On Penn State, Ray Rice, Bruce Levenson, and sanctimony [UPDATED]

Sports may or may not breed discipline, but these days they certainly breed disciplinarians, too many of whom wear suits and sit behind desks. Three new developments remind us of this.

The first development is a good one. The NCAA has announced that it will lift sanctions against Penn State. It imposed the sanctions in the aftermath of revelations that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky molested children under color, to some extent of the football program. Joe Paterno, the head coach during the time Sandusky’s crimes, was found, speciously, to be culpable.

It’s questionable whether the NCAA should have sanctioned Penn State. By the time the NCAA acted, Penn State’s president had been fired and Paterno was dead. As Bill Otis said at the time, “punishment is all to the good when directed at those responsible, but punishing those who aren’t deflects our focus on the real culprit and dilutes the moral authority to punish at all.”

When a team gains an unfair advantage from violating NCAA rules, NCAA sanctions are appropriate. However, Penn State achieved no apparent on-the-field advantage from Sandusky’s misconduct or from its failure to address it. As I understand it, Sandusky didn’t even serve as a coach after 1999.

Under these circumstances, the sanctions carried the unmistakable scent of sanctimony. It’s good that they have been lifted.

The second development is the NFL’s indefinite suspension of Ray Rice, about which John wrote here. In my opinion, off-the-field misbehavior by players should not be the league’s business unless it relates to on-field competition (e.g., the use of performance enhancing drugs). Criminal behavior like Rice’s should be a matter for law enforcement and the employer — in this case, the Baltimore Ravens.

The counter-argument is that the employer might under-discipline a player in order to win games, and that by doing so injure the rest of the league by harming the NFL’s image. It’s a respectable argument, but one that, in my opinion, misperceives the league’s image.

The NFL doesn’t thrive because anyone believes pro football is played only by choir boys. The league’s image prospers thanks to a two-faced coin. On one side are sterling individuals (as far as we know) like Darrell Green and London Fletcher, to name two former Washington Redskins. On the other side are “bad boys” like Michael Irvin and Warren Sapp. (The vast majority of players, of course, fit somewhere in between)

The Irvins and the Sapps have at least as much to do with the league’s popularity as the Greens and the Fletchers. In fact, notwithstanding their checkered lives, both Irvin and Sapp now work as on-air personalities for the NFL Network.

Assuming, however, that the NFL should be protecting the league’s image by disciplining players for off-the-field conduct, Commissioner Roger Goodell made a hash of the Ray Rice case.

Initially, Goodell suspended Rice for only two games. Later, when a video surfaced of Rice knocking his girl friend out cold with a vicious punch, Goodell made the suspension indefinite.

I take Goodell at his word when he says he hadn’t seen the video of the punch when he made his initial decision. But the police report said that Rice had knocked his girlfriend out with a blow from the hand. Thus, the video had to look something like what Goodell ultimately saw.

Moreover, if Goodell’s job is to protect the NFL’s image and the video could make such a difference, he should not have acted without seeing the video. Again, I believe Goodell when he says he asked New Jersey prosecutors for a copy but was denied access (given their lenient treatment of Rice, we can understand why the prosecutors wouldn’t want to share the video).

But Rice’s lawyers reportedly had a copy of the video. Why couldn’t Goodell have said that, in light of the damning police report, Rice will be suspended indefinitely unless his lawyer produces the video and it shows that a lesser penalty is warranted?

But, again, I think the matter should be strictly between the player, law enforcement, and the team. In this case, the team cut Rice as soon as the video became public, and before the hapless Goodell acted.

The third development involves the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. Its majority owner has sold his interest in the team after comments surfaced to the effect that he wanted to market his team in ways that might increase its appeal to whites.

Bruce Levenson wrote in an email:

I want some white cheerleaders and while I don’t care what the color of the artist is, I want the music [played in the arena during stoppages in play] to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season [ticket] demo[grapahy]. I have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some timeout contest is black. I have even [complained] that the kiss cam is too black.

For this, Levenson came under fire from the league. He decided to sell his interest in the Hawks. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who seems on intent on challenging Goodell for MSC (Most Sanctimonious Commissioner) denounced the “hurtful words” in Levenson’s email and commended him for stepping aside.

Silver forced Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers because of opinions expressed in the privacy of his own home. But at least Sterling’s opinions were racist.

Levenson was about to fall prey to Silver not for disparaging blacks, but for trying to balance out the marketing of this team so as to make it more appealing to whites. If Levenson had called for some black cheerleaders and/or more crowd shots of black fans, Silver would not have objected. By what right, then, does Silver denounce Levenson for seeking the reverse?

The dictatorial sports commissioner originated with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was brought in to “save” baseball following the crisis that arose from the fixing of the 1919 World Series and other betting scandals. After Landis, the major sports leagues lightened up and did not suffer from doing so.

Today’s sports czars are the product not of crisis, but of the undreamed success of modern sports. Owners (and college administrators), who must think the popularity of their franchises is too good to be true, and hope to ward off bad fortune by empowering authoritarian figures or bodies.

The instinct that the sports bubble might burst is not unfounded. Big-time college sports are riven with contradictions, including but not limited to those associated with the concept of “student athlete.” Pro football depends on the public’s repression of modern sensibilities regarding violence.

But sanctioning Penn State, banning Ray Rice, and denouncing Bruce Levenson are all beside these points. The sports Gods, if they exist, won’t be appeased by such offerings.

UPDATE: AP is now reporting that law enforcement officials sent the full video of Rice’s punch to the NFL league office back in April. AP’s source played the AP a 12-second voicemail from an NFL office number confirming that the video arrived. A female voice expresses thanks and says: “You’re right. It’s terrible.”

If true, Goodell’s job should be in jeopardy. But that doesn’t mean the owners will turn on him.

Meanwhile, Kareem Abdul Jabbar makes some sensible points about Levenson. He concludes that the former owner isn’t a racist, just a businessman.

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