Like Al Davis and the draftniks of the Oakland Raiders, I am a Darren McFadden fan. McFadden, a running back from the University of Arkansas who was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy the past two seasons, was selected fourth overall in the recent NFL football draft. Looking closely at that draft, and the way that it treats athletes such as McFadden, highlights the hypocrisy of how certain moral values are framed today in our society. Specifically, it brings into sharp relief the misuse of the reigning definition of "character" in modern America.
The professional football draft has become a giant circus for sports fans. Prior to the draft, more than 1,000 college football players are weighed, measured, and analyzed. When the draft is over, about a quarter of those young men will have been selected by and distributed among the 32 teams of the NFL in a process with eerie similarities to the human auctions of the past. Many players fall into lower draft slots, and thus receive lower salaries, because of "character" issues. This is especially important since the average professional football player is lucky to play four years before injury or other issues force them out of the game.
"Character" is defined today in a way to support the interests of the wealthy and powerful and to denigrate those not in that group. The character issue is applied differently to black athletes than to the team owners and the league for whom they play. It is important that we recognize, and call out, those who hijack moral terms for their own particular worldview. In this regard, compare the "character" of McFadden to that of the man who oversees the NFL draft, Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The Raiders' top pick is a sublime athlete. In tests administered to potential NLF draftees, McFadden, 6' 2" and 210 pounds, ran the forty-yard dash in a stunning 4.33 seconds. This is faster than the times of former Olympic gold-medal sprinter and NFL wannabe Justin Gatlin, who just two years ago tied the world record in the 100-meter dash. McFadden exemplifies the best of the human physical condition. Seeing him dart down the football field is exhilarating, like hearing a musician in her prime or watching an extraordinary dancer. Barring injury or management implosion, East Bay fans are going to enjoy him just like Arkansas football fans have for the last three years.
But in the run-up to the draft, news stories proclaimed that Darren McFadden had "character issues." USA Today's article on McFadden was headlined "Can McFadden's Talent Outweigh Character Issues?" The sum total of McFadden's "character" issues involve the possible fathering of two children out of wedlock and two "run-ins" with the law in his hometown. McFadden and I both grew up in Little Rock, which like Oakland is a town in which racial issues still simmer and where relations between the police and black men are often tense. McFadden's two run-ins with the law involved incidents outside of Little Rock nightclubs in which police were called to the scene but no significant violence occurred. Not only wasn't he arrested in either case, but a Little Rock police lieutenant quoted in USA Today called him a role model for the kids of the city.
To be sure, a number of professional football players do have "character" issues, no matter how the term is defined. Too many do exhibit sociopathic behavior off the football field, and teams like the Raiders often ignore such behavior to ensure they get a proper "return" on the huge sums they have invested in these players. But the degree to which black athletes are subject to this "character" issue is extraordinary and revealing.
Commissioner Goodell, on the other hand, was lauded as a man of character when he was named NFL Commissioner. Yet, under his leadership, the NFL has an extensive and unseemly partnership with the Bridgestone/Firestone tire company. According to a lawsuit pending in a federal court in Indiana, Bridgestone/Firestone overworks, underpays, and exposes its 4,000 employees at a Liberian rubber plantation to hazardous chemicals and pesticides. Its subsidiary also oversees what the suit calls de facto slavery. Yet the company makes the "Official Tire of the NFL" and is the "Official Tire Sponsor" of the Super Bowl.
Allegations of exploitation and forced labor have plagued this tire plantation since its opening more than eighty years ago. Firestone reportedly paid local chiefs for available slave labor. A vicious cycle ensued in which people were born on the plantations merely to grow up and take their parents' places. On the plantation, Firestone workers must meet a production quota. If a worker does not fill his or her quota, she or he loses 50 percent of his pay, resulting in a wage of only $1.59 a day, as opposed to $3.19 a day if the quota is met. In an interview on CNN, the president of Bridgetown/Firestone was forced to admit that a worker would have to work 21 hours a day to meet this quota. In reaction, families are forced to bring their children to work to meet the quota. Think about that choice in your family — enslave your own children, alongside yourself, or watch them starve. This is the choice Bridgestone/Firestone has forced Liberian plantation workers to make.
Yet this man of "character," Roger Goodell, has chosen to renew and expand the relationship of the NFL and Bridgestone/Firestone. Calls to end the relationship have been ignored. Why? Can there be any doubt that it is for the money that this relationship brings to the NFL? How can that be a sign of character?
So who really has character issues — Darren McFadden or the owners and commissioner for whom he plays?
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