In recent weeks, the sports world has rooted itself in the headlines with both controversy and celebration. Donald Sterling was disbanded from the NBA due to the release of privately recorded racist comments and Michael Sam was heralded as the first openly gay player to be signed to a professional football team. And public reaction to each was quite distinct.
Personally, both stories interested me for a different reason, namely for the way they revealed the inherent power of words in our world today. We’ve heard it said before – Actions speak louder than words – but in our age of social media and instant personal commentary, is that still as true as it may have been previously?
Donald Sterling purchased the Clippers franchise in 1981 when the team was still located in San Diego, California. Over the course of the following 33 years, he compiled a checkered resume of impressive business accomplishments, relational failures, and racial misgivings. While he and his wife have been legally married for nearly 60 years, it is becoming clear that much of their relationship has involved mutual separation and active infidelity on his part.
However, these were not the story. On April 25, an audio file surfaced of a privately recorded conversation between Sterling and his bi-racial “personal assistant” which contained terribly insensitive and racist comments including his voiced desire that she refrain from bringing black guests to his games. Social media went wild instantly and 4 days later, his 3-decade term as the Clippers owner swiftly came to an end when the NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, issued a lifetime ban from any league activity and vowed to use the extent of his authority to force the sale of Sterling’s investment in the team. I have heard the former owner described as a “racist,” “bigot,” and “slave master” and his latest comments haven’t helped his cause in the slightest.
I don’t condone any of Sterling’s comments or the scrutiny he is facing in light of them because I understand that we get a glimpse of a person’s heart when they speak, but where is the outrage over his adultery? His suggestive history of racial discrimination? Which spoke more loudly in the case of Sterling: his actions or his words?
Then there is the story of Michael Sam, a former Missouri Tiger, All-American, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and current St. Louis Ram after being selected in the final round of this year’s NFL draft. Immediately following the announcement of his pick, he was televised breaking down in tears and kissing his partner in celebration of the news. As expected, this too set off a storm throughout social media. There were those who celebrated the moment, those repulsed by it, and the rest somewhere in between. It quickly became clear that the words voiced in response carried great importance.
Don Jones, a defensive back for the Miami Dolphins was fined and suspended from the team for tweeting two words (“OMG” and “horrible”) in response to the aired footage of Sam and his partner. Instantly, he became a target of outrage on social media. Were his comments insensitive? Certainly. Were they homophobic and deserving of the punishment? You tell me. I’m sure the recent fallout with Richie Incognito didn’t help his cause.
Similarly, Marshall Henderson, former shooting guard and hothead for the Ole Miss basketball team, tweeted the following:
Boycotting sportscenter til this michal sam nasty a** s*** is off …. My brothers are 7 and 11 and saw that!!! #SICKENING”
Soon after he followed up his sentiments by claiming they were academic research for his gay friend who was preparing to graduate with a degree in psychology. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me one way or the other.
Derrick Ward, former New York Giant and Super Bowl XLII champion, also took to Twitter voicing his frustration over the graphic nature of the Michael Sam footage which he said was “no bueno,” “a little over board,” and a bad example for children watching the draft. While his comments were some of the least offensive I observed and require a lot of stretching to be considered homophobic or bigoted due to his own qualifications, he has nonetheless received his fair share of negative reactions which include severe racial insensitivity and death threats to him and his children.
So what are we to learn from this? Do actions really speak louder than words? I’m not one to buy the conspiratorial tone of a shadowy growing thought police, but I do find these instances worth considering.
Why are Donald Sterling and the perceived opponents of Michael Sam so much more significant targets for public outrage than Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts who was arrested in March for a DUI and drug possession? Are privately taped racist comments from a man with a known history of racial insensitivity more shocking than an NFL owner’s public use of illegal substances? Are Sterling’s statements more worthy as grounds for his removal than the actions of Irsay?
Another noteworthy example is Ray Rice who is currently being investigated for allegedly beating his fiancee unconscious, a story that received plenty of attention, but nothing compared to the levels of Sterling and Sam. These charges were brought against him after a video surfaced in February which showed him dragging her limp body from an elevator only minutes after multiple witnesses saw them in a heated exchange.
Outside the sports world, consider Solange Knowles’ recent fight with her brother-in-law, Jay-Z (also in an elevator). Social media has shown little outrage towards this incident. In fact, most reactions seem entertained, amused, and interested at worst.
Do words speak louder than actions for us today? Each of these examples (and countless others unmentioned) illustrate the brokenness and division we face every day, but they have been received and storied differently. Is it becoming easier for us to draw conclusions about the character of others based upon what they say as opposed to what they do? People speak out of the substance of who they are. Words are important and they are not as idle as some would desire their hearers believe, but we would do well to consider our standards for judgment and work to apply them rightly without selectivity or preference.
Otherwise, what kind of example might we be setting ourselves?