There’s no question that winding up in the NFL is a career destination that many young Black men look at as preferable. Football, for so many young brothers, is a culture, not just a sport. You need only visit your local high school on a Friday night through the autumn to peer in to the lives of so many guys who hope to spend the early part of their lives on the gridiron.
But lately, the NFL has been showing a side to football that reveals more about this culture than what we’ve been willing to talk about.
Between reports of Ray Rice’s well-publicized abuses of his wife and his subsequent suspension from the league and being cut by the Baltimore Ravens, allegations against the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson of child abuse, and most recently Arizona Cardinals’ Jonathan Dwyer being accused of domestic abuse against his wife, it’s been a PR nightmare for the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell.
The news cycle has been dominated by these stories over the past two weeks — as it seems to be whenever a Black athlete gets in trouble — but this isn’t the case when someone like Ben Rothlesberger is accused of sexual assault. But looking at the culture of football, among Black and White athletes, the NFL is hardly where abusive behavior among some (nowhere near a large number) can start.
Young Black men in all walks of life are attracted to athletics at the junior high and high school levels for a myriad of reasons: Our heroes play pro-sports. We see sports as a way out of socio-economically disadvantaged situations. We see it as a way to get an education at schools we would otherwise have no access to.
And let’s be real: we know sports attracts girls.
But youth sports is also a place where competition, and subsequently, aggression is encouraged. To win, you have to be able to compete. To compete, you must be aggressive. It’s a useful lesson for a young man to learn in this society. It’s a primary lesson coaches want us to learn, and they spend at least the early part of the season drilling us on that as we run our laps and do our conditioning.
Still, could it be that the aggression and passion we learn on the football fields, basketball courts, 400-meter tracks, and hockey rinks can spill over in to our off-sport lives? Could it be that the embryo of abusive behavior develops in high school locker rooms?
Now, let’s be clear. You’d be hard pressed to find an institution that is better for the development of young men and women than team sports. Millions of people in this country over past century have participation in some form of athletic competition in their educational resumes. That participation has done everything from develop leadership and teamwork skills to save them from a life on the street.
In lots of cases, coaches have served not only as role models, but as surrogate parents. They are the unsung heroes of our society, and I can’t tell you how many young Black men who are not locked up have their coaches to thank for it. Football is just one of those sports.
But there are other arguments against young men being involved in such activities. Last year, The Atlantic published an article making the case against high school sports. The premise was that other countries aren’t as sports-obsessed as we are in America, but have higher high school graduation rates. Now an argument can easily be made that America has a higher dropout rate that has nothing to do with sports and that high school athletes are more likely to graduate than non-athletes (ironically, also from The Atlantic). But this isn’t the only author who has been critical of the high school sports system.
A few years ago, New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden published a landmark book entitled “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” that takes a look at African Americans in the national athletic system from the junior high level all the way through pro-sports. Rhoden eloquently described a system, that although healthy for most (including myself), has also served to exploit and excuse the behavior of others:
The sports industry is not just a signature aspect of the American way of life, but has also become a major component of the American economy. What distinguishes sports from other industries is the nature of its raw material: For the last 50 years, the prime raw resource in the sports industry has been Black muscle. The work of the industry is to extract those bodies from where they primarily reside — in the Black neighborhoods of rural and urban America — and put them to work. Now a sophisticated recruiting apparatus has been created for that purpose. The apparatus is called the Conveyor Belt.
Rhoden is almost prophetic in the way he takes a look at how this “Conveyor Belt” system turns out some athletes who believe that because they are stars they are above responsibility for anything but being a star athlete.
The Conveyor process makes a future star feel he is above the fray from an early age. Isolated on the Belt, young athletes become accustomed to hearing “yes” all the time and having adults fawn over them and give them second and third chances because of the promise of their talents. The end result is often as evident on the crime blotter as in the sports section. No matter how focused and disciplined they are on the court, young athletes are not given any restraints off the court.
He goes on to argue that the “Conveyor Belt” has served to dull racial sensibilities and a willingness to stand for causes, and is particularly critical of the athletic superstars of the ’80s and ’90s for this reason. And perhaps this was not lost on post-millennial athletes who took stands for Trayvon Martin, and more recently, Mike Brown.
But he makes a significant point about a lack of restraint, which could lead anyone, athlete or not, to behavior like Rice or cases like the two Steubenville, Ohio High School football players who were convicted of raping a drunken teenaged girl and texting nude photos of her. So the question must be asked, was the behavior of these two young men encouraged by an ugly sub-culture in high school sports? Were they on Rhoden’s “Conveyor Belt?”
Our youth sports system has produced some of our best and brightest, but it’s because it has been able to rein in over-the-top behavior, mete out discipline, and bring out the best in character in its participants. When the system fails to do this, socially aggressive behavior can go unchecked and find its way to the pro-level, where Goodell is forced to do damage control and we keep hearing about it in the news.
Are Rice, Peterson, and Dwyer the only ones that might have allegations come out against them? Probably not. But the lesson from all of this is not to beat up on pro sports because of the misbehavior of a few players. It’s to be sure that youth sports does what it is intended to do: develop young men and women that we would all like to have as our teammates.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray