes that announces he/she will never get the message, you can safely cut ties before suffering implication by association.

You can maximize the profits from one individual and then move on to the next when the first forfeits his/her value. And you can even join in the indignant vilification. You can hide behind those previous leniencies as evidence that you really wanted to help. You even tried.

And these are only three examples. There are many more.

I have written that football's parallel universe is a beautiful thing. And that is true.

But my hypocrisy would be equally criminal if I left it at that.

Because beauty is not necessarily perfection. Certainly not in this case.

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