Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Torturing Dogs, Neglecting Children and Stealing Signals: Tough Ethics Calls in the NFL

Just as we were beginning to reign in all of the absurd comparisons some commentators were using to help Michael Vick wriggle out of the professional disaster he crafted for himself, the NFL provided some genuine head-scratchers for anyone searching for consistency in the league’s new personal conduct policy.

Travis Henry, a running-back with the Denver Broncos, had to appear in court for consistently failing to make child support payments for one the nine children he has fathered with nine different women, none of whom were married to him. According to USA Today, at least seven of these mothers have had to seek court orders requiring Henry, who will make 25 million dollars under his current contract, to pay his share of child-rearing costs. Henry is quite a dad. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that while he was skipping support payments for his 3-year-old son, he purchased a $100,000 car and spent $146,000 on jewelry. He has repeatedly stopped making child support payments to the mother. As deadbeat dads go, this guy is my candidate for “Father of the Year.”

USA Today’s columnist DeWayne Wickham, who has been in the camp of those trying to argue that Vick’s suspension by the NFL is excessive, seized on Henry’s admittedly abysmal conduct, saying,

Now, I’m not trying to compare what Vick did to dogs — some of which he killed — to Henry’s failure to support his child. But just because their bad behavior is substantially different doesn’t mean they are not comparatively offensive. I don’t like what Vick did, but I loathe what Henry did — and it bothers me that the NFL doesn’t seem to be as bothered by a player who mistreats his children as it is one who violates dogs. 

First of all, Wickham is comparing what Vick did to what Henry has done, hence his use of the word “comparatively.” But he raises a valid point. The NFL’s justification for punishing Vick is that his conduct reflects badly on his team, league and sport, and that as a public figure who is literally paid to be a hero, Vick’s dishonest, illegal and cruel conduct warrants shunning by his profession, at least for some period of time if not permanently. If the league takes no action against Travis Henry, that will send a message. Is the message, as Wickham suggests, that people are less important than dogs?

If habitually sloppy thinkers like Wickham (his USA Today columns cause me to start yelling at the newspaper about 50% of the time) have their way, that will be the perceived message, but it shouldn’t be. Vick didn’t “violate dogs;” he operated a criminal conspiracy involving gambling, a professional sports no-no, broke state laws, lied to the league about his involvement, AND tortured animals. The NFL is saying that serious criminal act is worse than serious civil violations and that depravity and cruelty shows worse character and is more objectionable than outrageous irresponsibility and callousness. Those assessments are correct.

The Scoreboard endorses league punishment for Henry; Wickham is right about that. Both the National Football League and the NBA have a disgraceful number of wanton millionaires on their team’s rosters siring bastard babies in every port and then balking at child support. These players have far too much influence on the young to behave like this. A crackdown is long overdue, but such action would involve drawing some very difficult distinctions.

For example, what should be the NFL’s position on the many stars who father multiple children out of wedlock and pay their child support? That its hunk-dory, behavior to hold up as swell to America’s teens? How far into the personal life of players should sports leagues intrude? Right now, the NFL has drawn the line at criminal conduct, egregious, as in Vick’s case, and repeated, as in the case of “Pacman” Jones. When the objective is to encourage good conduct, that line excludes too much, but at least it is a clear line.

The New England Patriots cheating scandal raises more difficult issues. The team violated league rules by using a videocamera to steal signals coming from the New York Jets coach during the team’s 2007 season opening game, which it won handily. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decided to fine Patriots coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and the Patriots organization $250,000, while also taking away a first-round draft pick next year. Does this result show that the NFL has its ethical priorities in order?

It absolutely does not. Here is what Goodell should have done:

  • Suspend Belichik and all of his coaches for a long time, perhaps half the season.
  • Take away the Patriots victory and give it to the Jets.
  • Take away the draft choice.
  • Fine the Patriots a lot more than $250,000.

Belichik is far more important and influential on the integrity and reputation of the NFL than Vick. He’s a coach and a leader, and leaders do more to establish ethical standards and organization culture than any other factor. This incident proves that he cannot be trusted to do this. Belichik was caught stealing signs before, and the rule against it was clarified and strengthened as a result. NFL rules now state that “no video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches’ booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game.” This was underscored in a league memo sent Sept. 6 to NFL head coaches and general managers, which said: “Videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent’s offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches’ booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game.” The Patriots’coach knew he was cheating; this was no “mistake.” Already, sportswriters, opposing players and fans are wondering about what other games the Patriots’ coach might have stolen, and they are right to do so.

Is what Belichik did worse than what Vick did? By the standards of society and civilization, of course not, but we’re focusing on the very different world of professional football now. Belichik cheated at the core activity of that world, which is playing football and convincing people to care about who wins. His misconduct goes to the heart of the NFL’s credibility and survival. His actions are far, far more damaging to the NFL than anything Michael Vick has done, and since only the NFL can mete out punishment (Vick, remember, is being punished by the justice system as well), it has an obligation to make the punishment fit the crime against the NFL and its reputation.

Goodell didn’t do that; it is tempting to say that he didn’t have the guts. Belichik is a star, and the Patriots are a popular team; harsh punishment of either will cause controversy and problems for the league. Well, too bad. Goodell has to come down especially hard on Belichik because he is so prominent. He should send the strongest possible message: cheating is antithetical to the values of the NFL, and if you do it, it might end your career. Instead, he sent the message that if you do it, it will be expensive to get caught.

Goodell blew it, but the team itself doesn’t have to. If the Patriots want to stand for sportsmanship and fairness over win-at-any-cost, it should fire Belichik now.Yes, doing this will undoubtedly wreck the Pats season, but that should be irrelevant. Does Kraft’s team believe in fair play, or not? Does it want to send the message to its young fans, many of whom are contemplating various forms of cheating in their schoolwork, that breaking rules to reach unearned goals is just a matter of doing a risk-benefit analysis, or the message that cheating is intolerable because it is just plain wrong?

Or does money, success, and keeping season ticket holders happy trump ethical principles in the NFL? If Michael Vick’s suspension was supposed to show America that the answer was no, then there can be no justification for allowing Bill Belichik to continue coaching this season.

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