When did America decide that words are worse than actions?
I’m not sure, exactly, but it’s happened. We spend far too much time worried about what people said, Tweeted, or thought and far too little time worried about what people actually do. Actions speak louder than words, except on the Internet, where words get far more attention than actions. Whether it’s Donald Sterling, Dolphins defensive back Don Jones or former Ole Miss shooting guard Marshall Henderson, you’re better off these days to commit an actual crime than say or Tweet something unpopular.
Let’s start with Jones, who tweeted “OMG” and “Horrible” when Michael Sam kissed his partner on ESPN after being drafted in the 7th round. That’s not an ideal reaction from the NFL’s perspective, but it’s an honest one, ostensibly one of the primary reasons that Twitter exists — to allow real-time reaction to current events. The problem for Jones is that it’s also a politically incorrect response. So the Dolphins suspended and fined Jones. That’s despite the fact that Jones doesn’t play on the same team as Sam, it’s presently the off-season, and Jones’s comments weren’t that egregious in relation to other homophobic comments by the league’s players in past years. Jones disagrees with two men kissing on sports television. That’s hardly an opinion that he alone shares. Yet if he’d Tweeted, “OMG,” followed by “Hooray,” there would have been no team or NFL reaction at all. Hell, Sportscenter might have retweeted him and praised his courage.
Instead the Dolphins fined and suspended him.
“We were disappointed to read Don’s tweets,” coach Joe Philbin said in a statement. “They were inappropriate and unacceptable, and we regret the negative impact these comments had on such an important weekend for the NFL. We met with Don today about respect, discrimination and judgment. These comments are not consistent with the values and standards of our program.”
How does that compare with the Baltimore Ravens reaction to running back Ray Rice being videoed knocking out his fiancee and subsequently charged with domestic assault? The Ravens said as follows: “This is part of the due process for Ray. We know there is more to Ray Rice than this one incident.”
Is this real life?
You get in more trouble for a Tweet about men kissing on a sports television show than you do for allegedly knocking out your girlfriend and being charged with domestic assault?
The message is clear: Words matter more than actions.
Today Marshall Henderson Tweeted: “Boycotting sportscenter til this michael sam nasty ass s–t is off …. My brothers are 7 and 11 and saw that!!! #sickening“
Later, Henderson Tweeted that his Tweet had been a social experiment for a gay friend.
Regardless of his motivations, the Twitter reaction was swift. Ole Miss issued a statement condemning Henderson’s comments, the Twitter thought police, who seem to live for someone to Tweet something unpopular so they can turn into a mob and extract their pound of flesh, hopped on Henderson and tore him to shreds, how dare he have an opinion that doesn’t square with their own?
Honestly, the more I watch reactions like this, the more it reminds me of social media’s own McCarthyism, a reverse Red Scare. We have to root out “racists,” and “homophobes,” and publicly ridicule them to make the world a better place.
Angry words! Exact same opinions! Mob rule! Fauxrage!
Again, I’d ask you, if you look around and everyone has the exact same opinion as you, doesn’t that make you a bullying mob? What takes more courage, standing up to the mob or following along in its wake? Especially where, as here, this isn’t about what was said — what impact did Henderson’s Tweet really have, he’s a former basketball player? — so much as it is your opportunity to puff out your Internet chest and make a show for others. “I’m not racist, because I don’t like racists!” “I’m not homophobic because I don’t like homophobes! But everyone else is!”
But aren’t you turning these words into stories just to give yourself an opportunity to pat yourself on your own back for your own tolerance? This isn’t about the bigots or the homophobes, it’s about amassing social media likes, bolstering your own self-esteem, the reaction to words tells us more about the reactors than it does about the speakers.
Let’s turn to Donald Sterling now.
He’s racist and has been for a long time. That sucks. I wish racism didn’t exist and we all lived in a happy utopia where prejudice and simplemindedness were erased forever. Sterling was secretly recorded in the privacy of his own home in a private conversation. Then that tape was released by an anonymous person and all hell broke loose. The NBA banned Donald Sterling for life not for anything he’d done before — they specifically excluded all his previous actions — but instead the league said they were taking his team because of what he said on a secretly recorded tape in a private conversation in his home.
Sterling did the wrong thing — he said the wrong words to piss off the mob.
The mob came for him because no one affiliated with the NBA was brave enough to stand up and say, woah, could we be setting a bad precedent here by banning a guy for life from even attending our sporting events because of something he said in a secretly recorded private conversation in his own home?
No, the mob demanded “justice.”
Here’s an interesting question for you, remember that Sterling’s “girlfriend” is half-black and half-Hispanic. What if Sterling was fine with her hanging out with black people but racist against Hispanics? What if he’d told her to not hang out with Hispanics or bring them to his games? LA has a large Hispanic market. The Hispanic population in America is actually larger than the black population. Does the NBA still ban Sterling for life and demand he sell the team? Do NBA players react the same way?
I don’t think so.
Why is the mob fickle and inconsistent about these issues?
Because all mobs are fickle, inconsistent, and come with their own preconceived agendas in place.
Kobe Bryant said there was no place in the NBA for Donald Sterling. The mob cheered his taking a stand and demanded blood. Evidently forgetting that Kobe Bryant allegedly raped a woman in Colorado. He played through the pre-trial hearings in that case and then bought off his accuser, apologizing to her in the process. That’s a pretty serious transgression, right? It’s an actual action. Yet if Donald Sterling had to choose whether to be accused of rape and buy off his alleged victim or caught on tape making a racist statement, he’d pick being accused of rape.
How crazy is that?
And be careful, Internet mob, remember that mobs don’t rule wisely. They frequently end up executing some of their own. Did anyone advise NBA players that by demanding Donald Sterling be fired they’d opened themselves up to serious punishments for using the wrong words in their lives too? What happens when the next Kobe Bryant directs a gay slur at another NBA official on tape? What if someone trash talks Jeremy Lin on camera and makes a slur about him being Asian? What happens when another NBA star stands accused of a serious crime during the season? In the wake of Donald Sterling’s punishment, could the NBA really let Bryant play while facing rape charges today? NBA players may have won the battle with Donald Sterling, but they lost the war.
Let’s use another example from the professional ownership ranks of words being penalized over actions, remember Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was recently caught driving drunk while possessing narcotics? He still hasn’t received any suspension or penalty from NFL executioner Roger Goodell. So if you’re an owner it’s better to drive drunk with narcotics and put every other motorist in serious danger of death than be secretly taped making racist statements in your home?
Doesn’t this seem backwards to everyone? In our own lives, we all choose to punish actions over words. But not on the Internet.
Put it this way, if you had to choose between having a rapist in your own family or a racist, which would you pick?
It’s not a tough decision, right? Regardless of our own racial backgrounds, we all pick the racist. That’s because in the real world we understand that actions matter more than words. It’s why our criminal justice system just about always requires a criminal act to punish someone. Mere words, standing alone, are not crimes.
So why does the Internet treat words as the ultimate sin, worse than actual actions?
We’ve got it totally backwards.
And that’s scary.
Now, I want to jump into the First Amendment here, which is frequently misapplied in cases such as these. The First Amendment protects us all from government punishment for our words. What it doesn’t protect anyone from is freedom from the consequences of those words; that is, your private employer can certainly react to your comments, online or otherwise, and hold you accountable for them. But I’m more interested in this fact, major American corporations have become increasingly socially liberal in the past decade or so. Many corporations are every bit as powerful as governmental entities. As corporations continue to increase in power, their censorship of employee opinions can start to have many of the same impacts as governmental restraint of speech. Wal Mart employs one in every hundred workers in our country. If Wal Mart’s corporate policies restrict their employees rights to comment on controversial issues, shouldn’t that be a little bit scary to everyone? Add up several Wal Marts and you have a large segment of the population that doesn’t have actual freedom of speech if that speech differs from the opinion of the corporation that employs them.
But at least Wal Mart doesn’t have a monopoly on professional sports leagues like the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL do. So let’s say you don’t agree with gay marriage and play in one of these leagues. That’s your right as an American. I happen to disagree with you, but you have the right to that opinion. But do you have the right to voice that opinion if the Miami Dolphins are suspending players who don’t want to see men kiss on sports television?
I’m not sure that you do.
So to play pro sports you have to check your opinions at the door unless they are the same opinions as the league? And if your opnion differs with the league you’ll be punished more severely for that than you will if you break actual crimes.
How did we get to this place?
In order to ultimately treat everyone equally, don’t we have to allow those we disagree with to freely share their hate? Otherwise, we’re in a terrifying place, a location where words matter more than actions, where the wrong thought is a virtual crime that could cost you your job. We need to be giving words less attention and actions more, but I’m afraid that the modern trajectory of the Internet mobs are taking us in the exact opposite direction.
Regardless of what your political beliefs are, that should terrify all of us.