Update: Chad Johnson was released from jail after issuing an apology to Judge Kathleen McHugh.By now you’ve probably heard about the butt-slap heard around the world. In case you haven’t, former NFL Wide Receiver Chad Johnson was in court in Florida for a probation hearing. As the judge was about to accept a plea agreement from Johnson’s attorney, Adam Swickle, Johnson slapped Swickle on the behind indicating his satisfaction with Swickle’s representation of him. The room burst out in laughter but Broward County Judge Kathleen McHugh, was not amused. She immediately questioned Johnson as to whether he was taking the proceeding seriously. Despite Johnson’s plea’s, McHugh sentenced him to 30 days in jail in violation of his probation.
This scenario can’t help but raise the topic about how we treat athletes growing up and whether that affects their behavior as adults. We live in a society where ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other media outlets are on the lookout for the next great superstar. In our search for that person, we dig deeper into the amateur ranks and in the process, we not only put immense pressure on teenaged athletes, but the exposure they receive throws them into a life of stardom prematurely. A prime example of an athlete thrown into the spotlight prematurely is Lebron James. James was talked about as ‘the next great thing’ on Sportscenter, as an eighth grader. By all accounts, James has handled himself well, he has never been in trouble with the law and has for the most part been a model citizen. However, there have been glimpses of the effects of the media exposure and star treatment. For example, “The Decision” reeked of the “look at me” attitude that comes from the attention showered upon him from an early age. Another instance that demonstrates possible effects of privileged treatement is when James walked off the court after losing to the Orlando Magic in the 2009 playoffs. I’m sorry, did we forget to teach our future superstar athletes sportsmanship? Finally for those who think the early attention and media exposure did not affect James, take a look at the tattoo on his back.
Time after time we let our athletes off the hook for their legal or moral indiscretions, simply because they can perform on the field. NFL defensive back Adam “Pacman” Jones is a more extreme example than James. Jones has been arrested no less than nine times in the past eight years (the most recent being a couple weeks ago), yet somehow he is still on an NFL roster going into the upcoming season. In what other industry in this country can someone with that many arrests for (violent behavior nonetheless), still remain employed? The answer is none. Our society has been programmed to treat athletes as heroes and gods.
The good news is, there have been signs recently of a trend towards holding athletes accountable for their actions. Former Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress was put away for two years for carrying a handgun into a New York City nightclub and accidentally shooting himself in the leg. Another example was Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who was shown no preferential treatment when he was sentenced to almost two years in prison for organized dog fighting.
We are also seeing league commissioners starting to take action. As controversial as some of his moves have been, NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell has the right idea. Misbehave and you will be suspended. Goddell has used the NFL personal-conduct policy to try and clean up player conduct off the field. Goddell suspended Jones for a full season and refused to shorten the sentence when Jones asked for leniency. He also suspended Burress and Vick similarly for their indiscretions. Whether Goddell’s actions will work to keep players in line is yet to be seen, but teams are now forced to take off the field conduct into consideration so they don’t end up paying a player millions of dollars while he sits out a suspension for off the field conduct.
I’m not saying Chad Johnson is a bad guy, but he is a product of the athlete-coddling society we live in. Johnson was infamous for his touchdown celebrations on the field but someone forgot to remind him the same line of thinking does not apply in the courtroom. Somehow I think he will act differently next time.