On the morning of June 26, 2013, two sharply dressed detectives escorted Aaron Hernandez from his Attleboro home, head high, seemingly without a care in the world. Hernandez was a star tight end for the New England Patriots, alongside Rob Gronkowski. He had recently signed a lucrative deal, but the detectives closing in was a first crack in the facade of that material wealth. It would ultimately all be taken away from him – he had murdered Odin Lloyd. Many athletes, like Hernandez, weren’t able to come back to their sports following a run in with the law. Others though, through their play and fan fame, were able to come back.
The world of professional sports is one worth billions. It promises even those from downtrodden neighborhoods, those who weren’t born with a silver spoon in hand and millions of dollars of daddy’s money at their disposal, the chance at fame. It’s the chance at reaching the highest level of accomplishment in athletics. To be respected, and to be adored.
Sports culture promises individual glory, team accomplishment, and for some — even those we consider heroes — time spent behind bars.
Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Julian Edelman, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and countless other famous athletes have been accused of committing horrible crimes. There is no doubt that professional athletes are idolized by children and adults alike, but many people are unaware of the unlawful acts that some athletes have been a part of. Domestic violence, aggravated assault, sexual harassment, and manslaughter are just some of the most common crimes that athletes are convicted of.
Athletes throughout time have been put on pedestals at the top of the societal pyramid, and absolved of blame for any flaws they may possess. But should this attitude allow them to get away with crimes that normal people could be sent to jail for?
With the rise of social media in recent years, more light has been shed on crimes within the world of sports. Recently, Urban Meyer, Head Coach of Ohio State University Football, was suspended for knowing about one of his assistant coaches assaulting his wife, and proceeding to not tell the media or fire him. In past years, the story may have gotten swallowed up in the Ohio locker room, cast away and ignored, only to be brought up years later in a tell-all autobiography. But Meyer is under fire now – and the criticism ties into a greater problem that’s beginning to be revealed within sports culture.
“Locker room talk” is a phrase that’s been coming up often in popular media. In Donald Trump’s apology after an audio recording of him talking about kissing and groping women was released, he referred to the language as locker room talk. This type of boastful speech when referring to conquests of women, consensual or otherwise, has become intrinsically associated with sports. Is this just a harmless stereotype of a “chick-magnet” jock? Or have we been giving athletes a free pass to do and say what they want, violent or otherwise, because of their role in our culture? And if we have, are we causing a culture that encourages violence?
“[Athletes] already get so much respect for being good at what they do,” junior Sofia Bliss said. “Just because you have talent doesn’t mean that we should hold you to lower standards… People in all sorts of fields receive punishments for not following proper standards of behavior and the same should carry on to athletes. Just because they are such fanatic supporters does not mean that that can excuse someone’s behavior.”
In terms of culture, certain sports, of course – football and boxing, among others – carry a certain reputation. The NFL, in particular, is infamous for its domestic violence rates, and the accompanying damage control that Roger Goodell doles out almost as often as excessive celebration fines. But even those sports without the notoriety have tens if not hundreds of athletes with troubled pasts, and some whose standing in their leagues is still squeaky clean.
Football is low-hanging fruit, but the sport has such a bad name when it comes to their players’ criminal histories for a reason. Most famously, Ray Rice was arrested and indicted for punching his fiancee the face in an elevator and knocking her unconscious, which was captured on video and released by TMZ to widespread outcry. Despite an initial indefinite suspension by the league, he was reinstated after an appeal in the federal courts. However, his reputation had been tarnished beyond return at this point, and he never returned to the league.
“Ray Rice, I thought he was a great player before,” sophomore Vijay Homan said. “For me, I thought that they were just really good players. I didn’t really think that they were good people.”
The NFL has a problem. That’s not up for debate. But the hot-topic controversy surrounding the league can overshadow the troubles that run just as deep in other leagues. The NBA, notably, has had consistent problems with treatment of women, and a Lean In campaign introduced in 2015 featuring NBA and WNBA players encouraging gender equality has had little effect other than filling commercial slots. The league, certainly, has tried to project a pristine image – enjoying the NBA is guilt free, according to many. Without even touching on CTE or political protests, the NBA has exponentially less players with scandals – these guys are easy to root for. They’re role models. We can look up to them.
At least, that’s what Adam Silver and company would like fans to think.
But in reality, legends like Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone have some of the darkest histories in sports – the NBA has just done a better job of covering them up. Bryant, the Lakers legend most famous for bringing 5 championships to LA and scoring 81 points on Jalen Rose, was infamously accused of raping a woman in a Colorado hotel in 2003. While Bryant admitted to sleeping with the woman, he claimed it was fully consensual, and the case was dropped when the accuser declined to testify in court. She filed a separate civil suit which was settled with Bryant outside of court and included an apology, in which Bryant stated that “although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”
“Stuff with Kobe, of course, that kind of lowers my idea of him,” sophomore Jackson Bundy said. “That definitely changes how I think of him.”
Karl Malone’s case is even more harrowing. An all-time NBA legend, known endearingly as “The Mailman” between fans, was 20 years old – a college sophomore – when he impregnated a 13-year-old girl in his neighborhood. Despite the clear implications of statutory rape, Malone faced no criminal punishment. And after being ordered by a judge to pay just $125 a week in child support – pennies to Malone, who had by now become a multi-millionaire – he still contested the payment, and ultimately had to settle out of court so that the barely-teenaged mother could support her child. And while these specific cases have received more media attention than others, they’ve had next to no effect on the NBA’s image, not to mention the legacy of the players themselves.
While these cases are relatively few and far between, some of them are worth taking a second look at – not for the can’t-look-away shock value, but for a different kind of bombshell: the fact that some of these athletes were able to return to their respective sport and restore their legacy, or become an even bigger legend than they were before their scandal. But that begs the question: with the innumerable quantity of athletes whose careers were ruined by their off-court or off-field antics, what sets those who made a comeback apart from those who tried and miserably failed?
There are many athletes who have been able to come back from crimes. Some of these include legends like Kobe Bryant and Ray Lewis. Others, like Aaron Hernandez and Oscar Pistorius were unable to come back from their troubles.
Bryant’s case in particular is one of the most interesting, simply because of how he was able to almost entirely erase the incident from his legacy. In the ensuing days after the rape case broke, Bryant lost several endorsement deals and his jersey sales fell. However, after the incident, Bryant went on to win two additional NBA championships – adding to the three trophies he had already brought to the franchise – which was an essential part of his comeback. Ultimately, sports fans are fickle. While we like to think our moral compasses are strong, history shows we are willing to forgive winners. And as one of the athletes most famous for their killer, win-above-everything mentality, Bryant was able to retire as one of the top NBA players of all time and put the scandal behind him.
“It’s easier [to support someone if they’re winners] because if they’re important to the team, you don’t want them to be taken off the team,” sophomore Jaquari Jenkins said.
Ray Lewis is another famous case of success leading to a comeback. In 2000 after a super bowl party in Atlanta, a fight between Baltimore Ravens linebacker, Ray Lewis, and his friends and another group of people broke out, with two people left stabbed to death. Lewis and the two men were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault eleven days after the incident. However, Lewis took a plea deal in which his murder charges were dropped, and was allowed to take a misdemeanor and a year of probation. In the years following the incident, Ray Lewis had a breakthrough season, winning Super Bowl MVP and taking home two Lombardi trophies. Lewis, now a future first ballot Hall Of Famer, was able to win fans back over with not only his humility in admitting the crime, but also his incredible play. Lewis was vocally apologetic, and consistently cited religion and God as the reason he believed in his ability to return to good graces. With such a public display of remorse, fans found it easier to welcome him back. Beyond this, when it comes to ethical dilemmas, the cost of supporting someone who may or may not have commited a crime was outweighed by the benefit of having an all-time football player on the field to support.
Some players weren’t so lucky in the public eye. After Aaron Hernandez’ arrest, for instance, he took his own life in prison, effectively ending any chance of a return. But even if he had not chosen to commit suicide, he would likely have never been able to make a comeback. The evidence in his case was considerably more damning, and his stardom never reached levels seen by Bryant or Lewis.
Another example is South African paralympian, Oscar Pistorius. On February 14th, 2013, Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, claiming he mistook her for an intruder. He was eventually convicted of homicide and sentenced to prison. To this day, he remains in prison. While Pistorius and Hernandez may not have global superstars, they were still household names. The common thread, then, between these two failed comebacks is the severity of the crime – there are some things fans are simply not willing to overlook, no matter how much they looked up to the athlete in the past.
“It depends on the severity of the crime, definitely,” junior Dylan Duncan said. “For me, if they show change and they actually change their way, that dictates whether I personally [continue to] support them or not.”
But troubled athletes returning goes beyond the crime committed by the individual. Whether they come back to the limelight or not is mostly up to the league they play in, or in some cases, the justice system. But while fans may not have the same judicial power, they are the sixth man of every league. It’s up to the fans to consider whether athletes deserve a second chance or not. Professional athletes are major role models, especially to the youth of society, but does this mean they need to be held to a higher standard?
Children look up to sports players as if they are heros, and for many of them, they serve as some of the only role models in their lives. If a kid’s role model commits a crime, and is then welcomed back to his sport and to society as if nothing happened, the kid may well think the crime committed isn’t a bad thing. While the average fan cannot affect the legal consequences an athlete faces, they should acknowledge the incident and decide for themselves if they can return to supporting the athlete. In many cases, the crime is easy to forgive; but either way, it shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
“I know specific people at [Paly who committed crimes]… but I’m uncomfortable with the fact that it occured on campus and even while it was being investigated, he wasn’t off the team,” said Bliss. “In so many cases, people excuse bad behavior for talent.”
Football fans are plenty familiar with making these tough decisions. When NFL quarterback Michael Vick was arrested for dog fighting, it became a serious issue to football fans to make it clear that his actions were not okay. At the time, he was considered by many to be the face of the NFL, and much of the youth idolized him.
Mike Vick was given a second chance by the NFL after he served his time in prison, but the NFL fan-base as well as Vick himself continuously made clear that his actions should not be repeated by anyone in the future. Vick also went on to support many foundations that worked to prevent dog fighting, and with his platform he was able to become one of the biggest advocates for the issue.
While athletes are subject to the court of public opinion and often mentioned in the news for their actions, they usually face punishments from their leagues whenever they commit a crime. Professional athletes are oftentimes charged with crimes related to alcohol and drug use as well as assault, leading them to face a suspension. Depending on the severity of the offense, it’s possible that they are banned from the league.
What many people don’t consider is that these professional athletes are human, and playing sports is their job. While the average person might not get fired from their job if they commit one of these crimes such as a DUI, athletes that face much more public scrutiny can, or at the very least face a suspension. So the fame that accompanies being a professional athlete is a double-edged sword: while it may offer an athlete a second chance after second chance to return, even after committing serious crimes, the extra attention on every move an athlete makes can cut short what could have been an illustrious career.
Overall, not all athletes are troubled individuals, but for the many who are, it is up to the fan-base to determine their image. Different leagues may give their players a wide range of punishments, or passes, based on the crime. But in the end, it’s the fans that get to decide whether they are welcomed back or not.
The choice is yours.