Athletes And Crime: The Slippery Slope Of Guilty Until Proven Innocent

If 2014 was known for Ray Rice, 2015 took things up a notch, and not in a good way. Greg Hardy took over even more disturbing headlines on the gridiron, Floyd Mayweather’s final fight drudged up his domestic violence past, War Machine’s wrath was exposed even further and Patrick Kane was accused of rape.

In case of Hardy, Mayweather and War Machine, the evidence and convictions rightly damned men who, quite frankly, are horrible people. They may not be horrible in their day-to-day actions, but their crimes make them horrible in a way we as a society don’t look kindly upon. And because of the heinous nature of domestic violence and rape crimes, the masses are quick to condemn — so much so that we’ve moved from a society built upon “innocent until proven guilty” to the opposite: guilty until proven innocent.

This is a slippery slope that, quite frankly, has no easy template. Take, for instance, the Patrick Kane situation.

While we can all generally agree those convicted of horrible crimes don’t deserve the benefit of a doubt nor any leniency in public perception, what do we do when we publicly condemn an athlete who never gets charged, never gets sentenced and perhaps even gets absolved? The sad truth is we do virtually nothing, and that’s why this can be such a dangerous path.

Thanks to a shift in thinking and a much-deserved cynicism around our athletes, anytime anyone is accused of a crime, that person is immediately and swiftly judged by a jury of social media powerhouses. The criticism and condemnations come pouring in, an onslaught of opinions and ideas and calls for, say, Kane to be banned from playing while under a cloud of suspicion.

Yet once the fervor dies down and the facts don’t fully support the accusations, there is radio silence. The mob dead set on tearing down the accused puts little to no effort in clearing the suddenly innocent’s name. How many tweets, Facebook posts and articles did you read about how badly the Chicago Blackhawks handled the Kane situation? How many people called for Kane to be sat down, forbidden from playing before even getting so much as charged?

Now think about how many articles you’ve seen since apologizing to Kane since the news broke he would not be charged. The scale certainly doesn’t tip in Kane’s favor.

Of course, it’s inconvenient to go back on the avalanche of criticism. The social media cycle and talking-head mania already deemed Kane guilty. The fact he’s never been found guilty is just an annoying detail.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to shift back to an innocent until proven guilty way of thinking. Looking upon accusations with a critical, almost doubtful mind is exactly why victims of domestic violence and abuse historically don’t come forward. They don’t believe justice will be served, and they fear the repercussions and stigma of a victim. It’s a horrible reason to not come forward — thinking you are helpless.

That’s partly why as a society we’ve moved away from innocent until proven guilty. Now everyone is guilty until we’re convinced otherwise, and even if we are, the outcry rarely comes with the same enthusiasm with which we brought down the hammer.

In the cases of Hardy, Mayweather and War Machine — along with countless others — a healthy dose of cynicism early on probably would have only helped matters. But in the rare cases in which someone is made a public pariah only later be cleared of wrongdoing, there’s little effort to make things right.

Our inclination now is to make athletes sit down and sit out, to not allow them to make their livelihood because we don’t like way their situation looks. We deem them monsters before even knowing what happened. We call the Blackhawks classless and greedy… and then we continue to look at Kane askew as he embarks on an historic season even as his case gets closed.

This is a slippery slope that turns the very foundation of our laws on their head. It’s easy to see why, whether it is race relations in America and the disproportionate injustices brought upon black lives that’s sparked a movement or the way high-profile athletes continue to be given chances with spotty track records.

No one wants to see victims silenced. No one wants to see athletes go unpunished any further. And no one wants to root for a rapist or a murderer or a domestic abuser. But now, it seems, no one wants to know the truth either.

Perhaps this is a symptom of our be first, not right society. All that matters is being out there first, the first one to break the news, the first one to make a joke, the first one to have a hot take, the first one to say something, anything so you can go back and say, “See, I had it first.” Notice I didn’t say, “See, I had that right.”

It’s a case of wanting to be on the right side, sure — no one wants to voice support for an accused rapist without knowing all the facts. Yet very few seem hesitant to condemn the accused without knowing all the facts. That’s what makes this slippery slope also steep.

We don’t care about facts, about truths, about being right. We care about being first and being on the right side of popular opinion. Maybe, just maybe instead of “guilty until proven innocent,” we should reserve judgment until we actually know what in the hell is going on.

But where’s the fun in that? It’s easier to join the mob, call for heads to roll and worry — or more often not worry — about letting the facts play out later.

I understand why we’re here, and I genuinely believe the intentions are good. But no one, athletes included, should be judged as guilty and forced to prove their innocence. Yet that’s where we are, and no one seems to care about the aftermath anymore.

Maybe innocent until proven guilty isn't perfect, but that doesn't mean guilty until proven innocent is either. It's simply a case of two wrongs attempting to make a right, and we all know how often that works out. Think whatever you want to think — look upon those accused as guilty until proven innocent all you want — but maybe hold off on actually condemning or absolving the accused until the facts are out. You may just surprise yourself if you do.

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