SBJ/January 29 - February 4, 2001/Opinion

Athletes and crime: It's not black and white

The issue of athletes and crime is once again a topic of discussion now that the Rae Carruth trial has climbed back into the headlines of our sports sections. I am not sure why, but I had presumed guilt in his case from the early reports until the jury went out. I had doubts about the charges against Ray Lewis, but not about Carruth. (Carruth was found guilty of conspiracy and other charges for his role in the fatal shooting of a young woman.) Although both were linked to murder cases, the nature of the respective charges stood in stark contrast to each other.

In a nation that prides itself on the fairness of its court system, I am not sure that the public presumes innocence when it comes to athletes accused of crimes. On the contrary, the opposite seems to be the case. I am concerned about what some writers in the media and the public are doing with our athletes, especially African-American athletes. Perhaps unwittingly, I believe they are reinforcing racial stereotypes that too much of polite and politically correct white society still embraces but no longer verbalizes.

I cannot tell you how many calls for comments I get from writers and TV producers each time an athlete gets in trouble. After last year's Super Bowl, I noted 28 calls regarding Ray Lewis. All but one writer seemed to accept not only that Lewis was guilty but also that his being an athlete in a violent sport made the murder charge an inevitable outcome.

Lewis aside, after any other fight, the inquiry invariably includes: What makes football or basketball players more inclined to get in fights? Although there are as many game fights in their sports, I have never been asked that about hockey or baseball players.

After an incident of domestic violence involving an athlete, the inevitable question is: What makes football or basketball players more inclined to abuse women? Although there are equal numbers of hockey and baseball players accused of domestic violence, I have never been asked that sweeping question about hockey or baseball players. The questions after the charges against Carruth were always made with the broad brush.

I believe at least part of the issue of athletes and crime is about race. The media have been persistent and consistent in suggesting that basketball and football players, who again happen to be overwhelmingly African-American, are more violent than athletes in other sports and people in society in general. The result is that nearly everyone — including the police, women, fans, the media, sports administrators and athletes themselves — believes that being an athlete, especially a basketball or football player, makes a person more inclined to be violent in general and violent against women in particular.

I spoke at an elite university four years ago to 25 career diplomats. I asked them to write down five words they would use to describe American athletes. Not one missed including one of these words: dumb, violent, rapist or drug-user. That was a distinguished group of international leaders who had such assumptions impressed on them by reading the American sports pages for just one year.

Each year for the past five years, nearly 100 athletes and coaches have been arrested for assault against a woman. That means we read about accused athletes twice a week.

Of course that makes a big impression on any casual reader who does not know that each year 3 million American women are battered, 1 million are raped and 1,400 are murdered. On an average day, 8,200 women are battered, 2,700 are raped and four are killed. Athletes are included in the problem of sexual assault, but the problem is not athletes alone.

So why do stories about violence committed by NFL and NBA athletes imply such a linkage to athletics? Men's violence against women is a huge problem in America and cuts across race, economic class, age, education and profession. But in sports, we are talking about mostly African-American men and such speculation about "athletes being more inclined to" may be fueled by prevailing stereotypes.

There are athletes who have fights during games, in bars or on campus and they must face appropriate consequences. All too often, league officials seem to punish peripheral players far more than stars, but that is another matter. Some media reports imply that the violence of sports contests makes its participants more violent in society. It is another stereotype that occasional reporting on athletes has helped affirm.

Are sports any more violent today than 20 years ago, when no one would have made such an assertion? I don't think so. But our streets and our schools surely are more violent — there are 2,000 assaults in our schools every hour of every day. More American children have been killed by guns in the last 10 years than all the soldiers who died in Vietnam. That troublesome fact is not bound by race, class or geography, as the school shootings in Pearl, Jonesboro and Littleton showed so tragically.

Our athletes are going to those institutions where violence sadly seems part of the school day. It has become routine and normal. Some will go to college, a few will make the pros. The violent culture comes with them.

It needs to be said that most of the stories written about specific athletes who are violent or gender violent are about African-American athletes. Stories about them without an appropriate filter of what is going on in society reinforce the racial stereotyping I have portrayed here.

We need to understand that it is necessary both to report about athletes who do awful things but also to make clear in those stories that terrible acts by individual athletes do not imply anything about other athletes. Carruth is not a poster child for today's athlete. Nor was Lewis, now called the NFL's best defensive player. Or Latrell Sprewell, who became a hero in New York when he led the Knicks deep into the playoffs after being sport's most notorious villain when he attacked P.J. Carlesimo. Without making that clear, we are engaging in classical stereotyping and are further contributing to racial misunderstandings.

Richard E. Lapchick is director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

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