Sports and the American funhouse

By Tom Baxter

Had his glancing reflection not flickered briefly in the funhouse mirror of American culture, chances are U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller’s punishment for beating his wife in an Atlanta hotel would have been relatively mild.

Fuller spent a couple of nights in jail last month after his wife called police to their room at the downtown Ritz Carlton, and his cases were reassigned to other judges while the matter was being cleared up. But the charges against him were to be dropped in an agreement in which he was to enroll in domestic violence and substance abuse programs. It looked as though he would be returning to his U.S. District Court seat in Montgomery, Ala.

But last week the wind changed. Several politicians, including Alabama’s two U.S. senators, called on Fuller to resign, and there’s talk of impeachment if he doesn’t. It was not because Fuller holds an important post in the federal judiciary that it became more difficult for him to hold on. Nor was it because the circumstances of the altercation in Atlanta — booze and a violent response to accusations of a courtroom affair — jibed so closely with the charges made by Fuller’s former wife in their divorce case a couple of years ago.

No, what caused things to go south for Fuller was that belatedly, the parallels between his case and that of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice were noted on MSNBC. Politicians who would almost certainly have stood aside and let Fuller’s case play out suddenly became nervous and decided they had to appear more responsive.

That’s the power of sports as a lens on our society. It can render the career of so important a figure as a federal judge into mere collateral damage.

Issues of gender, race, drugs and personal safety permeate nearly every aspect of American life, but the significance of these issues is heightened within the arena of sports, so much so that on the day after Scotland voted to stay in the UK, with a forest fire the size of Atlanta raging in California, NBC Nightly News led its broadcast with lengthy coverage of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s press conference about what are now several domestic abuse and violence cases involving pro football players.

There is something deeply troubling about this. Calls to abuse hotline centers have skyrocketed since the Rice case flared, and if that results in positive impacts on people’s lives, it’s a good thing. But by repeatedly resorting to sports as the arena in which we thrash out issues like boardroom racism and domestic violence, we are allowing moral questions to be decided in the atmosphere of the funhouse constructed by sports, entertainment and mass media.

In the funhouse, appearances, responsibilities and consequences are set wildly ajar to meet the truncated needs of the news cycle and the sports season. After footage of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancé out of an elevator is aired repeatedly, new footage of him actually throwing the punch is treated as a complete revelation. And the public, in large part, buys in.

Jameis Winston is awarded the Heisman Trophy after being charged with sexual assault. Then he gets grounded for the big Clemson game because he jumped on a table and shouted a nasty phrase, not original to him. That’s the funhouse. If the racist comments of a basketball team owner reverberate through the funhouse, the racist comments of the next basketball team owner are amplified tenfold. Suspensions expand according to the amount of coverage they’re given.

We need to put down our collective beer can for a minute and think about the message this sends to our kids. They’re watching what grownups do as well as what they say, and the message they’re getting is this: Kids, no matter what you really did, cover your ass. And hire a high profile woman executive, if that’s the problem.

Don’t waste time on Jameis Winston’s game films, study the many clips of him saying, “I’m sorry.” Don’t hesitate to pile on, either, even if you might be guilty of some of the same offenses that are being condemned. Remember, if it’s not on camera or audio tape, it didn’t happen. And incidentally, you shouldn’t beat up your significant others.

Even soccer fans know who Rice is by now, but the names of Timothy Ray Jones Jr. and Don C. Spirit have not come up much in the national discussion over domestic violence and abuse. Jones is the South Carolina man who murdered his five children, put them in garbage bags and dumped them off on a roadside in Alabama. Spirit is the Florida man who killed his daughter, her six children, aged 11 years to three months, and then himself. These incidents happened within a week or so of each other this month.

Society needs a way to debate and discuss the causes of domestic violence. But until we are willing to look down into its darkest places, and come to grips with how widespread it really is, we will only be standing in front of the funhouse mirror, imagining ourselves to be bigger than we really are.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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