Under The Sun

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Bad People in Sports

[This comment was originally posted to STATLG-L, the Baseball (and Lesser Sports) Discussion List.]

It seems to me that the reason why there's always a clamor for clemency toward athletes who have done bad things is not, as the cynics suppose, specially because they are athletes, but rather just because they are people: when confronted with any individual human being who has erred, we are inclined to give him/her/it another chance. Clearly there are times when that instinct should be judged misguided: "career schmucks", as it were (Pete Rose and Darryl Strawberry are the two I can think of off the top of my head). But there are very few people who can justifiably be labeled career schmucks before the age of 20, especially given the backgrounds from which most candidates for such judgment come.

It's a risk, yes, but what's the risk and what's the payoff? The risk is, first, that the guy will really f up and an innocent person will be hurt; second, that we'll teach kids the lesson that personal responsibility isn't important. But the former would happen anyway if we kicked the guy out on his rear, and the latter is a tertiary, not to mention contingent, consequence: there are lots of ways to teach personal responsibility, such as, you know, teaching it. The risks, in other words, are fairly small. But in the case of college athletes, the potential gain from "one more chance" is huge: at least a college degree, and possibly the instant class-jump of a professional career. And that gain is passed along to entire families. I once heard [now-retired Green Bay Packers safety] LeRoy Butler (in a TV interview) speak thoughtfully about trying to raise his children with the right attitude toward money, because he had learned it the hard way and they, thank God, didn't have to. His children will grow up middle-class, and will, hopefully, get a middle-class education and live middle-class lives. The cycle of poverty is broken. That's huge. And between the concrete good of a family escaping poverty and the insubstantial evil of "corrupting the youth", there's just no comparison.

I'll repeat my main point: "give him another chance" isn't about athletes; it's just that the extreme-ness of athletes makes the issues more obvious. Almost everyone deserves another chance. That athletes are more likely to get one may indeed be unfair, but it is not bad.

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