Besides a selfish sense of schadenfreude, what do we gain when our gladiators lose?
This is a question I’ve asked myself these past few weeks. Another question might be more appropriate, however. Where, as Americans, did we develop this demanding, and sometimes suspiciously manufactured “outrage” that requires culpability of third parties for what inherently is complicated human behavior?
Make no mistake about it, I’m not defending the actions of a few wayward athletes who got caught doing some things that most likely far more of us do in private. Were it not for the advent of ubiquitous cameras and Americans’ new and confusing penchant for texting every thought they have into the unsecure “cloud,” we’d probably never know of these few, and Mr. Goodell could run his organization on that fine line that teeters between gladiator and barbarian without public interference.
But alas, the times have caught up to the NFL, and we are not the better for it. I have a confession to make — I am a woman who learned as a girl how to throw a football properly. “Place your fingers along the seam,” my brother told me, “and spin it, straight and true.” He also told me to put my weight behind it, sage advice for a lifetime of competitive challenges that began on the playground, and extended into athletics in high school and beyond. I discovered that signing up for team sports at school kept me there a little longer, and away from a tumultuous home that I assiduously avoided. I suspect there are more like me on the professional gridirons that litter our Sunday, Monday and Thursday television screens, their competitors vying with skill, brute force, and grit for the prize that awaits them every February in the most watched contest in the world.
I’m no different than any other red-blooded American—I love football. I love the sounds—the quarterback calling the plays, the crash of helmets, the grunts and groans from the spectators as their heroes are crushed beneath the weight of opposing behemoths. I love the grace of a running back, and the partnership and timing of a ball well-thrown from his quarterback, (a demigod!), creating the amazing catch that inspires millions of little boys – and yes, girls, too—to try the same play in their backyards or school fields. Inspiring our human nature to compete.
Yes, I said it. The now-only-whispered 800-pound gorilla of a word: competition.
What has happened to it in America? We have two contending forces battling now for the sensibilities of our future generations: those would fight to keep our way of life and freedom and those who don’t want to fight for anything. Inch by inch the latter creep into our schools and try in vain to correct human nature to compete at every level. Scoreless soccer. Tests that don’t count. Math with no right answer.
My husband calls it the “feminization of America.” I call it dangerous. It causes enemies to salivate at the gates, recognizing our soft state for the bankruptcy it is.
Before I retired, I was a police officer in Boston for 27 years. My competitive nature had propelled me up the ranks, and into one onerous job after another. I was finally charged with the unenviable position of taking over the Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, Human Trafficking and Sexual Assault Units, considered the third rail of policing. My Commissioner at the time, a prescient guy named Paul Evans, reminded me of the conflicts we endured when I worked at a lower rank as his spokesperson. “Take a look at the rules,” he asked after promoting me, knowing my habit of looking at our bible for conduct, the rules and procedures of the police department, “and fix them.”
Yeah, okay. I knew what he was talking about, because I saw him up close and personal as the leader of an organization that is charged with policing an entitled populace that doesn’t want their freedoms abridged in any way, no matter what the laws. He was talking about the use of force, and not on our streets.
He meant in the homes of our police officers.
For years he’d struggled with cases that required disciplining officers who’d violated domestic violence laws. He told me to finally lift the rug, and air it out. He wanted a solution, naturally, where if it could be done, we wouldn’t lose our investment in an officer who’d maybe spent years doing what we’d required of him. Someone we recruited, trained, and assigned to do one of the toughest jobs on earth. My commissioner was walking a tightrope and looking for a net, just like Mr. Goodell is now.
What we’d never done as an organization that recruits and trains street gladiators, was to admit that our ideal officers were sometimes formed in the crucible of a violent or dysfunctional home. And most of those officers came to the job to make someone’s life easier; to prevent what happened to them from happening to some other human being. Some of my best domestic violence detectives grew up in violent homes without committing violence themselves. They understood it, and instinctively knew it was not the answer.
Others slipped through. Our recruitment procedures never screened for violence in their childhood or in their present home, even when candidates offered it up as a reason they wanted to become a police officer, as it was always treated as a noble reason to become a cop. Until it wasn’t. Until what they witnessed or endured surfaced in all its compulsion as the answer in their own lives. Knowing all this, Evans tasked me to change how we deal with it, without any brooms involved. Bare floor, no rugs. Just like drugs.
You see he understood the value of an officer, not unlike, I’m sure, Mr. Goodell understands the investment a team has in every player. Similarly, the city invests an average of $400K in the recruitment, training, and retention of a rookie officer. Past their probationary year when he or she becomes a dues paying police union member, it is a very expensive proposition to fire an officer, especially if he committed what amounted to a misdemeanor assault. Standards went out the window in arbitration, and the city was often in the unenviable position of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay to officers that had been ‘unjustly’ fired for committing crimes of abuse.
I’ve always contended that if you scratch the armor of a gladiator, you’ll find a cowering child inside. When we modernized the rules regarding how we treated our officers involved in domestic violence, we’d already been down the road of updating the rules on drug use by instituting annual drug testing and a strict disciplinary roadmap for those that failed. It satisfied the unions, the Mayor, and the myriad lawyers in between. Evans knew it was tantamount to an admission of our officers’ humanity; that his gladiators had chinks. The new culture of self-examination and improvement had arrived at our doorstep, and he knew that it was the impetus we needed to change for the better.
So we changed. And when I was appointed by Attorney General John Ashcroft to serve on President George W. Bush’s National Advisory Committee on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the rule and disciplinary procedure that the Boston Police followed for officers that engaged in domestic violence became the national model for police agencies nationwide that were similarly struggling with what do to with good officers that sometimes did bad things.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that most behavior is learned, and that in this day and age we know through ample evidence that people can and do change. When we’d fired officers, life got worse for them and their families, not better. It was costly, all the way around.
I believe that officers should be held to a higher standard, and screening for abuse and abusers at the recruitment stage can prevent those problems that may only show up later in the officers’ career. When we treated existing officers charged with abuse with discipline, retraining, and strict monitoring, such as we do with drug users, we found that we could salvage not just the officer, but his family as well. Not running from these problems, but openly dealing with them, was an acknowledgement of our culpability for not screening the officer at the recruit stage. We gave the officer similar treatment that a judge — or an NFL Commissioner — might give to an employee who falters; a second chance for employees who may be exemplary in every other area of their career.
In the meantime, we must be realistic about those gladiators on the street or on the field with whom we burden the application of force, however measured, in their roles in society. Obviously, in policing just as in football, when the gray area is crossed, such as in the Aaron Hernandez case, we must let the criminal justice system set the precedent. But in an era where cellphone cameras, texting, and instant videos collide headlong with woeful public ignorance of the application of justifiable police force, we need to better communicate our roles as enforcers of the law, both on the street and in our disciplinary procedures, so that officers maintain the capacity to do their jobs. The thin blue line between anarchy and order demands that we all understand our roles.
As a Commissioner, whether your gladiators wear numbered jerseys or numbered badges, acknowledging that line is the first step. Taking the necessary steps before your gladiators cross it is mandatory.