I believe in athletes, both professional and collegiate, as role models. Their achievements, and critically their efforts, teach us much about the power of dedication, hard work and, oftentimes, the resilience of the human spirit. This does not, however, render athletes as infallible. Every individual is prone to errors of judgement and even the most inspirational can behave crookedly at times. It is here that the ordinary individual and the athlete face a dichotomy in experience; the latter, often by virtue of their sporting status, is often treated by the media and, more unforgivably, by the courts themselves as being ‘above the law’. This pedestal is one that they do not deserve.
Such discrepancies permeate all levels of sport. At the University level, the sexual abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse universities of recent years suggest a dark side to college athletics, one that enabled sexual abuse for years before tough enough penalties were levied. Along the same unfortunate vein, who can forget the more recent case of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner? Even putting aside the precise definition of his conviction – there was some contest as to whether his crimes counted, legally, as rape – he could have received a maximum of 14 years in prison for sexual assault. In practice, he received six months. Of course, it could be erroneous to suggest that this was a direct consequence of his sporting achievements, were it not for the fact that Judge Persky stated in his verdict that a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner’s “bright future.” In this context, it seems somewhat less spurious to correlate his treatment with his sporting prowess.Whilst these examples are American, European paradigms for a gamut of crimes can be found without much difficulty. After all, it was 2002 when Boris Becker was nominally convicted of failing to pay millions of euros in taxes by a Munich court, and yet received nothing more than a slap-on-the-wrist. Specifically, whilst the prosecution demanded a three-and-a-half-year jail term, the judge showed leniency and only a suspended sentence was imposed upon the athlete. Indeed, by the very same July he was back on the airwaves with the BBC, reporting on Wimbledon. In analysing such a verdict, one might ask if such ‘leniency’ would have been shown to a tax-evader living next door.
Perhaps one of the most contentious and current issues is that concerning doping; herein, both misconduct and questionable mercy abound. In the notorious case of Lance Armstrong and his doping, for example, even cycling’s world governing body (UCI) openly admitted in 2015 that Armstrong “benefitted from a preferential status afforded by UCI leadership.” Indeed, despite his fall from deity to disgrace in the eyes of the public, the fact that Armstrong has not yet had to return the millions in prize money he unfairly won might suggest that justice is all but served.
Ultimately, it is Persky’s aforementioned words that prove the most haunting. The reality is that these athletes do have ‘bright futures’, but excessive clemency does too much to disregard the equally bright futures of their victims. That Turner’s own victim can recount that in the same that she discovered the graphic details of her own sexual assault were his swimming personal bests is frankly a travesty. More heart-breaking still, that she will have to endure the inevitable sequelae of being a rape victim. Above and beyond one case too is a point of principle. We all live in the same society and are expected to abide by its defined norms. The moment we begin to create microcosms for different individuals, stratifying them on criteria irrelevant to the question at hand, we find ourselves in deeply dubious moral waters. For both justice as a concept, and for individuals, we should remind ourselves that athletes are mere mortals in the courtrooms. They should be treated as such.