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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Some Thoughts on Maurice Purify

I wasn’t really planning on touching on the Maurice Purify situation, but someone asked my thoughts, so I’ll oblige.

First off, I don’t know Maurice Purify. My outside perception of him is colored by glimpses of incredible talent and news reports of legal transgressions. He’s lived a lot of his life outside of my view and there is always danger in lending too much credence to too few data points.

Rather than a vast narrative that bores us all, I thought I’d instead take a look at some of the key arguments involved.

One arrest was bad enough, but two is surely a sign that Mo is a “bad seed,” and Nebraska needs to cut its losses.

The stance you take on this particular issue could tell you a lot about your view of human nature. Were the personal fouls Purify collected last season an early warning sign? Or are the penalties, the first arrest and the second arrest all isolated, random occurrences?

This is reminiscent of the fable of The Scorpion and the Frog. In this story a scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid to be stung, but the scorpion reassures him that they would both die if that happened. The frog then agrees. Nevertheless, in mid-river, the scorpion stings the frog and tells him that it is his nature to do so.

How much can person suppress his or her true self? How confident should any of us be in making that kind of judgment about someone else? Ultimately, Purify’s fate appears to lie in Callahan’s hands. But in some ways, all of us with a vested interest in Nebraska football wind up playing the role of the frog. We’ve been stung before.

Purify drinks too much and/or has a problem with alcohol

This one definitely involves taking a thin slice of Mo’s behavior and its associated consequences. And in the interest of full-disclosure…I drink. I drink heavily at times. I’ve driven when I shouldn’t have driven. I’ve never been cited, detained or arrested for anything (knocking on wood as I type this).

It’s easy to defend drinking in college as just drinking in college. A 1999 Harvard study indicated that 44% of college students engage in binge drinking. We also know that most binge drinkers change their habits after graduation. As a result, most college students are not and do not become alcoholics. But realistically some do or will have problems associated with alcohol. How can we tell which ones? Well, we could all sit around and count the number of drinks they consume and if they drink “a lot” we can place them in the “alcoholic” category. Or we could take a more behavioral approach and base the decision not on how much they drink, but instead on the consequences of their drinking. From this perspective we can conclude a person has a drinking problem if their consumption of alcohol has led to significant personal, social or legal repercussions. I think you can probably see where I’m going with this.

Thus, if we conclude that Mo has problems with alcohol does this change your decision about his status with the team? If he enters, completes and sustains treatment a common denominator associated with his offenses has been removed. How does this affect his “true self?”

Purify is just another criminal athlete

Athletes do commit crimes, this much is unmistakable. Some findings even indicate they do so at higher rates than the regular college student body.

ABC News:
"The Benedict-Crosset Study of sexual assaults at 30 major Division I universities over a three-year period in the 1990s concludes that "male college student athletes, compared to the rest of the male population, are responsible for a significantly higher percentage of sexual assaults reported to judicial affairs on the campuses of Division I institutions."
There are several hypotheses that attempt to explain this.

ABC News:
"There is a mentality among athletes that 'we can get away with this, that no one is going to challenge us because we are student athletes,'" said Richard Lapchick, professor at the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

"They are given star status at 17, 18 and 19 years old," said UC Berkeley sociology professor Harry Edwards. "That is unprecedented."

"They feel like they are gods, they can do anything," Pollack said. "They lose touch and sometimes they get lubricated with alcohol and women become a prize."
Or maybe their crimes would be better placed in a larger context.

According to an extensive Los Angeles Times survey of athletes and crime committed in 1995, a total of 22 athletes and three coaches were accused of a drug-related crime in 1995. That means that, on average, we read about a new sports figure with a drug problem every two weeks! Anecdotally, those numbers have seemed continue in succeeding years. Each new story reinforces the image from the last one.

Their stories are and surely should be disturbing. But those stories are rarely, if ever, put in the context of the 1.9 million Americans who use cocaine each month or the 2.1 million who use heroin throughout their lives. A total of 13 million or a staggering 6 percent of the American population use some illicit drug each month! When you look at the 18-25 male age group in general, the percentage leaps to 17 percent. Twenty-two athletes represent a small fraction of a single percent of the more than 400,000 who play college and pro sport in America.

In the same Los Angeles Times survey, 28 athletes and 4 coaches had charges related to alcohol. None of these 32 cases were put in the context of the 13 million Americans who engage in binge drinking at least 5 times per month. Yet we read about a new athlete with an alcohol problem every 11 days. Such images can surely create a building sense of problems in athletics if they are not viewed in the context of society.
Athletes can’t separate the violence of the playing field from their everyday life.

ABC News:
"We have to be careful about sending a message to young boys in particular about toughness and how important it is," Roby says, "because it's going to lead them to make decisions that are going to result in them doing some things that society is going to say, 'How the heck could that ever happen?'"
"We are getting athletes who have fights during games, in bars and on campus. Is there a link between the violence of a sport and one's actions away from that sport? There is certainly a growing body of public opinion that assumes that; media reports regularly imply that the violence of sport makes its participants more violent in society.

Are sports any more violent today than 20 years ago when no one would have made such an assertion? Or is it the fact that our streets and our schools surely are more violent. According to the National Education Association, there are 2,000 assaults in our schools every hour of every day! It is an ugly phenomenon that is neither bound by race, class, geography, nor by athlete vs. non-athlete."
Overall, I don’t really know which side I come down on the issue of crime and athletes. Clearly it looks like a problem. But the bottom line remains, most athletes don’t engage in criminal activities. When they do, however, you can bet that you will hear about it.

Our attitudes are influenced by the athlete’s race

I hate to even mention race, but there is far too much evidence from social psychology to ignore the influence of race on our perceptions.

“According to the National Opinion Research Center Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation for the University of Chicago, whites share the following attitudes:

56 percent of whites think African-Americans are more violent
62 percent think African-Americans are not as hard working as whites
77 percent of whites think most African-Americans live off welfare
53 percent think African-Americans are less intelligent

Sport as it is currently being interpreted, now provides whites with the chance to talk about athletes in a way that reinforces those stereotypes about African-Americans. With African-Americans dominating the sports we watch most often (77 percent of the players in the NBA, 65 percent in the NFL, 15 percent in Major League Baseball (another 25 percent are Latino) 57 percent in NCAA Division I basketball and 47 percent in NCAA Division IA football are African-American), whites tend to "think black" when they think about the major sports.

I spoke at an elite university four years ago to 25 career diplomats. I asked them to write down five words they would use to describe American athletes.

Not one missed including one of these words:


That was a distinguished group of international leaders who had such assumptions impressed on them by reading the American sports pages for just one year.”
New York Times:
Experiments conducted by Elizabeth Phelps who teaches psychology at New York University, combine brain scans with a behavioral test known as the Implicit Association Test, or I.A.T., as well as physiological tests of the startle reflex. The I.A.T. flashes pictures of black and white faces at you and asks you to associate various adjectives with the faces. Repeated tests have shown that white subjects take longer to respond when they’re asked to associate black faces with positive adjectives and white faces with
negative adjectives than vice versa, and this is said to be an implicit measure of unconscious racism.

Phelps and her colleagues added neurological evidence to this insight by scanning the brains and testing the startle reflexes of white undergraduates at Yale before they took the I.A.T. She found that the subjects who showed the most unconscious bias on the I.A.T. also had the highest activation in their amygdalas — a center of threat perception — when unfamiliar black faces were flashed at them in the scanner. By contrast, when subjects were shown pictures of familiar black and white figures — like Denzel Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Conan O’Brien — there was no jump in amygdala activity.
Scary stuff that puts an interesting persepctive on things. Overall, I’m just glad that I’m not saddled with the decision of what happens to Maurice Purify. There are a lot of variables tangled in his recent offenses. It’s okay to have an opinion about how Purify should be treated. I hope that it will be an informed one. And remember whatever standards you set for others, you must be willing to live up to yourself.