So, I caught this story a little while ago that got me thinking about a lot of things – the practice of sports sociology, the theories of social justice, the nature of our criminal justice system, and the culture of sports, in general.
It was the story of Dwayne “Deejay” Hunter, a star high school athlete in Ohio who recently pled guilty to felony assault, after he shot a kid with a BB gun just above the eye in January. While the judge in the case ruled for no jail time for Hunter, a standout track star and strong safety on Middletown High’s football team, he also ruled, as a condition, to bar Hunter from playing any organized sports for the duration of his sentence: 5 years probation. A standout athlete, according to ESPN Rise, he was expected to commit to the University of Tennessee earlier this year. Now, he is barred from even participating in intramural sports. Said the judge after laying out his sentence, “We’re going to see who Dwayne Hunter the person is, not who Dwayne Hunter the star athlete is.”
Now, I have been back and forth about this story for days. Reactions to this story have been pretty black-and-white, from what I’ve seen. There seem to be two camps: one side argues that taking away Hunter’s ability to play sports is essentially taking away his future – the punishment is only hindering Hunter’s chances at succeeding in life, while the judge in the case laid down such an unorthodox sentence simply for the publicity. The other side thinks that this is a great idea – if more athletes who were convicted of severe crimes were barred from playing sports, “entitled” star athletes would think twice before doing things like bringing guns to strip clubs, a la Pacman Jones and Plaxico Burress.
While I thought both points were valid in today’s society, I had to take a step back, and look at the situation with a critical eye. Because, again, while I think both points are valid, I also think that looking at the situation with only these points in mind will cause an unsolvable debate in which the two sides would argue to no end about things that don’t have much to do with each other. The truth is, the underlying issues in this story are important to take into account before judging the situation, and the people involved, altogether.
Now, I want to address the opinion that, on the surface, supports Hunter’s right to play sports. While I agree that this particular punishment was unorthodox, I don’t know if I can go so far as to say that this is taking away Hunter’s future. I feel that the general consensus, when it comes to the prospect of sports, is that for certain people – especially minorities (whether we like to admit it or not) – one of the best paths toward social and economic success is through sports. I’m not going to get into the theory behind this assumption here, but let me tell you that the attitude is there. After all, the judge’s quote reflects this attitude – that “black athleticism” is coveted in our society.
This attitude, I can say with certainty, is a major fallacy. Again, society has adopted this twisted viewpoint that athletic achievement is one of the only ways minorities can gain strong social mobility, so our society reflects these feelings by coveting minority athletes, and putting them on a pedestal as “models of ethnic achievement”. The major problem is that, based on this attitude, it limits the potential for minorities to only athletics. Basically, people who say that “taking away Hunter’s ability to play sports is taking away his future” are saying, in essence, that sports is the only way he can succeed in this society. This attitude is constricting, limiting and, ultimately, oppressive. In this sense, I have to agree, to a certain extent, with the judge.
Then, there are the people who feel that, not only was this punishment appropriate, but should be mandatory for all “entitled” athletes. I feel like the public lumps in every athlete who does wrongdoing, calls them “entitled”, and wants to lean towards the side of “overkill”, in terms of punishment. In this sense, I can’t help but think that the judge overstepped his bounds by barring Hunter from all forms of organized sports. His actions are the epitome of this attitude of athlete entitlement – the reason for Hunter’s actions stemmed from the fact that he was an “entitled” athlete, and that taking away that aspect of his life would somehow make him a better member of society. Because of who he is, as a standout athlete, all the stereotypes are projected on him – stereotypes that the public not only resents, but despises. It’s a judgment that I don’t find fair at all. This isn’t damning on the athlete; in fact, it’s damning on the general public that sits there and judges the athlete.
Ultimately, Hunter made the mistake, and it was important for him to take responsibility for his actions. However, the underlying issues that surrounded the case couldn’t be ignored, and I felt it necessary to address them the best I can, instead of taking a biased stance one way or the other. It’s easy to sit there and say he deserved it, or to say that he didn’t.
Like many things in our society, it’s much more complicated than that.