Two weeks ago, in the wake of the murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher and comments made by NBC Sports broadcaster Bob Costas, the lead-in to NFL news focused on players’ mental health and gun possession. Last week, following a single-car accident that left one Dallas Cowboys player dead and another charged with intoxication manslaughter, the news turned to NFL players’ drinking habits. This week, the headlines thus far have been about former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacating the suspensions and penalties handed down by current Commissioner Roger Goodell to four New Orleans Saints players for their involvement in a supposed program that paid bonuses for injuring opposing players.
This led to Tagliabue determining that although the Saints players “engaged in ‘conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football,’” ultimate responsibility and fault lies with team coaches and personnel who conceived of and condoned the bounty program. In short, the players felt compelled to follow orders from their superiors and, as a consequence, should not be punished.
Doing something wrong and later trying to be exonerated for it by pleading superior orders is tantamount to claiming “the devil made me do it.” One also might think of the Nuremberg military trials, at which high ranking Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Second World War. When asked about their roles in the atrocities, including the systematic extermination of millions of people, many Nazi officers asserted “those were my orders” over and over again.
Milgram was interested in understanding what happens when obedience to authority overtakes personal conscience. So, he set up experiments in which a participant acting as a “teacher” would ask questions to a “student” and deliver shocks of increasing voltage every time an incorrect answer was produced. The “teacher” believed that he was administering real shocks to the student, though the “student,” sitting behind a wall, was actually part of the research team and purposely providing incorrect answers. As the shocks increased, most of the “teachers” asked the experimenter whether they should continue. Each time, the experimenter commanded the “teacher” to keep going, despite pleas and fake cries from the “student.” Sadly, the “teachers” responded agreeably, if reluctantly.
What Milgram discovered is that the majority of participants in the experiment—all ordinary people—were willing to inflict pain and harm on another person because an authority figure (the experimenter) told them to do so. Worse, the behavior emerged despite the fact that their victims were apparently not deserving of the punishment. The bottom line: as Milgram put it, “often, it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”
The New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal, the Belcher murder-suicide, and the auto accident that killed a Cowboy are not isolated events. According to a recent USA TODAY report, NFL players have been arrested at least 624 times since January 2000. This is one of several realities testing the NFL and its responsibilities as a major American institution.
Now and going forward, the league will have to use its enormous influence to develop social and ethical skills that are practiced in civil society. Cultivating pure athleticism is not enough. Players, coaches, executives, and officials must make it a priority to reassert themselves as role models and citizens. If they don’t, there is always the specter of Congress getting involved and the needless media circus that comes with it. Either could damage what has become America’s most popular sport.