One of my African-American Facebook friends wrote an emphatic post a few days ago calling on the self-righteous people who were burning Ray Rice’s jersey to think about their own youth first. Her premise was that we’ve all made “dumb mistakes” in our 20s, that Ray Rice had paid for his actions, and that it was time to move on. Almost every comment at the beginning of the thread supported her.
The day I saw the video of Rice knocking out his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, I’d posted on my own page, wondering, on one hand, how many people from all walks of life would lose their jobs if everyone knew what they were capable of. On the other, people in sports and entertainment know that part of the reason they are so richly rewarded is because fans will pay to see them do what they do. To quote the old Andre Agassi ad, “Image is everything.”
I’ve often thought that athletic gifts and sterling character should be celebrated individually, not assumed to be a package. Still, since the current reality demands that star athletes be role models, it didn’t seem right for a stadium of people to cheer Ray Rice, given what we all know. I hadn’t seen the other part of the video either until last week — him dragging his fiancée like she was the trash. Alcohol colors our decisions and reactions, but I suspect he was sober at his first press conference, when he said that “he” would rise again, without apologizing to his wife.
The next day, a good friend, also African-American, posted that it was ridiculous and culturally insensitive for Adrian Peterson to be subjected to child abuse charges because my friend had gotten “whooped” in his youth and turned out well. This one wasn’t as universally applauded, but the majority was in support. My sister, who lives in Atlanta, told me that a radio call-in show with a predominantly black audience showed a similar pattern.
The common thread? To me, it’s black people closing ranks around a black man being raked over the coals by the media at large, even though his transgression shouldn’t be defended. As Robin Givens said in her piece in Time about why she stayed with Mike Tyson, “being a black woman, you feel you want to protect your man. You think, the black man in America has it so difficult anyway, so now you’re turning him in.” Or turning on him.
Closing ranks isn’t unique to the African-American community, and it’s certainly not universal — I applaud Cris Carter for saying that the way Adrian Peterson, and yes, his own mother, applied discipline was wrong. In the case of Peterson, a lot of the people supporting him on Facebook, who were raised the way he was, stated that they are educated, successful, and nonviolent (that is, if you disregard the fact that they’re beating their kids with switches, electrical cords, and the like). Cris Carter pointed out that a lot of religious people, regardless of race, take the “rod of correction” very literally. Still, I see a pattern — Chris Brown, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, or to go back further, Marion Barry and O.J. Simpson. Everyone will have supporters, but the tone and the amount of support some of these people received seems based on something other than the evidence in the case.
I endorsed Michael Vick’s right to a second chance, and if Ray Rice uses his notoriety to combat domestic violence, he’ll have earned some cheers from me. But right now, he’s just a guy who knocked out a woman by punching her in the face. Being a great football player doesn’t make it a “dumb mistake” (and I was happy to see a 20-year-old leave the comment that age has nothing to do with it). As for his behavior being isolated and alcohol-fueled, you don’t completely change who you are because you’re drunk.
And abuse of that kind isn’t isolated — there’s a pathology there, even if the people he hasn’t abused think he’s a great guy. Someone mentioned that she seemed to be coming at him. But wasn’t he strong enough to restrain her instead of knocking her unconscious? That even his alcohol-clouded brain went straight to punching her in the face tells me he needs counseling. Maybe they’ve both gotten it. I hope so — therapy has certainly helped me deal with my own issues. Does that make me self-righteous?
Holding out for a hero
There are many fields from which to choose African-American male role models: entrepreneurs (Robert L. Johnson), scientists (Mark Dean), doctors (Harold P. Freeman), astronauts (Charles F. Bolden) — the list goes on. Still, the heroes who get the most attention tend to be athletes and entertainers, something we share with the larger population. One consequence of choosing our role models based on things that have no intrinsic correlation to character is that sometimes these people mess up. Badly. How do we respond? If my experience with social media is any indicator, we pillory them mercilessly or defend them to the end. I think there’s a third option, however.
A valid objection to self-righteousness is that none of us is perfect (including doctors and scientists), and since each of us is a mixture of good and bad, making another person a poster child for a particular area of wrongdoing is wrong. But having poster children can be helpful — as a number of diseases have shown, putting a face on something temporarily brings that cause more vividly into the public’s consciousness. While political campaigns have used black faces to stir up stereotypes for their candidate’s advantage (remember Willie Horton?), the transgressions of Donald Sterling, Mel Gibson, Richie Incognito, and Michael Richards have also been starting points for conversations. The poster child status is always elevated when there's a recording: Ray Rice is getting treated like all the rest, not singled out.
Rice, Peterson, and whoever is next (I nominate Roger Goodell for even more scrutiny) will spend a few weeks in an unpleasant spotlight because of their actions, during which, hopefully, a discussion results that probably (call me a cynic) doesn't change much, but at least allows people to clarify that there are things we don’t want to think about that need to be addressed. I'm happy to hear that, as the result of the Ray Rice furor, 83 percent more calls came in to domestic violence hotlines. Because seeing what it looks like on tape and hearing that people aren't dismissing and trivializing domestic violence evidently inspired some people who might have otherwise continued to absorb beatings to come forward.
Rice and Peterson will be footnotes, soon enough, moving on with their lives, ideally having made some important changes. Another week of talking about their transgressions doesn't seem, to me, unduly harsh.