The problem with “second chances” in American pro sports

David Snyder, Columnist

There’s a systemic issue with sports in this country that starts at the top in professional sports leagues and trickles down to the amateur ranks. 

We prioritize competitiveness over decency.

Nothing recently illustrates this idea more than the case of two former Seattle Seahawks players: Chad Wheeler and Frank Clark. 

Both players have committed domestic violence against women in their lives, but one is looking at a long career in the National Football League (NFL), while the other isn’t.

Wheeler’s story grabbed headlines just recently. He was charged with first-degree domestic violence assault after allegedly beating his ex-girlfriend within an inch of her life. According to CBS News, the ex-girlfriend claims Wheeler had choked her unconscious twice after she refused to “bow” to him. 

After being released from his contract with the Seahawks, Wheeler is now facing possible prison time, and the consensus amongst sports media, players and fans alike is that he doesn’t deserve to play another snap in the NFL.

Clark, on the other hand, was arrested for domestic violence in 2014 while in college. He was only charged with disorderly conduct after his victim chose not to press assault charges, despite alleging that he had struck her in the face and restrained her to a bed.

Even though Clark was cut from his college team for the incident, the Seattle Seahawks selected him with their second-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He just recently played in the Super Bowl with his second team, the Kansas City Chiefs, who signed him to a five-year $104 million contract in 2019.

What separates these two players? Why was Clark given a second chance to play football on the highest possible stage, while Wheeler has become public enemy number one and has no prospects for the future?

Well, if you base your answer on the NFL’s “staunch” public stance against domestic violence, you might assume it has nothing to do with the outcome of Clark’s trial.

Chad Wheeler was a low-profile, backup offensive lineman that went undrafted, and Frank Clark was a first-round talent who predictably turned into a Pro Bowl defensive end. That’s the difference. And that’s the problem with American sports.

We often believe that players who commit awful crimes deserve second chances in sports, but that’s only if they can make our team better. 

Clark’s situation is a microcosm of pro sports at large. In the NFL, look no further than Clark’s teammate on the Chiefs Tyreek Hill, who has multiple domestic violence incidents but is now one of the highest-paid wide receivers in football.

In Major League Baseball (MLB), pitcher Roberto Ozuna’s domestic assault arrest didn’t scare away the Houston Astros from trading for him in 2018. He would be a cog in a World Series push that year.

Long-time National Basketball Association (NBA) star Jason Kidd pleaded guilty to spousal abuse at the height of his career in 2001, and yet, he stayed in the league until 2013.

Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Mixon, Ezekiel Elliot, Lawrence Taylor, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Ramírez and Kobe Bryant are some names linked to crimes against women. But those crimes are not what comes to mind when we think about the players and their legacies.

Pro athletes, like everyone else, are not perfect people. Nor should we expect them to be. But I think professional sports leagues’ reluctance to uphold strict standards for their most valuable employees reinforces a bad message.

That message tells fans, “it’s okay that abuse happened. We can just move on,” even though the victims will probably never be able to move on. It tells coaches, at all levels of competitive sports, “you can let abuse go unpunished, as long as you have guys who can help you win.” And it tells players, especially young kids, “if you’re talented enough, you’re untouchable.” 

Suppose pro sports leagues truly have no tolerance for domestic violence, rape or any crime against a woman. In that case, they shouldn’t be employing people who contradict those values in any capacity. If fans truly believe in those values, then it’s their responsibility to uphold those values with their consumer dollars.

The underlying problem I’m trying to address here is that it’s a double standard, and we all play a role in enabling it.

We buy tickets to watch abusers play, we buy abuser’s jerseys, we cheer for abusers when they light up the stat sheet. In turn, we give their employers an excuse to keep them on the payroll. Through the rose-tinted glasses of success, we all lose sight of the morals we claim to believe. 

If our consensus answer to the question “Is it ever okay to harm an innocent woman?” is “no,” then everyone should be held to that standard, even the best athletes in the world.

I’m certainly not advocating for a world without forgiveness. People deserve a second chance to personal welfare, but that chance doesn’t belong with organizations representing America’s 1%. 

On a stage as high as pro sports, the way athletes conduct themselves leaves an impression on the general public. So, that opportunity shouldn’t be handled recklessly.

Another question we should be asking in this discussion is, are the abusers themselves learning by getting a second chance in the pros? 

If the goal is to rehabilitate abusers and make them feel remorseful for their actions, how is awarding them a new lease on the career they took for granted a step in that direction?

While they probably won’t make the same mistake, they face no real repercussions and thus have no reason to reflect on what they did. Just like that, it’s on to the next game.