It's time to have a broader conversation about crime in sports.
Plaxico Burress must feel like the luckiest man in America these days.
The guy was released from prison in June after serving 21 months. By August, he had turned down five football teams offering him millions of dollars to sign a one-year, $3 million contract with the surely playoff-bound New York Jets. Meanwhile, nobody is talking about the moronic move that got him locked up in the first place—shooting himself with the loaded gun he had brought to a crowded nightclub—because they haven’t stopped discussing his rival-in-crime Michael Vick, who’s been out of jail more than two years.
Many people argue that Vick’s crime (running a dogfighting ring, as if anyone didn’t remember) was so heinous that it deserves to overshadow any other athlete’s legal trouble for at least several years. It’s worth noting that the criminal justice system disagrees; Burress was in prison two months longer than Vick. But more to the point, continuing the disproportionate focus on Vick’s offenses rules out the possibility of a much-needed broader conversation about crime and sports.
Vick, who will lead a Philadelphia Eagles team favored to win the Super Bowl, surely wouldn’t be the subject of a GQ profile and entire issue of ESPN The Magazine (and that’s just in the past few weeks) if he wasn’t one of the best players in the NFL. Burress was a solid receiver for the Giants, but never the electric game-changer Vick is. The quarterback starred in what were probably the two most memorable regular season games of 2010, scoring five touchdowns in a half against the Redskins and engineering a 21-point comeback against the division rival Giants. In a rare case of an award as understatement, Vick was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
But apparently it’s not enough to talk about how good Vick is; ESPN has decided that every game recap needs a summary of his criminal record and that a magazine story titled "What if Michael Vick Were White?" is good journalism. While horror is justified when a guy admits to dogfighting, isn’t it time for a conversation that goes deeper than one MVP-caliber player?
Since Vick was released from prison, dozens of current and former athletes have been arrested. Burress may have been one of the few to go to jail, but professional athletes from every league have been charged with everything from drug possession to murder (and too many DUIs to count). And not one of their cases has sparked national outrage or, better yet, a hard look at what the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL can do about their crime problems.
Creating a unified set of standards would be a good start. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took a step in the right direction with a strengthened personal conduct policy, but it’s been inconsistently applied. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games (later reduced to four) after he was accused of sexual assult—despite the fact that local law enforcement dropped the case for insufficient evidence. New Raiders draftee Terrelle Pryor received a five-game ban for accepting improper benefits while in college, months before he became an employee of a professional team. Meanwhile, commissioners of the other professional leagues have been much more reluctant to dole out any suspensions for off-the-field crime.
DUI cases have been a particular problem for all four sports leagues. Inexplicably, none of the leagues typically suspend players for DUI arrests (unless, of course, they kill someone while driving drunk). Considering that improper tweeting often results in suspensions while an athlete seems to be arrested for driving under the influence nearly every week, it’s hard to justify the lack of policy.
The broader problem is that athletes are used to being told they’re special cases who can live above the law (just look at the University of Miami players who were showered with illicit benefits including cash, prostitutes, and expensive trips). Being among the best in the world at anything can easily lead to inflated egos, and kids who rebelled against more typical career paths to follow unlikely dreams of becoming pro athletes are probably somewhat more likely to ignore authority in other parts of life as well. Plus, many talented athletes—Vick included—grew up in tough situations, making them more likely to fall into crime.
Major leagues can’t change athletes’ upbringings, but they can state in no uncertain terms the penalties for violating laws or personal conduct policies. Any business that makes the bulk of its revenue from fans needs to hold its public faces to a higher standard than the rest of us, and athletes who don’t live up to that standard need to pay the consequences. That doesn’t mean someone like Vick or Burress deserves a lifetime ban—I’m a sucker for a good redemption story—but it does require a coherent set of policies applied the same way across the board. And while covering athletes’ lives of crime is fair game for the sports media, reporters should put more attention on those policies and a little less on the most sensational individual cases.
It’s too late for either Vick’s or Burress’ cases to spark real change, but the next time a Pro Bowler gets arrested, let’s hope Goodell moves away from a unilateral show of force and toward some clarity about what is and is not acceptable behavior in the NFL. And meanwhile, can we agree to a moratorium on obsessing over Michael Vick for anything more than his flashy numbers?