An even more popular topic on the campaign trail than his incessant fear mongering, Newt Gingrich’s multiple affairs have been a steady drain on his poll numbers. Meanwhile, rumors of infidelity undid Herman Cain’s bid for presidency altogether. While politicians’ sexual follies often open them up to ridicule and disdain for the rest of their lives, the public has shown itself to be far more forgiving towards philandering athletes. Politics does, after all, lend itself to hypocritical public posturing, whereas athletes tend not to put on masks of piety.
“It is what it is,” we say, our cheers and fist pumping undeterred.
The question then presents itself: Does the public have a moral imperative to react to the unscrupulous behavior of athletes?
Some argue that athletes are simply entertainers, not role models, and their moral failings do not deserve our collective criticism. Interestingly enough however, sports fans have not let athletes off the hook for most moral missteps—except when it comes to serial adultery. The public response to Phoenix Suns point guard Jason Kidd’s 2001 domestic violence charge was so fierce that his team promptly traded him for a clearly inferior player. Super Bowl hero Plaxico Burress was derided as all that is wrong with sports when he accidentally shot himself with a concealed handgun. [Z3] And most infamously, Michael Vick became the most hated athlete of his generation after investigators identified him as a key cog in a dog-fighting ring; public perception was so toxic that he was barely allowed to return to the NFL.
I recite this litany of offenses to draw attention to the fact that the public does not ignore the ethical failings of beloved athletes. We do not blindly tolerate ugly, self-indulgent behavior. Why is it then that adultery does not irritate fans the way, say domestic abuse charges do? Do we not consider it offensive? Perhaps we have decided that marital infidelity is part and parcel of professional sports and is not worth our displeasure. I tend to hear “She knew what she was getting into,” rather than “His behavior upsets me.” Athletes, in turn, have noted our apathy and speak of their affairs with a caviler attitude. Even loveable Shaq has admitted to many instances of cheating, but “never … disrespectfully,” he assured us. Perhaps he learned his decency from 80’s Lakers star Magic Johnson, who explained upon acquiring the AIDS virus: “ I did my best to ‘accommodate’ as many women as I could – most of them through unprotected sex.”
While Islam certainly does not call for TMZ style “investigative” reporting into the private lives of others, neither does it ask that society ignore what does become public. Islam asks that we not be morally neutral creatures, that acquiescence is a form of acceptance, and that what we surround ourselves with becomes our essence. Hence, God extols the virtue of those who “enjoin good and forbid evil.” (3:110) It is for this very reason that the Prophet Muhammad advised Muslims to intervene in acts of wrongdoing through action. If physically stopping someone from committing a wrong is not possible, he encouraged us to then condemn the misdeed with one’s tongue, and if not that, then at the very least with one’s heart. Heartfelt dislike of wrong action is a bona fide part of faith. Entertainers may not be role models, but perhaps the public can be role models for entertainers.
The best example of public outcry over chronic infidelity producing change in an athlete’s mindset is that of golfer Tiger Woods. After his “transgressions” came to light, public opinion was eroded to the point that multiple companies ended very lucrative partnerships with him. The burst of this bubble seemed to provide some perspective to Woods: “I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.” Subsequently, Woods entered an intense sex addiction treatment program. Months later, he would explain that public embarrassment inspired real reflection. “At first I didn’t want to look inward. Frankly, I was scared of what I would find … But I’m grateful that I did examine my life because it has made me more grounded than I’ve ever been; I hope that with reflection will come wisdom.”
Perhaps we should look inward to understand why adultery has not sullied our image of the athlete. Ostensibly, domestic violence does because we do not tolerate physical violence against women. An assault on emotions, however, is no less violent, and putting one’s wife at risk for STD’s is no small matter. It should enrage us to see men recklessly disrespect those whom the Quran refers to as “garments for you,” simply because the garments they wear to work are jerseys.
Abrar Qadir is a student at Georgetown University Law Center. Originally from California, Abrar attended the University of California, Berkeley before moving East. Abrar maintains a blog at www.punjabirefill.com.