In Sports, In Politics, In Life–Does Character Even Matter Anymore?

Image courtesy of Celestine Chua

Image courtesy of Celestine Chua

These past few weeks the stories making headlines have been troubling, to say the least. Domestic abuse, child abuse, messy divorces…these are heavy, heartbreaking issues. It’s not surprising that they draw our attention. What is surprising is that in many instances, the events are not only met with outrage, but with justifications, excuses, and even acceptance. Has lack of basic moral decency really become “no big deal”? Have we become so jaded that we don’t care anymore?

The NFL has had its hands full of late, dealing with multiple allegations against players. One of the most-covered incidents is the one involving Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice and his wife, Janay. Back in February, Rice and his then-fiancée got into an altercation on an elevator in Atlantic City. The argument culminated with Rice punching Janay, knocking her unconscious. At the time, the NFL refused to comment beyond saying they were waiting until more information was available regarding the incident.

Photo courtesy of Keith Allison

Photo courtesy of Keith Allison

In July, the NFL suspended Rice two games for his actions. Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the decision, saying he felt that the young man had learned his lesson and would not have trouble going forward. It would seem Goodell and the NFL have been playing catch-up ever since the suspension was issued. After public outcry over the perceived leniency, Goodell announced a new policy stating that “first-time domestic violence offenders would face six-game suspensions and repeat offenders would be suspended indefinitely”. This policy didn’t apply to Rice as he has already been given a punishment.   Of course, this was before the now-infamous video emerged of Rice knocking Janay out with one punch before dragging her limp body out of the elevator. While TMZ was first to share the video, suspicion is high that Goodell likely knew of its existence, even if he may have chosen not to watch it. Rice maintains he told Goodell back in February that he had punched his now-wife, and that the commissioner was aware of this when giving him the two-game suspension. So then why did the NFL rush to suspend Rice indefinitely after the new video emerged? Was it all a matter of public perception? Behind closed doors, did the team (and the League) want to keep their three-time-Pro-Bowl player on the field despite his off-duty actions? If so, they aren’t alone. Many Rice supporters put the blame back on his wife, somehow implying that because she married him after the fact, it absolved him of any responsibility in the attack. Some say that she must have provoked him to hit her, as if she brought this all on herself. Others pointed out that the incident happened off the field in the off season and thus shouldn’t affect what happens on the field. Really?

Photo courtesy of Mike Morbeck

Photo courtesy of Mike Morbeck

Of course the NFL has also been struggling with the charges leveled against Vikings’ star player Adrian Peterson for allegedly abusing his 4-year-old son. (Peterson maintains that the beating he gave his son with a switch was merely discipline, despite that fact that it left multiple bruises and lacerations on the boy’s body.) The weekend the story broke, Peterson was not allowed to play football, but on Monday, he was reinstated. An article challenging the reinstatement observed   that “with a 1-1 record, they (Vikings) know that every one of the remaining 14 games is critical and Peterson is their best player by far”, further noting that the reinstatement “says, whether anybody wants it to or not, that beating the Saints matters more than beating a child”. Under mounting pressure/disapproval, the Vikings changed course Tuesday and deactivated Peterson, possibly for the remainder of the season. Nevertheless, there remain a number of people upset with the suspension who say it’s not the NFL’s business how Peterson decides to “discipline” his child in his home.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

As bad as things are in the world of sports, they aren’t any better in politics. Last week Mark Sanford, South Carolina Congressman-turned-Governor-turned-Congressman, posted a status update on Facebook (yes, Facebook) wherein he basically threw himself a massive pity party for all of the trouble he was having dealing with his ex-wife and her demands, and how the problems had become so difficult that he was forced to break up with his mistress-turned-fiancée. I for one am not feeling particularly sympathetic to his plight. As a reminder, this is the man who, as Governor, used public funds to help finance his affair and lied to his constituents saying he was out hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was in fact canoodling with his mistress in Argentina. Surely a betrayal of public-and marital-trust on that scale was a career ender, right? Wrong. While he did not seek reelection to his post as Governor, Sanford did mount a comeback plan a few years later, running for the Congressional seat he had originally held before becoming Governor. Sanford won the position in a special election in 2013, buoyed by support from the American Conservative Union, the Washington Post, FreedomWorks and, of course, South Carolina voters. Did none of them really care that he had a track record of lying–to his wife, to his constituents and to his mistress? Did his voting record and a positive score card on economic issues really trump a selfish, narcissistic personality? This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, not so long ago we had a sitting President carry on an affair with an intern young enough to be his daughter and people defended him passionately, saying his private life was private and didn’t affect his public office. I can’t really wrap my mind around the idea that a person can completely and utterly lack integrity in his/her private life but be trustworthy in his/her public role, but I am apparently in the minority.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Presidents and politicians have engaged in all sorts of corruption over the years, as have athletes, actors and others in the public eye. While we’ve often given them a little slack due to their high status rating, there was a time when we still had limits–cross this line and you are finished. Now, in sports, in politics, in business, even among friends and family in our own communities, we have become a culture of people who just look the other way if we see something that challenges our moral sensibilities. What message are we sending to today’s youth? Unfortunately, America is increasingly becoming a place where we don't care how the sausage gets made, just so it looks good, tastes good & makes us happy.