Football is a big deal in my house. Between my husband and three sons, there are seven fantasy football teams to root for. We have two Jets fans, one Giants fan, and one (ever hopeful but disappointed) Raiders fan. As you might imagine, it is not a quiet house. Especially on Sundays.
My 9-year-old son has a huge collection of football jerseys; he wears one to school each day, selecting it with care to coordinate with his fantasy players for the week. Recently, as I was hanging up his laundry, I perused his jerseys. Many belonged to players whose names I didn’t recognize. And then I came across three that I did: Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Michael Vick.
The jerseys were purchased when these players were football heroes on the field, before we knew of their (alleged) crimes against their wives, children, and animals. My boys looked up to these football stars and were proud to wear their jerseys. Unfortunately, these players instantly transformed from esteemed athletes to abusive criminals when their shocking stories were revealed.
These recent news stories have sparked an ongoing public discussion of abusers and victims, and their respective mentalities. As a mother, I had to find the words to explain to my sons this very real, sad part of humanity. The time for innocent ignorance ended abruptly. The world revealed its ugly side in a manner that could not be ignored. How do you describe to an impressionable kid that their sports hero was really a criminal?
With social media and the internet, my boys have instant access to these shocking headlines and the players’ responses. I choose not to censor this information, but rather use it as a discussion opener. Still, it is hard to find the right words. What galls me is the excuses that these athletes proffer. The commonality between the stories is the use of their physical and emotional power to inflict pain on those weaker and more vulnerable. So what kind of excuse could begin to explain this brutal behavior to my boys? Peterson explained that he was “whooped” as a child, and now utilizes this discipline method on his own children. He doesn’t deny it, but actually believes it to be acceptable. To me though, justifying violence against children by recounting one’s own experiences of corporal punishment is akin to a sexual predator justifying his abusing others by claiming to also be a past victim. If it’s OK to inflict on someone “because I lived through it, too,” where does this vicious cycle ever end? Will it be acceptable one day for Peterson’s son to whoop his own child with a switch?
How do we address this prevalence of player violence so that the young, impressionable sport fans learn that this behavior is intolerable? We have to make the abusers accountable, and care more for the example they set than their value to the team. Team owners need to have the chutzpah to publicly decry this behavior, and cut them from the team. The athletes need to know there is no place for an abuser, no matter their speed, toughness, and ability to win. The NFL (and by extension, all professional sports organizations) must establish a zero tolerance policy. And these abusers need to receive the professional help required to understand the magnitude of their actions, and the ripple affect that can plague their future generations.
As for my son’s jerseys? They still hang in the closet, reminders of an innocent and pure love of the game of football. I considered throwing them away, but I realized there was no need. After our talk about it, my son wouldn’t choose to wear them, anyway.