Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Ethics of Supporting the Sinner

It is an understatement to say there was little sympathy for Atlanta Falcons Roddy White, Alge Crumpler, DeAngelo Hall, Joe Horn and Chris Houston when they were fined by the NFL for displaying tributes to Michael Vick during a nationally televised Monday night game. After scoring a touchdown, White’s jersey was pulled up by Horn to reveal a “Free Mike Vick” T-shirt, and White, Crumpler, Hall and Houston all wore black eye strips with written tributes to Vick, which the league called “displaying an unauthorized personal message.”

More to the point, the players were fined for displaying support for Vick, who was recently sent to prison for gambling abuses, running a dog-fighting operation, killing some of the dogs in horrible fashion, and lying about it. Vick has given the NFL a giant PR problem, and the last thing it wanted to see was players sending the message, “Sure, he’s a dog-torturing criminal, but we love him anyway.” The players, who, like Vick, are all African-American, not only elicited anger from web commenters, but quite a bit of racist invective as well.

“Hate the sin, but never the sinner” is a well-regarded quote from Clarence Darrow, the iconic criminal defense lawyer who would have defended Michael Vick if the attorney hadn’t been dead for 80 years. But doing as Darrow preached is not as easy as it sounds, nor is it necessarily accurate to say that this Christian philosophy (Darrow himself was an atheist, ironically enough) is a good approach to life and ethics. If we like an individual, it becomes easier to accept his or her sins, or even to stop thinking of them as sins at all. For example, Gloria Steinem, the feminist, liked Bill Clinton so much that she reversed her position on boss-to-employee sexual advances when his Monica indiscretions came to light. People we love, like, admire or respect can corrupt our values, because we subconsciously conclude that unethical acts committed by these individuals can’t be that bad. Michael Vick can’t be a hero, a symbol of the league, a role model and a dog-killer too. If we truly hate the sin, we may not hate the sinner but we have to like him a lot less. The NFL was absolutely correct to object to the message sent by Vick’s colleagues.

That is not to say that what Horn, White, Crumpler, Hall and Houston did is without ethical justification. Members of minority groups, as a survival strategy, will usually display stronger loyalty to misbehaving members of their group than a majority member will. My mother, whose parents came to this country from Greece, was taught to regard her extended family as an impenetrable unit that requires absolutely unconditional loyalty and regard. She constantly deplores the fact that I have little interest in continuing relationships with my cousins, aunts and uncles, most of who I just don’t respect or like very much. But back in Boston in the 1930s, Greeks had to stick together.

Before the United States became a dominant force in the world, it nurtured a similar state of mind. Stephen Decatur’s famous (and often misquoted) toast — “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!” — was made in 1816, just four years after the British burned Washington, D.C. Today, many look upon Decatur’s words as a call to mindless patriotism. To cite a current example of the issue: those who deplore the war in Iraq can care about the troops and wish them no harm, but typically will not and need not cheer them on. Cheering the sinner can become indistinguishable from cheering the sin.

Thus, over time, the understandable tendency of minority groups to support their members who are embroiled in conflict with the government, the media, or majority public opinion will begin to corrupt the group’s values, as it begins to stockpile “heroes” who embody unethical values. This is a cancer that can metastasize throughout an entire culture. Black America’s values are threatened by the instinct to rally around vagabonds, thugs, con-men, frauds and creeps like Marion Barry, Barry Bonds, Cynthia McKinney, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Michael Jackson, William Jefferson, O. J. Simpson and the worst of the hip-hop artists.

But it is still a survival instinct and a family instinct, based on loyalty and sound family values. An athletic team, with its need to closely coordinate in order to prevail against strong opposition, must cultivate and support at least as strong an urge to stand by team members through adversity as any ethnic minority clan. The Atlanta players who embarrassed the NFL by seeming to embrace their disgraced quarterback should be regarded as casualties of multiple clashing cultures, all pursuing values and principles that can accomplish great good. It is a lot to ask four young football players to sort them all out and do the right thing. Their support for their friend was loyal, gallant, and understandable. Unfortunately, it was the wrong friend and the wrong time for all the groups and cultures involved.

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