It’s been a rough stretch for those of us who still cling to the notion that sports matter because they can reflect the best parts of ourselves. Nowhere is that more evident than the decision in Steubenville, Ohio, to welcome a rapist back to the fold because he happens to be a good high school football player.
Yes, our sports are red meat for a culture fixated on entertainment. But sports at their best also become about showcasing the best parts of ourselves as human beings – our loyalties, how we strive to be great against whatever odds exist, our hopes and failures and how we learn to live with both. And how in all its difficulties life can be meaningful and great, win or lose. In ways both frivolous and deeply serious, our games can become so much more than the final tally of some team beating some other team in some random sport.
This is why they’re worth our time and attention and focus and love, why the otherwise outsized role they play in American life has its benefits. It’s why, when Yasiel Puig plays with relentless joy and abandon, we can see it as a reminder of our passions instead of a reminder of our arrogance.
It’s why Rory McIlroy’s excellence inspires us, why Jackie Robinson’s legacy changed us, why LeBron James’ homecoming reaches so many of us, why Peyton Manning’ playful rap video with his brother connects with us. In these moments sports become like any art form – music, novels, paintings, television shows, a comedian’s stand-up act: They entertain us by speaking to us about something more.
This only works when there’s perspective.
Yes, Donald Sterling’s ugliness speaks to a darker part of our culture. But the fact Tuesday marked the news that Steve Ballmer now officially owns the Clippers proves the point: We aren’t perfect, on issues of race or anything else in this country, but we can be inspiringly good when it matters. Sterling’s exit from the NBA was brought on by commissioner Adam Silver, by James and Doc Rivers and other players and coaches who took a stand, and by the fact most of us had enough outrage to force the issue.
Still, this is a fight, this idea that in the sports we love and lend our dollars and days to, that the better parts of ourselves will win out over the darker parts. And it’s been a tough stretch for those of us who want to believe there’s still meaning here.
This is a fight, this idea that in the sports we love and lend our dollars and days to, that the better parts of ourselves will win out over the darker parts. And it’s been a tough stretch for those of us who want to believe there’s still meaning here.
There’s the fact Kevin Ward is dead, regardless of how, because in the passion of a moment Tony Stewart’s car somehow struck him at a dirt track in New York last weekend. That a young man died during what now feels like a senseless competition.
There’s the NCAA, having lost a huge case in court, still domineering over its student athletes as another moneymaking football season approaches. There’s the fact Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick will miss two more games of the regular season for taking a banned substance than Ray Rice did for dragging his then-fianceé across a floor, and what that says about our own issues with women.
There are all the reminders of our imperfections, shortcomings and hypocrisies marbled into the sports world.
OK. Fine. This is, unfortunately, part of it. The NCAA, like many other institutions in America, uses platitudes to hide its greed and chase its money. And, as with other powerful people in America, Rice is going to get punished so much less than a regular guy would. Sports reflect our darker things, too.
But to explain away what’s going on in Steubenville, Ohio? The fact that one of the teenagers convicted and jailed for raping a young woman has been let back on the football team?
Let’s emphasize here: Convicted. Incarcerated.
And now, whoop-dee-do, he’s back at practice, ready to be a football player again? Because why?
"I felt that we’re really not giving him a second chance," Steubenville head coach Reno Saccoccia told a local TV station. "Some may look at it like that. I feel like he’s earned a second chance."
Ma’Lik Richmond was convicted and sentenced to at least one year in the state juvenile system last March after a jury found him and Trent Mays guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl the previous summer. Now, he gets to be a star again. This is beyond awful.
This is beyond awful. There aren’t enough words to properly underscore how sexist this is, how dismissive of the victim, how thoroughly it corrupts sports and lends credence to those who believe they have no redeeming value.
There will be ample words written on it. Let us hope there will be equal outrage.
Because our games have grown into billion-dollar affairs, and like any moneymaking endeavor, there’s always room for the thing that was great to be corrupted. Athletics today make men and women who are, at the core, entertainers into heroes and celebrities brimming with money and power and the ability to influence.
And that can be great. It can make Michael Sam more than a football player. It can lend voices that will actually be heard to issues of race when people like Sterling are exposed for what they are. It can still help fathers and mothers tell their children – as I do both of mine – that sports are worth our time.
We give, by our own choice, athletics a huge power. They, and we, need to be worthy of that transaction.
It only works if we understand that what makes sports great is what makes us great. If we turn our sports into merely what makes us awful – if our greed and our insouciance and our hatreds win out in our games – then we’ve forfeited something important.
There’s a lot to cherish about what I do for a living, and what you, reading this, probably enjoy as a serious hobby. But it’s hard, on days like this, when a rapist is welcomed back because he can play a game, and when the din of outrage isn’t loud enough to undo it, to understand how this could ever be.
Bill Reiter is a national columnist for FOXSports.com, a national radio host at Fox Sports Radio and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.