We’re constantly told that it takes a village to raise a child. But when I look at the recent epidemic of domestic-violence charges against NFL players, I’m convinced we need to take another look at those in our village whom we allow to help raise our children. Not just at those who commit these terrible acts but also those apologists in the media and sports industry who, through fuzzy logic or a desperate need to pander to their demographics, perpetuate a permissive attitude toward domestic violence.
First, we need to look at Ray Rice, Jonathan Dwyer, Adrian Peterson and other professional athletes who have recently been caught engaging in illegal and unacceptable acts of violence and re-evaluate how we treat them in our village. Like it or not, professional athletes, movie stars and recording artists are role models for our youth. And being a role model translates into big bucks because kids are willing to spend money to see them perform and buy products they endorse. That’s one of the reasons they get paid so much money.
The NFL, NBA and other professional sports organizations encourage this ideal of role model by touting their players’ charitable and community activities, which often seems like part of a branding campaign rather than a sincere drive to contribute. I don’t think entertainers (which is what professional athletes are) should be promoted as role models for our children because many of them don’t have the maturity, self-control, desire or training to accept that responsibility. Athletes should be models of how to play their sport and nothing more. The exceptions would be those few who distinguish themselves by taking an active and admirable role in bettering their communities, as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali did.
Unfortunately, as long as there’s more money to be made off a role model than just an athlete, the hype will continue. And we will continue to be shocked and outraged every time an athlete is caught punching, slapping and spanking.
Maybe we should direct our outrage elsewhere:
Outrage No. 1: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other apologists claim that this whole cluster-flub at least brought awareness to the problem of domestic abuse. This is disingenuous on a couple levels. In the Ray Rice case, the NFL and the Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti did their best to (at the very least) ignore evidence of domestic abuse. And at worst, they may have covered it up so there would be no awareness. That’s like getting caught flashing people while wearing nothing but a trench coat — and then wanting credit for bringing trench coats back in fashion.
Outrage No. 2: Why does it take TMZ to bring awareness of domestic violence? The awareness should have been there all along. For years we’ve seen the statistics, the photos of bruised and battered women and children, heard their testimony of relentless abuse. We’ve had books and songs and Lifetime movies. Didn’t we learn about that from the O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and Hope Solo cases? Donald Sterling displayed racist behavior before TMZ released those tapes. Racism, class struggle and police profiling have been constant and humiliating realities long before Ferguson. Once the media furor dies down, do we just revert to our default setting of closing our eyes until the next media-ready event occurs?
Can’t we fight injustice without TMZ? By that I mean that we have to keep the pressure on even when there are no cameras rolling. The NFL has instituted changes, it tells us, with panels and experts and transparency. Before, it relied on public lethargy. A player smacked a spouse, it was reported in the news, a minor punishment followed, the public forgot. Now that the league is promising more transparency, I worry that it has more incentive to bury any incidents, hiding them completely rather than risking another protracted public inspection. While the NFL will undoubtedly assure us that this will not be the case, its past performance does not inspire confidence.
Outrage No. 3: Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson hit his 4-year-old son with a thin part of a branch and was indicted for reckless or negligent injury. This has sparked a national debate on the effectiveness and ethics of spanking. Worse, thanks to commentators like Charles Barkley, the debate has degenerated into a race issue. “I’m from the South,” Barkley explained on TV. “Whipping—we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”
The five most destructive words to our village are “That’s how I was raised.”
These words are the triumph of routine over reason, of self-delusion over self-interest, of excuses over evidence. In short, the phrase embodies the kind of muddled thinking that our culture “officially” stands against since doing something just because “that’s how I was raised” is the definition of hive mentality. It’s celebrating the joys of brainwashing over rational decisionmaking.
Most people embrace these words with great pride when it reflects their core values of being hardworking, compassionate, patriotic, religious or family-oriented. But they condemn anyone else who uses them when it goes against accepted American tradition. When a man straps on a bomb, climbs on a school bus and detonates, some would justify his behavior by saying his actions were an outgrowth of how he was raised. When a teenager drags a black man to his death behind his truck, some make the same claim. When a group of teens tie a gay boy to a fence and beat him to death, their actions reflect how they were raised.
Barkley may be accurate in his description of the South, and not just among African Americans. According to an ABC poll, 73% of Southerners approve of spanking children, as opposed to 60% in the rest of the country. Where he’s wrong is in justifying spanking (“We all spanked our kids”) in light of what we know today about the harmful effects of spanking:
- Spanking may stop certain behavior, but it makes long-term behavior worse.
- Children who are hit are more likely to use violence to resolve problems with siblings and peers.
- The Canadian Medical Association Journal analyzed 20 years of data and concluded that spanking yields no positive outcome.
- The journal Pediatrics said “harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/dependence, and several personality disorders.”
- One study concluded that frequent spanking (once a month for more than three years) resulted in children having less gray matter in certain areas of the brain “linked to depression, addiction and other mental health disorders.” Another found that spanking affected the brain by decreasing cognitive ability.
This is not a condemnation of those who have sparingly used light spanking in the past, before such research was available. But it’s been out there for at least a decade now, and any responsible parent wanting to use corporal punishment should at least do the research. Watching Sean Hannity beat his desk with his belt while proclaiming that being whipped with a belt by his father had not left him mentally abused should be all the proof necessary of its detrimental effects.
Additionally, watching the NFL play Twister with the truth, contorting its statements and explanations into some tortured Gordian knot of misinformation is to witness one of the standard bearers of influence on our children undermine everything it is supposed to represent: fair play, work ethic, compassion in the face of competition. That’s part of what the league sells to the American public, and therefore it is obliged to actually do something when that promise is threatened.
Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But not everyone in the village is worthy of the task.
Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). He also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.
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