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We’re all to blame when American football stars turn violent off the field

Celebrating violence on, and condoning it off the field. Keith Allison, CC BY-SA

As yet another NFL player stands accused of domestic violence, it is beginning to look as though the sport is riddled with wife-beaters and child-abusers.

By apparently sweeping such behaviour under the rug and not engaging in thorough investigations as they have claimed to do, NFL officials are, in effect, complicit in that violence and abuse. This is the Penn State scandal all over again on a larger scale.

But it’s not just the NFL or the players who are to blame. These acts of violence reflect a national system that allows young men to grow up without checks on their behaviour.

The Penn State case, which saw college football coach Jerry Sandusky jailed for a minimum of 30 years for abusing boys, caused an eruption of public outrage. The public backlash from the domestic violence cases that have emerged in recent weeks is even more pervasive. It reflects the fact that these were not localised examples of moral corruption.

They have happened across the US: in Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, California, and now Arizona, as part of a beloved national institution. The perpetrators are people who are supposed to represent what is best about us and our cities.

The revelation that the men we celebrate as heroes for their athletic accomplishments engage in violent acts away from the field makes many of us queasy. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Jonathan Dwyer are supposed to be role models for our children. They entertain us and make us happy and proud. They are emblematic of what we hold to be most dear in our lives. They embody what it is to be an American. This scandal reveals the hideous, stomach-churning underbelly of the enthralling spectacle we so cherish. But really, should we expect anything more from them?

Football players who behave violently off the field are exhibiting behaviour they have learned since childhood. I am not saying that they come from violent homes. That would not be an excuse and it would be too easy and too simplistic an explanation.

These young men learn that violence is acceptable behaviour from a young age by playing football. They learned that their athletic violence was laudable, admirable and cherished. As teenagers, their violence on the field of play raises their social standing in their school and community to the point that when some commit violent acts away from the field of play – acts that would otherwise be socially unacceptable, if not outright illegal – those actions are blithely ignored or made to go away.

Because they are “star athletes”, these players are special and cannot be held to the same standards as the rest of us. Their ability to be violent was a vital aspect of what made them who they are as a person and they are celebrated for being that kind of man. It is how they are taught to relate to one another. It is what we, as Americans, want them to be.

The exposure of these reprehensible acts certainly evokes disgust and revulsion. Yet it is not the acts of domestic violence and child abuse themselves, as ugly as they are, that has generated the public outcry. All too sadly these kinds of violence go unremarked upon every day.

What generates even greater revulsion is the apparent disregard and utter moral failure of football authorities to uphold the law and moral codes of society. But again, how could we expect otherwise? The pattern of NFL officials to casually dismiss socially repugnant behaviour and even illegal acts is merely a continuation of what is done for football players as soon as they show talent. Institutional authorities, from high schools to universities, tacitly condone their behaviour as long as they are successful on the field.

Child abuse and domestic violence are unspeakable, reprehensible acts that have no forgiveness in the American moral value system. They are acts that victimise the weak and the vulnerable. They are, in short, un-American.

We can indignantly chastise those who enable such acts but ultimately, we have to look hard at ourselves in the mirror before we do. We have to come to grips with what we are now being shown. It has always been there. We just chose to ignore it.

What really makes us feel sick is the moral contradiction: the men who perform the acts we celebrate under the bright lights of a football stadium are the same men who perform other acts that we would denigrate and punish away from the spotlight. The thought that we are all complicit fuels our revulsion and consequently our denial.

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