The point of war is to kill your enemy by any means that you may dominate and survive. The end justifies the means. That is why, while virtually every country on Earth has signed The Geneva Conventions, the standards of good conduct during times of war, the men and women who fight wars often ignore noble conduct and commit atrocities.
The point of athletic contests is to allow that natural competitive aggression that exists in our species an outlet without anyone getting killed. Athletics are the way that we challenge our opponents, fight our opponents, and vanquish our opponents in a controlled and regulated environment, all without bloodshed. At the end of the day everyone goes home to his or her family as though the competition never happened. No villages burned. While we like to use the metaphors of war to describe athletic contests, never have two more disparate activities existed for the human race. In war the end justifies the means. In athletics, the means is everything, and the end, the winning and losing, is nothing more than an observable outcome.
All sports are DEFINED BY THEIR RULES. Adherence to the rules is the whole point. That is why judo is judged differently than karate. They are different disciplines with different rules of combat. If you use karate in a judo match, you might disable your opponent, but you will be disqualified. You will lose because you cheated. At their very core, athletic contests are purely matters of honor and character.
As a society, we are very conflicted about this. We want honor in sports, but we also desperately want an entertaining spectacle. We create standards in the classroom and in life for athletes, but often bend those rules if the athlete can get us a win. Sometimes we come down hard on the athlete, effectively ending their athletic careers. Sometimes we look the other way, as though their terrible behavior is perfectly acceptable. Horrid things like rape, assault, cheating, child abuse get little more punishment than a stern, fatherly lecture as the paychecks are handed out.
Once Lance Armstrong was finally pinned down for doping, he was stripped of his titles, ostracized and vilified. Baseball’s Pete Rose was banned for life for gambling. NBA owner Donald Sterling was banned, not for doping or gambling or cheating, but for the all-American crime of thinking out loud.
On the other hand, NFL quarterback, Michael Vick, ran a brutal dog-fighting operation and served eighteen months in prison for the crime. The NFL practically sent a limousine to pick him up at prison gates. FSU quarterback, Jameis Winston, has been convicted of and implicated in a never ending string petty crimes and felonies since his teen years. He was rewarded for his behavior with the Heisman Trophy and will likely get a rich NFL contract when he leaves school. The NFL’s Ndamukong Suh, one of the leagues most penalized players, has been suspended twice and fined over $200,000 for his on field violations of the fundamental rules of football. Despite these minor slaps on the wrist, his coach loves him. The team owner loves him. By virtue of the fact he is still playing in the NFL means that the NFL commissioner loves him, as does the players union.
Suh is from my hometown. He is a young man who turned tremendous, God given, athletic ability into a $64 million, five year contract with the Detroit Lions. That is more than one million dollars a month, or about $6300/hour based on a full time work year. Kudos to him. I have idly watched his career for years. The only things that Suh lacks in life are the things money cannot buy – honor and good character.
There was a time when Suh would have made a tremendous warrior, a real Goliath who could lay waste to the enemy. However, as an athlete he lacks self-control and the fundamental understanding of why he is on the field in the first place. He thinks he is at war. This makes him a lousy athlete. He routinely violates the rules of conduct on the field in the attempt to win the game. He fails to understand that every time he violates the rules of the contest, his team loses. He loses. Even if the score is in favor of his team, he brings shame upon self and team when he cheats. He fails to understand that if his opponents decided to break those same rules to take revenge upon him, they could end his career with a single cheap shot. Unfortunately, because of his tremendous athletic ability, society not only gives this young man a pass, we have showered him with awards for athletic excellence. We want to see him lay waste to the offensive line on Sundays, so no one has the guts to take him to task. The in-game penalties, ejections, fines, and suspensions have not proven to be a deterrent, and no controlling legal authority has the guts to bench him for good. Not his coach. Not his general manager. Not his employer. And certainly not the NFL.
Call me a purist. Call me old-fashioned. The most gifted athlete may not be the best athlete. Character comes before skill and ability. It was a rule I lived by when I was an athlete, and it is what I expect of my children when they compete. I have no respect for coaches or athletes who are not good, honorable citizens first. If you disagree with me, I have a question for you: Who do you want your daughter to bring home? Russell Wilson or Michael Vick? Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston? Who do you want for a son-in-law? Ray Rice? Who do you want raising your grandchildren? Adrian Peterson? Think carefully now…