Monday, September 12, 2005

physical size, violence, and culpability

The minneapolis strib and ap reported this weekend that Kevin Williams, the minnesota vikings all-pro defensive lineman, is charged with fifth-degree domestic assault. Domestic violence is horrible, whether it involves enormous athletes or anyone else, but we're especially outraged when a 6'5" 304 pound football player ends up in a physical altercation with a 5'7" woman. According to police reports, Tasha Williams had blood on her shirt and lacerations on her forearm when officers arrived. Her husband told police she had grabbed a knife -- of course she did, and I probably would too when facing someone twice my size (not that it would do me much good).

Does a large person have an even greater responsibility to avoid violence than a small person? Does an athlete have a greater responsibility than a non-athlete? I think so. As the parent of a son who approaches Williams' size, I've always taken the position that he should be held to a higher standard. Well, I'm not actually that noble. I've told him that he will be held to a higher standard. There are both humanitarian reasons for him to avoid violence -- he could really hurt somebody -- and labeling effects that will make violence an especially poor choice for him. I've always wanted to study the relationship between physical size and punishment severity -- my working hypothesis is that big kids tend to be waived into adult court and they tend to get tougher, more secure placements, all else equal. I can also hypothesize some race*size interactions and gender*size interactions that might be interesting to test.

Any aggressive move made by a burly 6'4" man (or mannish boy) looks and feels a lot different than someone 5'10" making the same move. Simply standing up quickly attracts a lot of attention in the former case but few would notice in the latter. Child A (lg.) once lamented that child B (sm.) never gets into trouble for her own violent behavior "because she's supposedly harmless," and I guess A has a point. But it is different -- a bigger person can generally do a lot more damage. So, in any serious fight, he'll be the first attacked and likely the first arrested. That said, I've been stoked about him playing football because it gives him a safe place to cut loose and (finally!) throw his body around with abandon. I always loved going full-tilt in contact sports, and I was really a pretty awful football player. Still, I liked the idea of testing physical limits and think I learned something from the experience, especially as an adolescent. Reading about football players and domestic violence obviously tempers this excitement, even if such violence turns out to be less common among athletes than non-athletes (frankly, I don't know the literature on this question, but I suspect that a number of good statistical controls would be needed to make a valid comparison).

I guess the danger is spillover -- if football somehow supports a culture of off-field macho/violent behavior then the risks outweigh the benefits. Plus, I'd wager that sociology professors tend to be some of the least physically aggressive people on the planet, so it seems especially deviant to celebrate violence in any form -- no matter how contained or institutionalized. Whenever I read something like the Williams story I want to start yelling at my son ("DON'T YOU EVER...), but he didn't do anything wrong. It is almost an involuntary reaction -- I see the story and start sputtering, until I'm quickly dispatched with a snarky comment (e.g., "yeah, dad, that's exactly what I was planning to do today before you read me that article"). So, I'll try to explain this one to him when I can be cooler about it. He's heard it all a hundred times before and he has a nice arsenal of conflict resolution skills -- he says things like "I'm too mad to talk to you right now, so I'm going to come back when I'm calmed down" (heaven knows, he didn't get that from me). Still, I just can't ignore something like the Kevin Williams story -- especially when Williams is playing the same position and when others seem all-too-eager to look the other way on what they'd euphemistically call "off-field problems."

Maybe there's a way to put a positive spin on it. Alan Page (#88 above) was a defensive tackle too. He was one of the most dominating and aggressive football players in history -- the first defensive MVP in national football league history. Now he's the first African American Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court (and, of course, a fine distance runner). I suspect that Justice Page didn't simply morph from being a fierce and aggressive young man into a thoughtful and reflective middle-aged jurist, but that he carried both capacities within himself throughout both careers. Perhaps he just knew where to draw the lines.

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