As an educator, whenever I write an article about social issues, I think about the messaging we send to children. No one can deny that crime and more specifically violent crime is an issue in our city. We detest it and feel helpless every time we watch the news or read about it on our favorite media forum. Sports provide some relief from the harsh realities that we face every day. However, they are intertwined.
Over the past few days, a video has gone viral of professional basketball player Draymond Green punching his teammate Jordan Poole in the face during practice. What surprised me about this incident is the general response from the sports world. I heard comments such as, “They’re just letting off steam,” “It’s no big deal” or “It happens, let’s move on.” Here is the problem, children are watching this, children who look like him and come from neighborhoods like he came from. They see him getting a pass. We cannot be outraged about the violence in our community but allowing it from our sports figures under the guise of, “It’s a part of the game.” Draymond Green made a heartfelt apology to Jordan Poole and his family, to his team, and his own family. The one thing that was missing was the missed opportunity to address the children that look up to him and speak to them directly and say: “The level of accountability that you have will be greater if you do the same thing, I am in a position of privilege but regardless I must do better.”
The same could be said for what was missing from Will Smith’s apology. But there are so many other examples of athletes behaving poorly. And although these are not examples of violence, in our communities the same expressions and actions can lead to violence based on what is perceived as disrespect. Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver, Antonio Brown, in a disagreement with his coach about his playing, decides to take off his shirt, walk off the field and abandon his team. Brooklyn Nets Forward Kevin Durant tweeted, “This [expletive] stinks.” This was regarding a tweet of a high school player’s basketball skill. LeBron James was fined for using what is referred to as the big ball dance, in which he suggestively grabs his private parts in celebration during a game. And New York Knicks owner Julius Randolph, in an act of frustration, told fans to shut the f**k up. These are a few examples. It makes it harder for our children to teach citizenship, cooperation, dignity, and stewardship when this is considered acceptable behavior. I totally understand that these are high-pressure sports and yes people will say and do things in the heat of the moment. My greater concern is the response of the players and the public when this happens. These are missed opportunities for teachable moments. I am also not suggesting that the violence in our community comes from watching athletes behave poorly, but that does not mean we should cosign it either.
Magic Johnson once said: “I have to tell you, I’m proudest of my life off the court. There will always be great basketball players who bounce that little round ball, but my proudest moments are affecting people’s lives, effecting change, being a role model in the community.”
This is the definition of a professional, not the skill level or how much you get paid but your professional persona off the court. In any business, you represent your company on and off the clock. No clearer example of this is seen than in professional sports. Top-tier athletes get paid millions of dollars, not just for their skills but for their image, likeliness, style, and ultimately their brand. In the world of social media, this cannot be underscored. To reach the level of a superstar in the NBA, NFL or MLB is extremely rare. It is a privilege. Charles Barkley once infamously said, “I am not a role model.” What Barkley didn’t realize was that it is not up to him whether he sees himself as a role model or not. That is not his decision. People choose their role models. Because of this, athletes have a responsibility to their fans and those who follow them to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with citizenship and professionalism and be aware of the message we send to our young people.
I happen to be a fan of these athletes. They entertain us with their talent which is a result of their hard work, ethic, discipline, and practice. But to be a professional these qualities must transcend beyond the court. Sports has a unique opportunity to provide an example of how we are flawed but we must learn from it. A great deal of the violence that we are seeing on our subways stems from arguments and disagreements, or someone was pushed or shoved. No matter what your economic status is, people experience the same frustrations. Our sports heroes are no different. We cringe when they cross the line into felonies and heinous crimes, but we look the other way when the root of that behavior is evident. The mentality is, “As long as my team is winning.” If you are one of the privileged sports figures who are fortunate enough to make a living doing what you love, then help us put sportsmanship back into sports and let our children believe in not just your skills but also your character.
Dr. Clarence Williams Jr. is a retired assistant superintendent in the New York city public school system. He holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership, a master’s in education administration, and a master’s in multicultural education. Williams Jr. has a K-12 license in special education and educational leadership, has worked as an educator and leader in the public school system for over 30 years and is an Assistant Professor.