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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...SYMBOLISM AND THE SPORTS MEDIA
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


While seeking an editorial beacon of sorts to help us draw our intended analogy to recent events, we came across a passage in the thought-provoking best-selling book, Breach of Trust, authored in 2013 by Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston U who earlier served 23 years as an officer in the U.S. Army. Bacevich is also a renowned military scholar who has rattled the cages of many conventional thinkers regarding not only the role of the modern armed forces, but a blunt observation of its present-day embrace by American society.

More specifically, Bacevich believes that the public has, for the most part, arrived at symbolic, rather than tangible, gestures of support for whatever the current military effort. Using 4th of July pre-game ceremonies and festivities at Fenway Park for a Red Sox game as his backdrop, Bacevich was better able to frame his observations. “Here was America’s civic religion made manifest,” said Bacevich. “In recent decades, an injunction to ‘support the troops’ has emerged as its central tenet. Fulfilling that obligation has posed a challenge, however. Rather than doing so concretely, Americans--with a few honorable exceptions--have settled for symbolism. To stand in symbolic solidarity (at a ball game) with those on whom the burden of sacrifice and service falls is about as far as they will go--just far enough, that is, to affirm the existing relationship between the military and society.

“The message that citizens wish to convey to their soldiers is this: although choosing not to be with you, we are still for you (so long as being for you entails nothing on our part). Cheering for the troops, in effect, provides a convenient mechanism for voiding obligation and perhaps easing guilty consciences.”


We cite Bacevich for a couple of reasons. To help us eventually close the circle on topics to be addressed below, we were looking for a sharp-edged example of modern-day societal symbolism, which Breach of Trust provided. We also wanted to highlight an author like Bacevich who is not afraid to drill beneath the surface to arrive at a conclusion that requires thought and perspective...and not simply the sort of knee-jerk reactions to various dogmas to which many sports journalists adhere.

The connection to current events is the public relations hell that the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell are enduring with the recent Ray Rice and related domestic abuse storylines. And while we have no specifics to add to the Rice situation, we fear the conversation is quickly devolving into another form of the token symbolism to which Andy Bacevich referred in Breach of Trust.

We have referred in the past to the sometimes odd relationship between the national sports media and the NFL, and, by extension, Goodell. Fights with pro football are picked selectively by the sports media, which usually draws its knives on “the league” only when given protective cover by the mainstream media. Like the Washington Redskins name controversy, the Rice story has provided such an opportunity to unload on the NFL without fear of reprisal, especially since the league was supine regarding Rice even before the disturbing second video was released. It wasn’t until then, however, that the mainstream media became fully invested in the story and began to provide a wider platform for activists (many of whom agitated at developments in the Rice story from the outset) to vent. Which was also the signal for the sports media that it was safe to shift gears and launch its own frontal assault on the NFL.

To be sure, the NFL had left itself open to enhanced scrutiny, and even condemnation, from the earliest stages of the Rice story, which has been bubbling, and not always beneath the surface, since Goodell announced his original two-game suspension of the Ravens RB. But the national sports media, long prone to manipulation by outside forces, would wait for a cue from those sorts to begin its own full-out attack on Goodell and the league.

What should be a serious debate on a serious subject (domestic abuse), however, has begun to devolve into something else. Goodell has now effectively become the focus of a long-time societal (and mankind) ill whose roots are far removed from the commissioner’s office or the NFL. In quick order last week, countless sportswriters and commentators mostly stopped talking about the perpetrators of the crimes and began instead to demand the head of Goodell. Who, depending upon the verbiage used by his new and numerous critics, should either be forced to resign, impeached, or fired by the league. New and creative forms of Goodell-bashing were also being introduced; Yahoo Sports went as far as to remind readers that Goodell might have been out of the loop in April, when the story of the Rice assault first broke, because the commish was hob-nobbing at Augusta National during The Masters. What better way to further fan the anti-Goodell flames than by portraying him as a wealthy, out-of-touch fat cat, wearing a green jacket reserved for the elite members (of which Goodell is one) at Augusta?

Meanwhile, Goodell’s NFL has become a convenient vehicle for which to attach a variety of causes. And indeed, the league’s high profile could help foster some worthy results, whether it be for charities or in heightened awareness of serious issues like domestic abuse. But the league is also a magnet for various non-football agendas. Thus, the NFL’s (and Goodell’s) p.r. problems in the Rice matter are certainly not illusory, and the commish seemed to sense as much later in the summer when he admitted that he “didn’t get it right” with the original two-game suspension for the Ravens RB while at the same time announcing more severe future league penalties for domestic abuse violations, including a lifetime ban for a second offense. Suspending Rice indefinitely after release of the second video, however, invited more cynicism and immediately put the league and Goodell further under the microscope.

The NFL’s response to the entire episode, and its regrettable collection of similar and other criminal acts within its ranks, has been clumsy at best. Which surprises for an organization with a security force that almost rivals the Secret Service and that usually goes to great lengths to present a well-scrubbed image.

Symbolism, however, is already at work in the matter. In a related storyline, the San Francisco 49ers suspended radio play-by-play man Ted Robinson for two games after his comments on the Rice story, while the team’s DT, Ray McDonald, recently charged with actual domestic abuse and awaiting a hearing, remained on the active roster. Is it us, or do these optics seem out of focus?

The end-game here can become dubious if Goodell remains under more indictment than those responsible for the crimes. But Goodell can only suspend players and make them off-limits to the NFL. Meanwhile, much of the media, assorted activists, and several others still want Goodell’s scalp, and would likely view that as a “victory” over domestic abuse.

Only it might not be. Without addressing the real issues nearer the root of domestic violence, such as an ongoing cultural rot, even an ouster of Roger Goodell is going to make little, if any, difference. Unless the media, and society, develop the appetite to confront the core of the problem, the only wins against domestic abuse are likely to remain symbolic...not tangible.


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