BY PHIL BARENGOLTS
Are athletes more violence prone than the general population? Can athletes get away with violent behavior where someone else would be put in prison? Those are just two of the questions that a panel of well-respected experts tried to answer at the 2001 Sports Law Conference presented by the Committee on Sports & Entertainment Law (CSEL).
The conference, held in Langdell South, provided students with the opportunity to hear three points of view on the topic of violence in sports. Bob Ley, best known for his work on ESPN’s nightly SportsCenter program, presented the media’s view. Robert Lanza, chief counsel to the National Basketball Players Association, addressed the issue from the standpoint of his constituency: professional basketball players. Jose Masso, from Northeastern University’s Center for Sport in Society and former agent of Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez and other Latin American baseball stars, provided the umbrella viewpoint of athletes in society. The conference was moderated by Michael Harper, a Professor of Law at Boston University.
While the three panelists’ backgrounds might have suggested a heated argument, the conference was remarkable for its consensus. Bob Ley began the discussion by acknowledging that the media perpetuates the public’s stereotype of unchecked, insensitive athletes. Ley described the 9 a.m. meetings that precede the compilation of SportsCenter highlight reels, explaining that ratings are important and that everyone at the program realizes that in order to get a viewer’s attention the program has to include criminal conduct off the field as well as dunks, touchdowns and home runs on the field. In order to highlight the media’s hypocritical attitude towards violent athletes, Ley told the story of Disney executives who did not want Ray Lewis, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, to say the customary ‘I’m going to Disney World’ line. Lewis had been charged as an accomplice in a double murder outside an Atlanta nightclub, but the charges were later reduced to obstruction of justice. After denying Lewis the Disney endorsement, these same executives rolled out the red carpet for Lewis during the ESPY awards. The ESPY awards are given out by ESPN, which is owned by Disney.
While society spends money to help athletes develop their strength and speed, it does not prepare them for life, Masso said. That lack of attention to athletes’ personal development can have adverse effects on the bottom line as well. “Lewis’s appearance in the Super Bowl was a nightmare for the image-conscious NFL,” according to Ley.
Masso then broadened the scope of discussion. “We cannot speak of violence in sport without looking at violence in [society] – the workplace, at home … We have to look at this wider than just sports,” Masso said of the analysis. Masso’s view was that singling out athletes for their violent conduct was simply ignoring the broader problems. So while we harp on the allegedly violent behavior of such professional athletes as Rae Carruth and Wil Cordero, Masso suggested, society tends to avoid the more general problem of spousal abuse.
Lanza wanted to refocus the discussion on all the good that athletes do for society, while blaming the media for portraying athletes in a negative light. He also observed that much media discussion focuses on Black and Hispanic athletes. Lanza specifically contrasted the choking incidents of Latrell Sprewell, the NBA player who choked his coach, and Bob Knight, the college coach who choked his player. Lanza pointed out that Sprewell’s incident was highly publicized and sparked heavy debate, while Knight, who has exhibited a pattern of violent behavior, was treated with deference until he was finally fired – after another incident in which he yelled at a student who was not even a player.
All three panelists downplayed the issue of off-the-field violence as the product of many societal factors and media-induced hysteria. “The panelists presented a thought provoking defense of the other side of the issue that we don’t always see,” said Seth Stevelman ’01, president of CSEL, of the discussion’s focus on athletes as ordinary citizens.
While many students were keenly aware of the issues presented – the racial undertones of media reporting of violence and the microscope under which athletes live compared to wider social problems – some students found that the panelists never tackled the issue head on. “I don’t think they were very honest in addressing the violence of athletes,” Kristina Bennard ’01 opined, “Especially sexual violence perpetrated disproportionately by athletes on college campuses,” she said.
Violence in sports and the violent off-field actions of athletes will continue to be issues in America’s sensationalist society. Just as the nation hails athletes for spectacular feats of speed and strength, it derides those same athletes for fathering children out of wedlock and for using their physical power inappropriately. Yet no matter what, Americans simply want to see athletes perform. Perhaps the conference’s most enduring theme was that the prevalence of violence in sport is a direct product of the American consumer’s demand.