Morality Plays

September 22, 2014

The best vehicle for social change is often a real vehicle: the South African train carriage from which a young Mohandas Gandhi was ejected, the Montgomery bus in which Rosa Parks sat, the tank that rolled to a stop in Tiananmen Square. All of these suggest that change is a wheeled conveyance, moving mostly forward but sometimes back—and sometimes neither, as in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City.

If something positive can possibly come of Ray Rice's punching his then fiancée unconscious in that elevator, and the feeble first response by law enforcement and the NFL, it's the light now being shone on "domestic violence," a softening phrase for a brutality taken too lightly for decades—from The Honeymooners to the wifebeater undershirt to Pacers star Paul George's just last week tweeting-and-deleting an LOL about the subject.

And so sports may yet again serve as a vehicle for social change. It is a Trojan horse, entering your house disguised as football before disgorging an army of social issues—race, gender, sexual orientation—to overrun your living room. Before you know it, Michael Sam is on your couch, charming the entire family.

Last week James Brown on Thursday Night Football called for "an ongoing, comprehensive education of men about what healthy, respectful manhood is all about. And it starts with how we view women. Our language is important. For example, when a guy says, 'You throw like a girl' or 'You're a sissy,' it reflects an attitude that devalues women." Not since Archie Bunker appeared on the same network 40 years earlier has CBS devoted so prominent a prime-time slot to contemporary social issues.

No other area of human endeavor generates such discussion as consistently as sports. The recording star Rihanna was assaulted by the recording star Chris Brown, but even that case didn't attract public debate the way the Rice video has, perhaps because there's no Commissioner of Pop Music pretending that Top 40 radio is an inherently moral enterprise.

The NFL clings to those delusions, which is why it sued the singer M.I.A. for $16.6 million after she flipped the bird and mouthed an obscenity during the Super Bowl XLVI halftime show. The league claimed she showed "flagrant disregard for the values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand." To judge by its handling of the Rice case, the NFL's values were precisely mirrored by M.I.A.'s performance: a raised middle finger and the phrase, "I don't give a s---."

Many NFL players did publicly criticize Rice and commissioner Roger Goodell, much as most NFL players welcomed Sam to the league and dismissed questions about his showering routine. NBA players likewise treated gay center Jason Collins as they would any other player—for that's what he was—and the league cleaned house of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. All these stories traveled beyond the echo chamber of sports media and into the world at large.

President Obama denounced Rice, much as he had previously denounced Sterling for his "incredibly offensive racist statements." The enormous popularity of the NFL and the NBA enables all manner of idiocy, and plenty of fans in Baltimore—men and women—proudly wore their Rice jerseys to last Thursday's Ravens game. And yet the very prominence of professional sports is what puts these social issues on the national to-do list. That's the silver lining in this playbook. It takes optimism, denial and a fondness for the games to feel good about watching the NFL right now—mix two parts Pollyanna with one part Joe Montana, then chug it down—but all those eyes, watching the same thing, can serve to accelerate the pace of change.

Whatever the vehicle for change is, it helps to picture change as a vehicle, one that isn't likely to wait. There are a million idioms to remind you. For instance: The ship has sailed. Or: The train has left the station. Or better still: You can get on the bus or get under it.

No other area of human endeavor offers the opportunity to confront social issues as consistently as sports.

Which social issue has sports helped advance the most?

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PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)