Which Athletes Are Expected To Behave?


As the NFL draft began, all eyes were on Florida State University’s controversial but talented quarterback Jameis Winston, the highly anticipated number 1 pick. The intensity of that gaze was, and is, focused as much on his stellar playing ability as it is on the many transgressions that have increased his time in the public eye–theft, public embarrassment on campus, and a persistent rape charge. This time last year, critical eyes fell on a young man who struggled to behave off the field as much as he excelled on it: former Texas A&M quarterback and current Browns player Johnny Manziel. While his mistakes were less severe in many ways, the worries that accompanied them pushed the talented prospect to the near end of the draft’s first round. What caused minor off-field antics to weigh so heavily on one of these young men, while major ones seem so dismissible in another? That question invites another question: Who do we expect to be able to behave?

News coverage and social discourse in the year since Manziel’s draft has revealed a persistent belief that good behavior on the part of black men is exceptional, a spectacle, and likely not to be trusted. Similarly, bad behavior on the part of white males has a clearly defined cause, as was repeatedly sought during Manziel’s NCAA signed memorabilia scandal in the year leading up to his draft. Further, this sort of misbehavior is seen as easily solved with disciplinary fines (which Manziel did pay, for persistent tardiness) or time spent in rehab, the latter of which Manziel did after an uneven freshman season with the Browns.

Those factors combine to form the idea that Winston’s bad behavior—blatant stealing, public offensive language, and even sexual assault—are a given, cannot be helped, and simply part of the package when drafting Winston. Indeed, a recent “issue” of ESPN’s Outside the Lines focused not on how the behavior would affect Winston’s draft order, or even on seeking to rehabilitate his embattled image, but instead seemed like a measure that allowed coaches and former mentors to say “Look, we tried” (a debatable claim unto itself). The solution provided was one seen solvable with the help of a psychologist, rather than an authority figure or someone else who could speak to character. The discussion of the normally thought-provoking TV magazine was regrettably less “Will this behavior improve?” and more “What team will be willing to put up with it?”

If we choose to place part of the blame on this inequity of treatment for Winston and Manziel on the NCAA, a governing body accustomed to causing controversy, then what does Jameis’ fate look like in the NFL? SB Nation, at least, believes more of the same. Andrew Sharp and Spencer Hall argue that black men in the NFL are punished for crimes, while white males are punished for the PR damage and distraction from the sport that their behavior causes. They made this observation in their examination of Ben Roethlisburger’s four-game suspension after his 2010 rape charges:

In my mind, if Ben Roethlisberger was a black skill player instead of a white quarterback, he’d have been demonized far more severely by the media, and there’s no way he gets off with just a four game suspension.

This sort of inequity in expectation of behavior starts far earlier for black men than for any other group, regardless of whether the perceptions they are held to are truly their reality. Sadder still, the black men in these groups who aspire to careers in popular culture believe that this work will carry them away from the burden of these expectations. But as they grow older, they will see the standards are largely the same, but enforced on a larger stage. EdWeek spoke specifically to the collision of these expectations in the classroom, but the classroom could be exchanged for any environment in which black males are in the minority, including the NFL:

A wide array of black male images in media—music, movies, and television programs—take characteristics of black culture, tie them to anti-school identities, violence, and misogyny, and use them as forms of entertainment. This means the world is inundated with scenarios that leave a false perception of black males that these youths must deal with when they enter classrooms. Such images don’t affect the academic performance of nonblack males nor how they interact with school. But black males are being socially typecast and face a constant internal dilemma of fitting into expectations embodying these false characteristics or finding spaces where they can engage in practices that are counter to the perceptions.

It cannot be ignored that while the degree to which black males are the minority is smaller in the ranks of NFL players, that is not so in terms of marketing, ownership, and leadership—the ranks that decide the value of the talent. So as with so many players before him (think of the high-profile cases of Adrian Peterson, Ray Lewis, Michael Vick, and others who have publicly and egregiously broken the law only to return to prominence afterward), there are measures taken to penalize them, but no question as to “what drove them to do these things” that arise with white players, implying that there isn’t a reason: They just do, because it’s who they are.

The demonizing by the media that Sharp and Hall cite will rightfully reappear due to the nature of Winston’s most high-profile crime; his allegations and the NFL’s need to act swiftly in matters of sexual assault are going to collide, and will do so forcefully. Winston’s selection at number 1 marks his entry onto this battlefield, but it is regrettably one that sees his failure to behave off the field as innate and immutable as his desire and ability to be great on it. And when retribution does (again, rightfully) come, it will come for a “bad black man” and not for an elite athlete.

Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog (“The Dedicated Amateur“) and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I’S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.

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