Ezekiel Elliott is well-known to anyone who follows professional sports. An All-American star running back at Ohio State, he was drafted fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 NFL Draft. He burst into the league by rushing for the third-most rushing yards by a rookie in NFL history. However, a ruling by the NFL put his play this season in jeopardy after he was suspended for the first six games of the season due to allegations of domestic violence by an ex-girlfriend in 2015. Elliott was never criminally charged for the incident. A federal judge later overturned the NFL’s ban, but the case is still proceeding in court. So while Ezekiel Elliott may be an exceptional athlete on the field, his character off the field has been called into question. Admittedly, the allegations against Elliott were deemed to be unfounded in a criminal investigation which called into question the fairness of the NFL’s investigation and subsequent punishment. But even if the NFL’s punishment is found to be unjustified, to the public eye it seems to part of a seemingly growing trend of highly negative off-field behavior expressed by professional athletes.
The case of Joe Mixon springs to mind, who was caught on a security camera punching a woman in the face during in the altercation, breaking bones in her face and requiring the woman to undergo surgery. He was later drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the 2017 draft and was, at least initially, held to pretty intense scrutiny by the media and the general public. Yet much of that dissipated in the ensuing months. Joe Mixon is now just a celebrated professional football talent. Adrian Peterson, currently a running back for the New Orleans Saints, is almost certainly a Hall of Fame-caliber talent. In 2014, he was suspended for the NFL season after he was charged with, and later convicted of, child abuse for beating his son. Yet few media outlets, especially ESPN, seem to remember or do anything more than give a passing thought to that less than illustrious moment of his career.
These don’t appear to just be isolated incidents. Although overall arrest rates for NFL players are below the national average, the same cannot be said for violent crime arrest rates, which are statistically significantly higher than the national average according to a 2015 UT Dallas study. These same athletes that kids look up to as heroes commit more violent crimes than the average American.
Kids try to emulate their heroes. A 2000 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 73 percent of US children considered professional athletes to be some of the most influential people in their lives. About 50 percent of kids believed that yelling at officials and taunting and taking cheap shots at opponents were all common in youth sports. One-quarter of kids and teens surveyed also believed that athletes don’t have to try as hard in school while a similar number of teens believed that sexual promiscuity was a privilege of being a professional athlete. Clearly the negatives of professional athletics are seeping down to kids, with the help of media that focuses on the negative incidents associated with professional sports.
A lot of kids care about professional sports. A lot of adults do too. Every Little League player dreams of one day making it to the MLB. It inspires in them a drive to be the best they can possibly be. Professional sports are unique in that they collect the greatest talents in a particular “industry” and give them a stage. A child watching TV doesn’t know who the leading scientists or doctors in the world are. But they know Tom Brady and LeBron James. There’s a reason Fortune 500 companies choose athletes as the face of their brands; people care. Athlete endorsements sell, especially to kids.
There are surely many good lessons that kids can learn from watching professional athletes. These are men and women who have dedicated incredible amounts of hard work to their careers. They have great tenacity and work ethic, traits that can be applied to any area of future pursuit. Many of these athletes turn around and do incredible things for their communities. J.J. Watt, a star defensive end for the Houston Texans, recently helped raise $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief. Countless athletes maintain their own foundations, often targeted specifically at giving kids the opportunity to participate in athletic activities.
“I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the court,” Charles Barkley once said.
He assumed he had a choice. It’s because he wreaks havoc on the court that he is a hero for so many, and that’s what makes a role model. People emulate their heroes. That’s not to say he did his job well. But whether he wanted them to or not, there were throngs who wanted to be exactly like him, to live exactly like him, to fulfill the dream of being a rich, famous, professional athlete.
So that brings up the question of how society and professional sports leagues can better respond to criminal incidents to ensure that people seeing the conduct of athletes don’t come to see misconduct as a normal part of professional athletics. One possibility would be to increase suspensions.The suspensions the NFL has handed down for domestic violence have ranged from one game to 10. Perhaps full-season suspensions would more effectively send the message that domestic violence is not acceptable. It is also imperative that parents, siblings, and others have a similar influence on kids. It is possible to separate the bad eggs on the athletic fields from those who are working to make the world a better place, the kinds of people who should indeed be considered role models. It’s important that kids are taught that these individuals who do commit crimes or are bad husbands and parents do not reflect the true nature of professional athletics, despite what media coverage might indicate.
Just as there are bad individuals in every walk of life, there are certainly those in professional sports. Because of the unique platform that professional sports has in the United States, those individuals who make harmful decisions often have the public eye thrust upon them. It is important that society makes a distinction between those who should serve as role models, who perform with honor on and off the field, and those who shouldn’t be looked to as inspiration.