Friday, 24 October 2014

Four thoughts on Ray Rice: 4. Are athletes the problem?

Nathan Kalman-Lamb

Ray Rice is now one of the most notorious people in the world. I will not explain why, but if it is possible that you are unaware, I invite you to click here. (The link takes you to the story, NOT the video.) In the past few weeks, I have been providing four reasons why we need to stop demonizing Ray Rice as an individual, and start examining his behaviour as a product of some powerful cultural forces. For reason number one, click here; or two, click here; or three, click here. Today, I conclude with reason number four.

4. The last reason I want to share for why we should stop vilifying Ray Rice is that fact that doing so feeds into a notion that all athletes are essentially violent. Certainly, our earlier discussion of coercive entitlement and masculinity could understandably leave readers with this impression. After all, if athletes are socialized to treat their bodies as instruments of violence, and, further, are taught to wield them against opponents on the field of play in an effort to win not only games, but the financial rewards that accrue to them, doesn't it follow that they will carry that violence with them off the field? Well, yes, and no. We have covered the former answer in post number one in this series, but what of the latter?

It is easy in a discussion of structure (that is, the systems and institutions that pre-exist us and within which we live, for example, hierarchies of class, race, gender, sexual, and ability) to sweep the concept of agency (the ability of the individual person to determine her own fate) away entirely. This is not altogether fair, however. As difficult and seemingly immoveable as structural obstacles may seem (and, indeed, often are), this does not mean that they are impossible to scale. For instance, although it is more difficult for a non-white woman to become a top executive in a corporate hierarchy than a white man due to the systemic discrimination that exists along lines of gender and race, it is not impossible.

What does this mean in the context of athletes and violence? Well, as much as athletes may be conditioned to use violence in their everyday lives, and as difficult as it may be to figure out how to switch it off, many nevertheless succeed in doing so. These individuals deserve to be applauded for that fact, not simply tarred by the Ray Rice brush.

What I'm trying to say is that Ray Rice's actions cannot be read metonymically to stand for the actions of football players in general. How do I know? Because football players explicitly said so on  Twitter shortly after the extended elevator video was released. For instance, Terrance Knighton of the Denver Broncos commented,
"As players we must speak up. Stand up for what's right. I don't give a damn who u are or how much money you make. No place for this," and then, "If there's anyway to open that case up and give this guy the punishment he deserves, it NEEDS to be done," and, finally, "That man should be thrown out the the nfl and thrown into jail. Shame on those deciding his punishment. Smh."
TJ Lang of the Green Bay Packers said simply, "2 games. Disturbing." Likewise, Duke Ihenacho of the Washington professional football team said,
"No I don't care how you slice it, it's wrong. They gotta open the case back up and come down hard on this one..." and then, "& being a fan of someone that's a good player is one thing, but this is way bigger than football. Don't be blind to what's really important."
Chris Harris of the Denver Broncos added, "The NFL should have zero tolerance for domestic violence. There is never a reason for any man to be violent towards any woman." The list goes on.

The point is that players had the courage to speak publicly about the issue and confront their own peers even before the NFL reversed course and extended Rice's suspension to the whole season.

This stands in contrast to the actions of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's various owners, who continue to implausibly deny that they had viewed footage of what Rice did when they handed down his original two game suspension. It is easy (and just) for people to decry the violence of football, especially when it leaks off the field. What we seem to be less inclined to condemn, however, are the economic forces that propel the violence in the game, and our complicity in them as fans and consumers of the NFL. There is relatively little criticism of the fact that the NFL is an industry that is worth billions of dollars (the most valuable team, the Dallas Cowboys, is worth over $3 billion alone) and that players are taught to hit hard precisely because fans love to see them do so. If fans want to watch, then owners get paid. If they didn't then the NFL wouldn't exist. It's a simple equation, really.

It is very likely that Ray Rice was initially handed only a two game suspension because the NFL wanted to see him, one of its stars, on the field generating revenue for the league more than it cared about the implications of gender-based violence. Although players are often accused of greed (an argument that is particularly hard to defend in the NFL, in which contracts are not guaranteed) it is, in fact, ownership that is inherently motivated by a thirst for capital. After all, how many owners spoke out to denounce the two game suspension for Rice? Not one, of course.

There are a couple of lessons here. First, it is a mistake to assume that all athletes are conditioned in them same ways to the same degrees by the prevailing ideologies of sport. While those ideologies are seductive, and thus difficult to resist, there are individuals who are able to do so, and they are worthy of our admiration. Second, although they are not the ones performing violence on the field or, typically, off, owners bear far more responsibility for the culture of coercive entitlement than we are usually willing to admit. The inherent violence of the NFL has been fostered and marketed in large part because it is a remarkably lucrative source of revenue for them.

The implication of this second point is crucial. If we are really serious about challenging the culture of coercive entitlement in sport, we cannot just look to players to change their behaviour. We need to start asking more fundamental questions about violent sports like football, such as whether the pleasure that fans receive and the money that owners (and players to a much lesser extent) generate from these games are worth the frequently devastating consequences to players on the field and the people around them off of it. For, gender-based violence is not simply the purview of deviant individuals; it is an all-too-frequent consequence of activities that teach men to use violence as a necessary tool for getting what they want and need.

Activities like football.

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