Just Sports?

Of course, this may be a tad bit late, but I don’t know what kind of pop-theology website this would be if I failed to address two bits of heated controversy in the sports world over the past two weeks. The first obviously has to do with radio talk show personality Don Imus and his comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team and the second is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspension of Adam “Pacman” Jones and Chris Henry. Fair play?Just Sports? Take One: Last week on his morning talk show, Don Imus made extremely offensive remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team that were both racist and sexist. To put it simply, they were just plain stupid. Not much else needs to be said about his comments. Of course, the media whipped itself into a fury and immediately political leaders like Jessie Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton were calling for Imus’ head, and his career, on a platter. Imus was initially suspended from his radio show for two weeks, MSNBC stopped simulcasting his radio show, and earlier today CBS fired him altogether. On Monday, Rutgers University held a press conference in which the president and the athletic director expressed their disgust and outrage over Imus’ remarks. Coach Stringer lamented the fact that Imus’ ignorant remarks had soiled an otherwise impressive basketball season for these young women (surprisingly making it to the NCAA championship game and unfortunately losing to the University of Tennessee). Finally, the basketball players stood up, commented on Imus’ remarks and fielded questions from a slew of reporters.

None of this is really surprising, especially in the sports world where some coach usually runs off at the mouth and says something offensive based on athletic ability. The way the Imus/Rutgers situation has played out is no different. The white power structure of Rutgers stood up at the press conference and staunchly denounced Imus’ remarks, further distancing themselves from any racism or bigotry. The coach stood up for her players, as should be expected. However, the highest level of maturity came from the basketball players themselves, not the president of the university or the athletic director. These women stood up and informed the media that they really had no comment on Imus’ remarks but intended on meeting with him at an undisclosed time and in an undisclosed location away from the media to let him meet them and hear their reactions to his comments firsthand. That’s it…nothing else. What responsible, mature, reserved adults!

Of course, such calm, well thought out responses aren’t media-worthy in our culture. Political and cultural leaders continued to call for Imus’ firing, and they continue to get air-time. CBS and MSNBC finally dropped Imus…more than a week after the initial comments were made. Why? Corporate began to feel the financial heat from sponsors putting their money back in their pockets. CBS and MSNBC’s response is certainly not about ethics or how appalled they are at Imus’ comments. If it was, they would have fired or suspended him immediately, but they didn’t…at least not until they saw the financial threats of remaining inactive.

Moreover, people like Reverend Al Sharpton who call for Imus’ firing aren’t really concerned with justice are they? When I can drive through any area code in this country and find a radio station that thrives financially off music that contains lyrics much more offensive than Imus’ remarks, to ask for the firing of the talk show host seems a bit short-sighted to me. Why is it that I can turn on two or three television stations that play these songs with visuals added and see no shortage of corporate sponsorship? Sharpton commented, “It’s not about taking Imus down, it’s about lifting decency up.” He also stated, “We cannot afford a precedent established that the airways can commercialize and mainstream sexism and racism.” As if this weren’t enough, Reverend Jesse Jackson chimed in, “No one should use the public airwaves to transmit racial or sexual degradation.” Are such prominent leaders this ignorant? Really Al? Are you serious Jesse? I can’t read this with a straight face…the hypocrisy is just too much. If they were really concerned with justice…well…I doubt that will ever be the case.

Just Sports? Take Two: The NFL might just be the most powerful, most successful, and best structured professional sports league in the world; however, it too is not without its fair share of controversy. Over the past few years, the NFL has seen a rise in off-the-field fiascoes, many of which find expression in other professional sports as well. Chief among these offenders has been the Chicago Bears’ Tank Johnson, the Tennessee Titans’ Adam “Pacman” Jones, and the Cincinatti Bengals’ Chris Henry (or almost their entire team for that matter). When these off the field altercations occurred, which usually ranged from domestic violence to drug use to firearm possession, the league would often fine the players or suspend them. Of course, given their wealth, popularity, and importance to the team, the legal system would often turn a blind eye or impose laughable punishment. Thankfully, any half-hearted approach to punishing “offensive” players on the part of the NFL seems to be changing drastically. This week, the NFL’s new commissioner Roger Goodell suspended “Pacman” Jones for the entire 2007 NFL season and taking nearly $1.3 million from the cornerback’s checking account. Goodell suspended Henry for eight games at a loss of nearly $350,000 to the Bengals’ wide receiver. Goodell could have suspended Henry for the entire year, and I doubt anyone would have disagreed.

Of course, there might be some critics, like me, who think that such action comes a bit too late. Both players have received second, third, and in some cases, fourth chances to get their acts together. Finally, Goodell dropped the iron fist where it hurt, their bank accounts. His comments in his letters to both players were stern but measured, placing the blame for their outlandish behavior, and their chances for future success (not to mention jobs), squarely on their shoulders. Such a response out of the NFL office also takes some of the pressure off individual teams if they are worried about how to punish future offenders. Time will only tell if Goodell’s actions sent a clear message.

I find it especially interesting that these two events in the world of sports occured so close to one another. I think the situation in the NFL this week reveals, in an even clearer light, that Sharpton’s campaign against Imus has little to do with justice or decency. Where was the Reverend when police officers found a cache of weapons and loads of marijuana in Tank Johnson’s home (with children present!) or in the aftermath of “Pacman’s” involvement in a riot at a strip club in Las Vegas in which he reportedly threw $81,000 dollars onto the stage and has been accused of physically assaulting women? Does Don Imus really not deserve a second chance when Tank Johnson still got to play in the Super Bowl only weeks after police had discovered the weapons and drugs in his home?

I certainly don’t want to excuse Imus for his ignorant remarks. I cannot know and will not pretend to know how it affected those young women who had just accomplished so much in their athletic career and who are continuing to make great accomplishments in their academic careers. However, I do feel safe in saying that Imus’ remarks didn’t put his life or the lives of others in immediate danger. I also don’t doubt that Imus’ remarks are yet another example of the viscious racism and sexism that still lurk throughout this country, rearing their ugly heads from time to time. I also feel confident in saying that this racism and sexism is wrong anywhere and everywhere, and in terms of the sexist implications of Imus’ remarks, the Reverend might do well to switch his campaign over to FM as well. I wonder if a professional athlete will lose his job the next time he breaks the law?