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Should We Expect Star Athletes to be More Socially Responsible?

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An ESPN.com headline yesterday directed me to a story about Kobe Bryant and the video game “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” but from a decidedly different point of view. Interviewed for the piece was Todd Walker, a youth football coach in northern California who also happens to work at a funeral home. In the context of an urban gun culture that claims the lives of far too many young people, Walker argued it’s irresponsible for Bryant to actively promote a game that Walker believes glorifies gunplay.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant shooting an automatic weapon, complete with his "Mamba" customization, in a commercial for "Call of Duty: Black Ops"

And with that, I had to ask myself: Just how socially responsible should we expect our athletes, and by extension entertainment celebrities, to be?

On the one hand, it could be argued that Bryant is just another person, allowed to think, speak, and behave as freely as any of us. Friends of mine let the world of Facebook know they’re spending all night playing Black Ops, so why can’t Kobe do the same? If those same friends were told they could make a few bucks promoting the game, they’d do it in a heartbeat. So why shouldn’t Bryant be given the same opportunity?

Critics like Walker contend that as a celebrity who is emulated by fans young and old, Bryant has a responsibility to set a good example. Happily supporting a game that focuses on guns and death effectively romanticizes the violence that plagues the very inner cities many of his fans populate. Opponents add that while people spend money on tickets and merchandise, ultimately benefiting Bryant, he is promoting a violent culture which claims the lives of those very same fans.

It’s been 17 years since Charles Barkley’s famous Nike commercial, which boldly opened, “I am not a role model.” In the 30-second, black-and-white spot, Barkley added, “Parents should be role models,” then ended with the statement, “Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

Now Barkley made a career of being his own, speaking his mind with quips like, “I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan.” And Nike has evolved into a cultural icon with provocative and artistic 30- and 60-second features. But none has sparked a debate like the Barkley spot, a debate that resurfaces again and again with stories like Bryant’s.

Do fans, particularly young fans, really emulate their sports and entertainment figures? Just because we are swayed to buy a pair of Air Jordans because Michael Jordan used them to soar to new heights, does that mean we’re going to gamble just like he did? We copied his tongue-wagging, his on-court swagger, but will we follow his off-court example?

The answer is no, but that doesn’t mean he, Barkley, or Bryant are free and clear to do whatever they want.

David Gelman discussed the Barkley commercial and the broader issue of social responsibility in Newsweek shortly after the spot debuted in 1993. Social science research, he said, demonstrates that children rarely adopt the behaviors of their sports role models. Gary Alan Fine, then the head of the sociology department at the University of Georgia, said in the article that children are “fairly sophisticated by the time they reach the preadolescent years,” and so they aren’t overly swayed by celebrities.

Interestingly, the impact of a celebrity’s missteps is far greater for adults. Children are far more likely to excuse a popular figure’s mistakes by simply dismissing the star and adopting a new one, a sort of free agency of celebrity. Adults, on the other hand, let the disappointment linger. In Gelman’s article, Dr. Gerald Dabbs, then the spokesperson for the New York Council for Child Psychiatry, recalled Paul Reubens’ (Pee-Wee Herman) arrest for indecent exposure in 1991. Though the incident received considerable national media attention, not a single child asked Dabbs about the star’s arrest. The only conversations on the subject were broached by parents.

I experienced a similarly unexpected dichotomy of sensitivity in my own sports career. Serving as general manager for a new minor league baseball team, the team name harkened back to a natural disaster that changed the host city’s history. In a sponsorship meeting with four representatives of a major regional bank, one of the executives was concerned about PR backlash from the team’s name… but it wasn’t the same executive that had lived through the disaster. The survivor had moved on, while his colleague dwelled not on personal impact, but concern over potential sensitivities.

So does this absolve today’s sports superstars of public responsibility? Not so fast. NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone, then a perennial all-star, wrote to Barkley in a column for Sports Illustrated, “Charles… I don’t think it’s your decision to make. We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.” Gelman similarly observed, “Celebrities like Barkley may decline the honor, but their high visibility obliges them to behave with at least an awareness that they are being watched by millions.”

As an exec who has spent years handling team and league PR, I tend to see things from that side of the table. Whether a star acknowledges any sort of responsibility to his or her fans, I personally find it discouraging that they wouldn’t be cognizant of the strategic benefits of not behaving like a self-indulgent child. Just months after superstar Gilbert Arenas was suspended for half of the season because of gun-related charges, why would Bryant even risk the negative imagery? On top of that, why would his advisors and entourage, who are charged with the well-being of his image, allow him to do so? I can’t imagine the financial benefits are so outrageous so as to be worth the risk. So was it ignorance? A “bigger than the game” bravado? I wish I could explain it.

It’s this behavior that has fans at times decrying the demeanor of star athletes. It’s not so much a celebrity spoiling his or her opportunity and talents by getting involved in a self-destructive habit like drugs. It’s the distance between fan and athlete—physical, socio-economic, and emotional—that riles the public even more. The common mantra is that fans spend sums of money just to be able to experience a game in person or buy a jersey of their favorite player, yet athletes and celebrities pay mere lip service to their fans, if that. Is it hypocrisy or mere ignorance that led Lou Whitaker, showing up at union meeting during the 1994 baseball strike which cancelled the World Series in a limousine, to declare, “I’m rich. What am I supposed to do, hide it?” New York Post writer Phil Mushnick was equally pointed in his criticism after Barkley’s commercial: “Funny, how big shots accept all the trappings of role modeldom–especially the residual commercial cash–before they renounce their broader responsibilities to society.”

To be clear, I’m not asking every athlete and celebrity to be like Tim Wakefield, an eight-time nominee and 2010 winner of Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award for his community efforts. To be fair, it seems no degree of good works goes without criticism. Tiger Woods (long before he turned his own world upside down) was publicly criticized for not doing enough for the community. This despite the three charitable organizations founded by Woods collecting nearly $100 million over three years recently. Lance Armstrong, Andre Agassi, even Yao Ming have been ranked among The Giving Back 30, a list of top celebrity charitable benefactors, but each has suffered far more in the PR sector for their own failures, real or implied.

Charity rarely resonates for long, not with the public’s salacious appetite for scandal. Good works get a nice little feature from time to time on “SportsCenter,” and the Roberto Clemente Award makes for a lovely photo op for Major League Baseball and the award’s sponsor, Chevrolet. Scandal, legal troubles, police blotters… these drive the news cycle.

And so, to get back to the original question, how socially responsible should today’s athletes and celebrities be? We really don’t expect much. In fact, in light of behavior that’s oftentimes reported, we have come to expect the negative. From Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Pete Rose, our sports heroes have always been fallible and human, notwithstanding their sometimes superhuman efforts during games.

It’s not surprising that Bryant is promoting Black Ops. It also wouldn’t be shocking if he didn’t think it’s a big deal to gleefully brandish a personalized automatic weapon, especially if he cashed a check for his appearance. But the same day the article appeared on ESPN.com, Southern Miss officials reported that one of three football players shot over the weekend is paralyzed from the waist down, and another can’t speak because the gunshot tore through his vocal cords. News like this puts Bryant’s actions in a decidedly selfish context.

Of course, Walker knows all too well about similar scenes, with younger victims and graver circumstances. That’s why, in yesterday’s article, he invited Bryant to tour the funeral home where Walker works, so he can show the NBA star some of the results of casual gunplay. “He damned sure needs to see it,” Walker was quoted as saying.

Would we like more social responsibility? Perhaps, but even then, we would look at it a little suspiciously. If I were to advise an athlete right now, my advice would be to be personally responsible, first and foremost. Recognize the context of your actions, along with their scope and reach. I don’t ask for athletes to go out of their way to do positive things, because they’re already offering us so much. After all, sport is a billion dollar business because of the games themselves, the incredible achievements. They lift us. In sports we can escape and indulge, forge bonds and sometimes find ourselves.

So I’m not asking for more social responsibility from athletes. Just less personal ignorance.

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Written by sportsinbriefs

November 18, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Why You Should Care About Brendan Burke

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Brendan Burke, seen here in a family photo after his father captured the Stanley cup as GM of the Anaheim Ducks.

Brendan Burke died Friday.

Never heard of him? Maybe I should rephrase it in a way that you might better recognize him.

One of six children of Brian Burke, president and general manager of the most valuable hockey franchise in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and GM of the United States hockey team for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Brendan Burke died Friday.

For those who have heard of Brendan, you likely would have best understood this:

Brendan Burke, the openly gay son of Brian Burke, died Friday.

And unfortunately, that is what made Friday’s tragic event newsworthy.

I’ve never met Brendan, never knew him personally. Like most people, I only became aware of him when ESPN’s John Buccigross wrote a moving piece about Brendan in November.

With the Buccigross story, Brendan became a household name. His father, one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in hockey, showed his softer side. The University of Miami hockey team, led by coach Enrico Blasi, became a haven for open-mindedness and inclusion.

The article also made Brendan a question-in-waiting, namely: Will the hockey establishment be able to accept an openly gay man? Brendan was a manager of the RedHawks hockey team, but he was also planning to attend law school, with the hope of working in an NHL front office like his father.

Whether or not Brendan would have been able to craft a career in hockey will never go answered, though I’m inclined to say he would have. The issue prompts the natural follow-up, though: Would hockey, or any major league-level team sport, accept an openly gay man?

The immediate reaction to the Buccigross story on Brendan was that the NHL would accept him. Hockey, people reasoned, was more grounded and open than the other “Big Four” sports. Besides, he had Brian Burke on his side, a regular on The Hockey News list of the most powerful people in hockey.

But would an openly gay man survive as an active player in a team sport? It’s an astonishingly divisive question, if only because of the variety of answers and their rationales.

The “We Are The World” answer is, yes, of course. Sports accept athletes from all walks of life, regardless of skin tone, nationality, religion, and upbringing. That may be because at its highest levels, all that matters are results. Put on a uniform, outperform your opponents, and the sport and its fans will forgive anything from racial inconveniences to manslaughter.

Sure, such an athlete will hear it from opposing fans. But that just becomes noise to players, an energizing force whether it supports you or despises you. The media? Once again, that’s an accepted element to being an athlete.

The greatest divide for an openly gay athlete to cross will be with the players themselves. Athletes are stereotypically men’s men, explosive vessels of testosterone waiting to be unleashed upon the opposing team. But being gay is generally observed, especially among the hyper-masculine, as being less than a man. Locker room chatter is littered with derogatory comments about gays, directed towards players or actions that seem less than manly.

Jackie Robinson, left, with his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate, Pee Wee Reese.

In this respect, it’s not altogether unlike the breaking of the color barrier, the influx of athletes from Latin America, and the arrival of European players in the NHL. Negative attitudes were common and locker rooms were divided. But leaders like Pee Wee Reese, who famously put his arm around Jackie Robinson, bridged those barriers and helped make integration possible.

Buccigross wrote about a similar evolution in his article. After Brendan made it known he was gay, the University of Miami locker room changed. The players were not only accepting, but their homophobic chatter even changed. But it’s only one step to adjust locker room language. That is as much as case of being more careful about the timing or audience in which someone uses a term as it is eliminating the term from one’s vocabulary. But when the language changes, the attitude must follow.

There’s an added element to crossing the rainbow divide in team sports, though. Before a locker room becomes a place of team bonding and banter, it serves a functional purpose as a place to change clothes and shower. For players to accept a gay teammate, they have to do more than just accept him on the field or in interviews. They have to become comfortable dropping their, well, guard.

Bob Costas observed this after interviewing former NFL player Esera Tuaolo, who publicly declared that he was gay after his retirement. “It’s a hyper macho atmosphere,” Costas said. “[A] number of players expressed almost Neanderthal views about sharing a locker room with a gay person, and being a teammate with a gay person and what the consequences of that would be.”

Equally as difficult to overcome are the religious or ideological attitudes about homosexuality. The player who believes a gay teammate violates natural law or is doomed to hell might never see him as just a teammate. Players with this attitude may never see the teammate, and instead only focus on these perceived “faults.”

That there would be a gay athlete in a major team sport shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Studies show at least one to several percent of the population is gay; at one percent, that would make for more than three dozen at the major league level of the “Big Four” sports. John Amaechi and Billy Bean, like Tuaolo, have famously “come out” in recent years, though they did so only after their playing careers were over.

The players still became lightning rods. Former NBA guard Tim Hardaway commented that he “wouldn’t want [Amaechi] on his team.”  He added, “I would… really distance myself from him because… I don’t think that’s right. And you know I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we’re in the locker room. I wouldn’t even be a part of that.”

Pat Riley, his former coach with the Miami Heat, replied, “[Hardaway’s attitude] would not be tolerated in our organization.” Riley continued, “That kind of thinking can’t be tolerated. It just can’t.”

That’s not to say that attitudes like Hardaway’s can’t change. The recently passed Bobby Bragan was one of the most outspoken members of the Brooklyn Dodgers, ardently against the arrival of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball. Then he watched what Robinson went through and the way he handled himself. Historian Steve Treder said Bragan “saw that he’d been wrong all along, that what he’d been taught to believe was nonsense.” He would go on to found the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation, which every year awards scholarships to dozens of kids in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, regardless of color or creed.

What would it take for an openly gay athlete to find acceptance in a major league team sport, an environment that Costas referred to in this context as one of “hyper-heterosexuality”? Costas observed it would take “a person of guts and commitment to do it.” This thinking isn’t unlike that of Branch Rickey, who searched some time for a player to cross baseball’s color line before he found Robinson. To be more than just a token gesture, Robinson had to be the best athlete that could handle the transition, not simply the best athlete.

Still, it would require talent. Jim Bouton, author of the myth-shattering Ball Four, commented, “The first [openly] gay [MLB] player is going to have to be a good player.” Sports organizations are willing to overlook even the most grievous issues if a player can produce. They will jettison a fringe player that brings them more grief than he may be worth, though.

Bouton made a fine point when he said, “You can’t wait for every single player to accept a gay player.” In fact, 63 years after Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award, you’re likely to still find pockets of bigotry in baseball. 100% acceptance is a fantasy, a practical impossibility, be it acceptance of race, nationality, or sexual orientation. And it’s naive to expect a Bragan-like transformation of every player who opposed a gay athlete.

One fact is quite certain, though. The first openly gay player in a major team sport will always be that, before he is anything else – and he will have to come to grips with it before he ever makes the announcement. Regardless of any awards bestowed or championships won, he will always be the gay athlete that achieved them. Costas opined, in the context of sports, “[A] heterosexual person’s sexuality, generally speaking, becomes just a part of a larger persona… whereas the gay person’s sexuality becomes a definition.”

Which brings us back to Brendan Burke. The 21-year-old was by all accounts an intelligent, thoughtful, passionate man with a bright future. But on this cold Saturday, a day after his passing, we find ourselves discussing this young man not because of his past or his future, but because he was gay.

Someday, maybe someday soon, this won’t be the case.

Written by sportsinbriefs

February 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm

South Carolina and the $25,000 lesson

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The South Carolina Gamecocks basketball team knocked off #1 and previously unbeaten Kentucky Tuesday night, setting off a raucous celebration that saw fans storm the court.

One day later, South Carolina’s coffers were $25,000 lighter, the result of a Southeastern Conference fine.

Gamecock fans exuberance cost the program $25,000

It turns out the SEC has a policy in place to levy progressive fines if fans at a basketball or football game rush onto the playing field during or after a game. The first such incident earns a $5,000 penalty, which increases to $25,000 for the second offense and $50,000 for the third offense.

South Carolina guard Devan Downey, who implored fans to join the celebration, was unrepentant after the game when asked about a potential fine: “I’m pretty sure the university’s got some money somewhere to pay the fine.”

The prevailing attitude when a school is fined for rushing the court is mild surprise. In a world where the sports pages are invaded by offenses of varying nature, exuberant celebration appears to be the least of our worries. After all, the same day the fine was announced, the NBA saw fit to suspend two players, including superstar Gilbert Arenas, for drawing guns on each other. So a few fans got excited because of a landmark win ignored the “Authorized Personnel Only” signs. Big deal, right?

Not exactly.

People casually point to the SEC’s rule as being instituted just weeks after the infamous “Palace Brawl” that saw Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons players fight with fans at the Palace at Auburn Hills. But the rule was actually put in place as a result after a University of Georgia fan was accused of punching Florida Gator Matt Walsh after a basketball game.

The policy was quickly put in place for the safety of all parties involved – although the rule falls under the conference’s sportsmanship guidelines. To date, the SEC is the only conference to have such a rule.

And there’s a damn good reason to have such a rule. Let me rephrase that: There’s a hollow reason to have the rule – it’s called public relations. But there’s a far better reason to enforce the rule, and we’re seeing more and more evidence of it.

The Palace Brawl is probably the most egregious spectacle to date, but it’s hardly an isolated incident, nor is the trend limited to pro sports. A year before the SEC saw fit to pass the rule, Nebraska football player Kellen Huston knocked out a celebrating Missouri fan with a sucker punch. Gators basketball player Brandon Powell threw a punch at a Vanderbilt fan who had stormed the court after the Commodores knocked off then-#1 Florida in 2007.

Blount (white stocking cap) being restrained by an Oregon coach

More recently, we watched as officials restrained Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount when he tried to engage several fans, just minutes after Blount punched a Boise State opponent. Even Tuesday night, rumors circulated that Kentucky player DeMarcus Cousins punched a South Carolina fan during the mayhem.

Not every example of fan pandemonium results in violence. Sometimes, it’s just tedious, as it was when Texas Tech fans rushed the field three times before the game was even over in the Red Raiders’ upset of Texas in 2008.

In fact, one of the most famous plays in college football history is considered so in part because of extra people on the field. The Cal-Stanford game in 1982 ended with “The Play”, a series of Cal laterals and Kevin Moen scoring the game-winning touchdown… as the Stanford band scattered from the playing field and end zone.

But more and more, fans on the field or the court can lead to nothing good.

Emotion runs high in athletic contests, and occasional violence can be the result of such passion. When violence occurs between participants, it is quelled quickly and punishment is meted out. It’s called sports justice.

But the more we blur the line between the field and the stands, the more we also blur the line between player and fan. It’s not so much that fans become players, but by invading the players’ realm, they subject themselves to whatever might happen on the field of play. And from here on the couch, any fan that crosses that line, be it alone or with thousands of his closest friends, deserves just about whatever happens to him.

Besides, what can reasonably be expected from this equation:

Several frustrated visiting players who just suffered a crushing defeat, plus

Thousands of delirious fans celebrating a victory, minus

Security necessary to shield the players from the fans or provide safe passage off the court or field?

It’s a recipe for disaster, one that someday will make the Palace Brawl seem like a kindergarten tiff.

Ultimately, precautions must be proactive. A few senior citizens in yellow jackets or a simple rope line, as was used in South Carolina, can’t hold back a wave of fans, no more than they can hold back waves at the shore. More substantial barriers between fans and the playing surface are out, since they devalue all those big money seats down below.

Which means it comes down to security. And what is security but manpower and training? If an athletic department wants to evaluate this by the numbers, they’re one day going to realize that increased security for an hour or two is far less expensive than increasing fines. Or escalating incidents.

Sure, maybe it’s a sign of the times. We’ve taken an innocent act of pure jubilation shared by a team and its fans, and we’ve injected trepidation and fear and violence.

So more conferences need to follow the SEC’s lead and institute rules. And athletic directors need to take this more seriously than South Carolina’s Eric Hyman, who joked that fans were giving him $1 bills to pay the fine. And fans need to remember they’re fans, they bought a ticket to revel in the stands.

Stay where you belong, so monumental victories can remain memorable because of the triumph, not because of what they spawned immediately afterward.

Written by sportsinbriefs

January 28, 2010 at 1:15 am

Briefs Bits

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If there were any moment that underscored the need to change the selection process for the NBA All-Star Game, it’s now. The mere possibility that Allan Iverson and Tracy McGrady could start is appalling, even if it is an event for the fans. Iverson bolted from the Memphis Grizzlies after just three games this season, landing in Philadelphia with the 76ers. Even more embarrassing is McGrady, who played in 46 minutes this season before the Houston Rockets banished him while they try to work out a trade.

Heralded Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, the 21-year-old lefthander who has been clocked at 102 mph, signed a six-year, $30 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds? Cincinnati reportedly outbid the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels, among other teams. The Reds, really?

If you’re ever in need of a healthy chuckle, peruse the injury reports in the NHL. In a sport where an injured player’s weaknesses can easily become targets in a battle on the boards, teams are increasingly hesitant to put a bullseye on even the most obvious injuries. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Danny Syvret was taken into the boards recently and left the game clutching his shoulder after it was obviously separated. On the report, it’s an “upper body injury”. A player with a “lower body injury” gets knee surgery – and the injury report remains the same. My favorite is the concussion that is labeled an “upper body injury”. Expect the reports to get even more nebulous as teams approach the playoffs, too.

To Dallas Cowboys fans who complain that Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings ran up the score with a meaningless late-game touchdown last week: “Waaaahhhhhh!” If you don’t want the other team to run up the score on you, a more effective approach might be a better defense.

To the Minnesota Vikings: Beware of the long collective memory shared by teams and their fans. Sometime, no matter if it’s next year or in five years, the Cowboys will exact some revenge. Of course, unless it’s a playoff game, the revenge will be meaningless, but at least Dallas will feel better.

Written by sportsinbriefs

January 19, 2010 at 11:08 pm