Thursday, September 13, 2007

Does an athlete need to be a role model?

Globe and Mail Update

That NHL commissioner Gary Bettman finally got around to suspending Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mark Bell on Wednesday came as little surprise. That development was more a matter of when, not if.

The only real questions revolved around the timing of the suspension (now as opposed to earlier in the summer) and the terms (15 games, to be served as soon as Bell is cleared to play again, after completing his stay in Stage 2 of the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program.

Bettman waited until now to hand down his ruling to let the process take its course — from the judicial dispensation of the case to the report from the doctors administering the substance abuse program. Bettman then met with Bell in New York on Monday to hear his side of the story, before suspending him under NHL by-law 17, which governs conduct deemed to be "dishonorable, prejudicial to or against the welfare of the league or the game of hockey."

Nor did Bettman mince words when assessing what would have to be considered a fairly modest penalty under the circumstances — and would have been much higher had he not been convinced that Bell is both contrite about his actions and legitimately on the road to recovery.

"Playing in the National Hockey League is a privilege, and with that privilege comes a corresponding responsibility for exemplary conduct off the ice as well as on it," thundered Bettman, in a prepared statement. "Mark Bell will serve jail time following the 2007-08 season after pleading to felony and misdemeanor charges stemming from an alcohol-related automobile accident that caused an injury. He also left the scene of the accident. Such conduct is a violation of our covenant with our fans, and to the game, and is prejudicial to the welfare of the league."

Bettman's phrasing is eerily reminiscent of the wording of commissioner Roger Goodell's statement when he suspended a couple of NFL miscreants (Pacman Jones and Chris Henry) last May. Goodell talked about the "integrity" of his league; how it was a "privilege to represent the NFL" and that its members must meet "the highest standards of conduct."

All of which sends a clear signal to professional athletes everywhere — that whatever standard of behavior was tolerated in the recent past by the NHL, NBA, NFL and major-league baseball, the rules are starting to change and that part of the "covenant" with their fans that Bettman alluded to is becoming good role models again.

Many decades ago, before the Internet became ubiquitous, before 24-hour sports talk radio came along, before endless highlight shows dominated the airwaves, athletes were put on a pedestal by an adoring public. It wasn't so much that they were necessarily better behaved than the current generation of athletes; it's just that their various foibles and missteps didn't make their way into the public eye nearly as often.

All that changed over time, as the nature of reporting evolved and the desire to sweep discretions under the rug disappeared. Simultaneously, more and more athletes were blunt about how they saw their responsibilities to the paying public — and that in their minds, being a role model wasn't part of the bargain. Charles Barkley, a smart and educated man, once famously said: "I don't believe professional athletes should be role models. I believe parents should be role models."

Given the way athletes behaved in Barkley's era and on into today, that wasn't bad advice. Nowadays, the sports pages are filled with accounts of transgressions large and small — for drugs, for cheating, for drunk driving, for domestic abuse and sometimes even for murder. Now that he can't play football, Jones is involved in professional wrestling. On Monday night's NFL telecast of the Cincinnati Bengals-Baltimore Ravens' game, there were numerous references to Henry's eight-game suspension, assessed for his multiple violations the NFL's personal conduct code as well.

It isn't hard to detect the pattern here. These commissioners have collectively decided that enough was enough. They were deathly sick of the black mark that so many of their players were leaving on their respective sports - and were determined to see the code-of-conduct pendulum swing back from the current extreme into a more moderate middle position.

A cynic might also add that these commissioners were businessmen first and thus must surely fear that a backlash could come from their all-important backers - television networks and million-dollar sponsors - if they couldn't do a better job of reining in their athletes, the so-called ambassadors of their sports.

Not only is their behaviour wrong it's also bad for business. That's a double whammy all the bad boys playing a child's game for big dollars better get their heads around and soon. These suspensions are a warning shot across the bow of the industry — and the penalties are only going to get stricter from here on in.

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