Commentary

Reflecting on Mayweather's sentence

It's easy to put athletes who are in jail or prison out of mind, but it shouldn't be

Updated: June 11, 2012, 10:00 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

When you look at, read about, think about Floyd Mayweather Jr. going to jail, what comes to mind?

Do you lump him in with all of the other athletes over the years who have gone to jail?

Do you profile? Do you see a certain type of athlete/sports figure and accept the fact that he/she is the "type" you'd suspect one day was going to end up behind prison walls because he/she is tied in some way to the dark side of sports?

[+] EnlargeDavid Becker
David Becker/Getty ImagesFloyd Mayweather Jr. began a three-month sentence June 1 at the Clark County Regional Justice Center.

Or do you see nothing? Nothing different from what you may see one day out of your window, or what you have seen every day for the past 20 years or so on the news (maybe to the extent that watching someone go to prison no longer affects you)?

I ask because what I see is an epidemic that defines our culture, one that has been too easily brushed aside and needs closer scrutiny.

For as long as fans have been watching sports, athletes have been landing on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. We see men and women of every race, class, celebrity, notoriety, background, sport played, upbringing, tax bracket, financial status or economic well-being incarcerated.

The cases are as varied as the individuals. Athletes are no different from anyone else who has been punished for criminal action or inaction. We just tend to focus on them more because they are in the public eye. We also tend to turn on athletes quickly. People who may have related to athletes because they were stars or glamorous don't carry over that connection when the athletes' actions are the opposite of heroic.

Many look at Mayweather beginning his 87-day prison sentence for domestic battery and come to a "different from us" conclusion. Many see waste. They see another self-made brotha who self-destructed.

They see a professional athlete who made $85 million dollars in the past 12 months and shake their heads. Label him. They see another Mike Tyson. Another Sonny Liston, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, Trevor Berbick. Another boxer with a record, alternately ruined by the sport or a corrupting influence (never mind false imprisonment). They see where Don King started.

They look closer and take it further. Then they see another Michael Vick.

We are watching one of the greatest athletes of this generation go to jail, but most people will distance themselves from the punishment and the violence that led to it and think this story is only about Mayweather, not them. Because he's a rich and famous athlete, they'll ignore the parallels to their own neighborhood and neighbors and the possibility that someone who did what Mayweather did could live next door.

This mental partitioning, while understandable, is a mistake.

Take, for example, an offense that is familiar to anybody who's spent five minutes in a college town. Former Oklahoma State All-American and No. 5 pick in the NFL draft Justin Blackmon was arrested June 3 for his second DUI, and he has yet to play a down in an NFL game. Is there any real difference between his crime and one committed by any multiple DUI offender who was arrested in the past month? (Other than that Blackmon won't lose his job or his big payday?)

Or look at George Huguely, who was just sentenced to 26 years in prison for the murder of Yeardley Love. Does the fact that Huguely and Love were University of Virginia lacrosse players make the loss of life any different from another recent second-degree murder case?

Was there a different kind of shock when Jerry Sandusky -- former assistant coach at a storied college football program, whose trial has just begun -- was accused of child sexual abuse? Countless teachers and clerics and relatives have been convicted of the same violations of trust and innocence.

And what of cases that involve sports at the local level? How could anyone not react to Thomas Junta, a Massachusetts hockey dad who in 2002 was sentenced to 6-10 years in prison for the beating death of another hockey dad at a youth hockey practice that involved both of the men's sons?

For every Pete Rose doing time for tax evasion or former major league pitcher Ugueth Urbina doing time for attempted murder in Venezuela, there is someone who never hustled out an infield hit or threw a strikeout who is in prison for the same crimes. For every O.J. Simpson or Art Schlichter who is doing or has done time, for every Lawrence Taylor, Lawrence Phillips, Rae Carruth, Plaxico Burress, Maurice Clarett, Mercury Morris, Leonard Little, Darryl Henley, Dexter Manley, Nate Newton and Jamal Lewis, there are prisons full of men, women and children charged as adults who have no connection whatsoever to professional or intercollegiate sports.

Former NBA player Jayson Williams -- aggravated assault in the death of his limo driver -- and former rogue referee Tim Donaghy -- involved with the mob in a betting scandal -- undoubtedly spent prison time with criminals ranging from a guy who wouldn't know LeBron James if he robbed him to someone who will claim that the only thing stopping him from being "the next LeBron James" is the fact that his mother wouldn't put her house up as collateral to get him back on the streets.

All I'm saying is that Mike Danton's conspiracy to commit murder conviction shouldn't be looked at any differently than Sheila Aidoo's for doing the same thing simply because Danton is a former NHL player. Or that Carlton Dotson, the former Baylor University basketball player serving a 35-year sentence for murdering his teammate, shouldn't be viewed any differently than we view William Balfour, who was just convicted of the triple murder of Jennifer Hudson's mother, brother-in-law and nephew.

Athletes are not separate from society. Nor can their actions be ignored or classified as something done by "others."

So ask yourself again about Mayweather's week-old jail stay. Or the Sandusky trial. Stories like these should cause us to pause and think. About what we teach our kids. About crime. About justice. About victims. About our neighborhoods and law enforcement and the courts and jails and prisons. About the cities of men and women behind bars in the United States, the country that leads the world in locking up people.

Too often our mental glance in the mirror after reading these headlines returns only our own idealized reflection, not the full image of the society in which we live. A society that has too many people, including athletes, wearing orange jumpsuits.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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