Two National Football League players dominated a good portion of the news last week for alleged misdeeds off the field. Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was released by his team and suspended from football indefinitely when a video was released showing him knocking unconscious his then-fiancé, now his wife, in a hotel elevator. Adrian Peterson, a running back for the Minnesota Vikings, was indicted for allegedly abusing his 4-year-old son by disciplining him with a switch. But there’s a also third story involving Greg Hardy, the star defensive end of the Carolina Panthers, who has been convicted on two counts of domestic abuse, and yet a fourth story involving Arizona Cardinals backup running back Jonathan Dwyer, who was released on bond literally hours ago after being arrested in connection with yet more allegations of domestic abuse.
The alleged behavior of these four men, and the actions of both NFL team owners and the NFL’s noticeably reticent commissioner, Roger Goodell, remain a source of heated discussion. Certainly all of these incidents — but especially those of Rice and Peterson — are examples of poor judgment and undisciplined behavior at the very least. But I would argue that positive results can and will result from the exposure and public discourse of the issues involved here. This discourse must be thoughtful and must be levelheaded. That is to say that I see some cautionary flags already waving.
One positive is that the issue of domestic violence is finally out of the closet in modern society and will no longer be tolerated. Reasonable minds may differ on its root causes, on it’s appropriate punishments and treatments and how to prevent it. But what was once a dark secret in millions of families is now out in the open and getting the attention it has always deserved. State and local groups have been focusing on this problem for years, so why haven’t we been listening? Why does it always seem to take the behavior of a sports hero or a celebrity to galvanize public opinion?
The same goes for child abuse. I admit that I once had to cut a few switches for my grandmother, and bend down, grab my ankles and “take my licks” from the school principal, and I also survived other disciplines that today’s society would not tolerate. I’m sure this is true for many of my contemporaries, too, so I applaud how far we have come in taking verbal and physical violence out of schools and homes, and the attention any form of child abuse generates. We should celebrate our great strides toward protecting our children in our homes, our schools, our playgrounds, our cars — everywhere.
We, as a country, are working hard to remove violence from our homes and our relationships with each other. These issues cross all socioeconomic lines and they do affect us all — through our churches, our schools and through basic parenting we need to educate both children and adults that neither domestic violence nor child abuse is acceptable in our society, ever.
At the same time, let me point out that we must also not overreact to these NFL stories, upsetting as they may be. We can’t jump the gun and act rashly, irrationally or contrary to our judicial system. Let me explain.
First, guilt sells in America, innocence does not. As I’ve written in previous columns, it’s a bedrock of our judicial system that anyone accused of a crime should be considered innocent until proven guilty. It’s up to each of us to make sure this principle is true in fact, not just on paper. Why the rush to judgment? Someday the shoe may be on the other foot. When it’s your turn to squirm under the microscope of the law, the press and public opinion, won’t you deserve the presumption of innocence? It is clearly the duty of the press to report on events as they unfold, and it is our duty as citizens to care about and try to influence these issues. But it is wrong for either the press or the public to convict any man outside a court of law, and that includes Rice and Peterson and anyone else. We can decry the issue, decry the alleged crimes, but we, the people, must not be judge and jury of the man.
Second, we must recognize that our criminal justice system has been developed over centuries and provides safeguards for us all. We must be careful not to tear down the walls that protect us because of perceived injustice in any one case. When basketball player Len Bias died of an overdose of crack cocaine, the press and the public overreacted, and Congress passed laws that resulted in an entire generation of African-American males being sentenced to cruel and unusual punishment. Let’s not go down that path again because of another celebrity case or two or three or four. If, after careful consideration and public discourse, an issue merits the passing of new laws, then let our local, state and national legislatures do their work. To pass laws in order to jump on the bandwagon of the month is no more than showboating. Political expediency and true justice are usually polar opposites.
Third, justice without mercy is only revenge — the stuff of the Old Testament. Some 45,000 laws already exist in this country that restrict employment of convicted persons — 45,000 laws that limit employment, housing, voting, even the education of those who “paid their debt to society.” The marketplace is already very harsh toward those people who made a mistake. Arbitrary barriers such as “no tolerance” policies have no place in a forgiving and “free society.” I applaud the NFL for giving players second chances in cases where appropriate punishments are meted out, where restitutions are and acceptance of responsibilities are made. We should not be closing doors, but opening them.
Like most Americans, I have mixed emotions about these case, especially Rice and Peterson’s. Certainly more facts will come out as time passes. And we can all agree that domestic violence against women, children — or men, for that matter — is wrong. No excuses, no exceptions. But let’s not rush to cast the first stone. Let’s turn our attention from the men involved to the issues involved. Let’s react with careful consideration, with the better angels of our nature. Let’s not react with a wolf-pack mentality.