Personal Accountability or Systemic Reality?

“But I don’t think it’s a problem for the N.F.L. as a whole. It’s all about personal responsibility.”

That’s Stephanie Cobb from Long Beach, California offering her take on the recent and emerging issue of violence in football – not the violence on the field, but the violence in the homes and relationships of the players. Ms. Cobb believes you can separate one from the other. Men beating up men in an organized sport is completely disconnected in her view from men beating up on women and children. The “System” that is the National Football League is completely separate from the players on the field.

Perhaps the prevailing attitude is best expressed by Nicole Larvick, a 30-year old mother in Chicago. She is a Bears fan and she says that before she stopped watching her team someone from the Bears would have to be accused of the kind of behavior Jonathan Dwyer of the Arizona Cardinals has been accused of. This borders on a “NIMBY” approach. Not that the violence is OK, but as long as it isn’t someone on my team that has been accused I’m still a fan. Someone should warn Ms. Larvick – it’s just a matter of time.

But … back to Stephanie’s perspective. Is she correct? Just how impenetrable is the wall between the systems that govern us and the habits that define us? Churches have felt the heat from victims of clergy abuse. Misogynistic theologies are being called out. Patterns of behavior that objectify or demean women and children might be acceptable in some spiritualities, but they must not be acceptable in society. Whatever the system is – spiritual, sport, social or scholastic – at the very least we have to be honest about the crossover as we move from one to the other. Attitudes that rationalize a belief system of violence or hatred can’t help but become actions that are violent and hateful.

Reinhold Niebuhr‘s words, written in 1932, have a lasting prescience: “What is lacking among all these moralists, whether religious or rational, is an understanding of the brutal character of the behavior of all human collectives, and the power of self-interest and collective egoism in all inter-group relations.” Niebuhr notes the conflict between politics (systems) and the moral potential residing in each person. He also notes the tension between the potential of unselfishness and the pull of self-interest, both constantly at work in individuals and systems.

Niebuhr writes: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” And so, if Niebuhr is right, Ms. Cobb is wrong.

William C.Rhoden writes that “what is most troubling about these past two weeks is that the N.F.L.’s reaction to its players’ arrests has been based not on any underlying morality but on public reaction.” Looked at another way, we note that the individual football players accused of violence against women and children did not have the awareness or the will to acknowledge on their own that they had crossed a line. The National Football League did not have the will or the moral fiber to hold its players accountable for their actions off the field. It has taken a larger public reaction, fueled at least in part by sheer economics, to get the league’s attention. (“The Radisson Hotel chain suspended its endorsement deal with the Vikings. Anheuser-Busch, one of the league’s most prominent sponsors, said Tuesday that it had told the league it was concerned with the N.F.L.’s handling of the scandals.” NY Times.)

The NFL makes a big deal of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. That, and their fashion show notwithstanding, Moms and Dads need to wake up before men start blaming their abusive behavior on all the concussions they have suffered even as their fans cheer them on.

Any child psychologist or kindergarten teacher can see the connection between the playground and the classroom. Why can’t our society recognize the connection between how we play and how we live?


Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.