The issue of player discipline has been one of the hottest topics in professional sports over the past several months. Recent conversations have focused on Ray Rice and the physical assault against his then-fiancée, now-wife in an Atlantic City elevator, Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges, domestic violence charges (separate incidents involving Greg Hardy, Brittney Griner and Hope Solo, to name a few), Josh Hamilton’s drug relapse and Tom Brady’s deflated footballs. Through it all there has been ample discussion on how the system of disciplining players should operate.
Recently, the Sports Business Journal asked four noted sports lawyers to weigh in on a number of issues regarding player discipline. Perhaps the most intelligent comment in an article filled with thoughtful responses, came from David Cornwell, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg. In response to the question, “What does the future hold for player discipline?” Cornwell said:
“We are seeing a cultural shift take place before our eyes and we do not know it or we are ignoring it. A dirty little secret is that the growing significance of youth and amateur sports in our culture has reached the point where there is too often an inverse relationship between athletic skills and life skills. When a young man or woman shows athletic prowess, the youth and amateur sports commercial complex sweeps them up and focuses on athletic development often at the expense of their development as a person away from sports. Consequently, for far too many of those who ultimately make it to the pros, the gulf between athletic skills and life skills is the greatest because they are, by definition, the best of the best athletically. We must come up with a comprehensive plan to aid in the complete development of young athletes so that by the time they reach the pros they are better equipped for life away from athletic competition.”
Cornwell is absolutely right. For the gifted young athlete there is no shortage of resources to promote his or her athletic development. Athletic achievement often becomes the be-all and end-all in the hot pursuit of college scholarships and, for the elite, the riches that come with turning pro. The casualty in this process is the athlete’s social development. Yet, the disciplinary regimes of the major sports leagues and associations are getting tougher by the minute for athletes who are increasingly destined to fall short of the escalating standards of acceptable conduct.
The constant troubles of Ray McDonald, who was just released by the Chicago Bears, brings this issue to the forefront. The Bears released McDonald following his arrest on charges of misdemeanor domestic violence and child endangerment. The Bears signed McDonald following his release by the San Francisco 49ers, for what the team called a “pattern of behavior” after authorities announced McDonald was being investigated for possible sexual assault. (No charges were ever brought and McDonald is suing the woman who accused him). Prior to that investigation, McDonald was arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence. However, no charges were brought by the D.A.’s office due to insufficient evidence.
Following his release from the Bears, media and public attention focused on the Bears’ decision and how appropriate it was, given McDonald’s recent past. Some pundits even took the opportunity to castigate the Bears for signing McDonald in the first place. What was missing from the dialogue was the obvious: what can or should be done for Ray McDonald the person, as it appears that he is in dire need of professional intervention to deal with whatever it is that repeatedly leads him to be in the midst of such troubling incidents.
The lack of discussion of this real-life challenge is precisely what Cornwell was talking about. The “sports commercial complex” has helped Ray McDonald become a professional football player. When McDonald was making defensive plays for the 49ers there was no shortage of cheers or support from the organization, fans and the media. Where is the support now that the cheering has stopped?
This is not an attempt to turn McDonald into a victim. It’s just meant to highlight a sports culture that is broken and in need of repair or replacement. As long as athletic development is pursued at the expense of social development, we will have more and more athletes who will cross the line of acceptable of conduct. When that happens cries will ring out from various quarters to “throw the book” at the athlete. Before throwing the book, perhaps we all should take a vested interest in making sure the athlete first reads the book, and does so at the earliest possible stage of his or her athletic development.