Joe Namath and the Old-Fashioned View of Punishment
By Joseph A. Kohm, Jr.
Once upon a time, Joe Namath represented all that is American and masculine. He was the brash, swashbuckling quarterback of the New York Jets who so arrogantly predicted a Super Bowl III upset of the Baltimore Colts -- and then went out and backed it up. He dated starlets, he closed down bars, and he did a commercial with Farah Fawcett. His nickname mirrored his lifestyle -- "Broadway Joe."
Recently, I saw Namath appear as a guest on MSNBC's Morning Joe. His appearance made for a refreshing break from the usual sanctimonious chatter -- he was on to discuss his efforts in assisting the cleanup from the recent tornados that destroyed much of the University of Alabama campus.
Toward the end of the discussion, host Joe Scarborough asked him a question pertaining to his playing days at the University of Alabama. It is well-known that Namath was suspended toward the end of his junior year by legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant because of a violation of team rules.
Alabama had a bye week before its last regular-season game that season against the University of Miami. Namath planned to watch the Army-Navy football game on TV, but the game was pushed back a few weeks because of the assassination of President Kennedy. Instead, he spent an evening at a local diner where, admittedly, he had literally a few sips of beer. This was a clear violation of Coach Bryant's policy of no alcohol during the season. Bryant heard a rumor that Namath had been drinking over the weekend, so he approached his star quarterback and asked him if it was true. Namath admitted to the few sips of beer (while not mentioning that many of his teammates were drunk at an off-campus party that night).
According to Mark Kriegel's excellent book, Namath, after a short deliberation, Coach Bryant told Namath he could allow Namath to continue to play, but to do so would violate Bryant's principles, and the coach would have to resign. Instead, Coach Bryant decided to suspend Namath for the final regular-season game against Miami and for the upcoming Sugar Bowl.
What was so striking about all this was not so much Coach Bryant's decision to suspend Joe (which by today's standards would be absolutely draconian); it was Namath's reaction. As the news hit the wires that Joe Namath, star quarterback for the University of Alabama, was suspended for the remainder of the season, Namath spent the next several days living in Coach Bryant's basement, the guest of Coach Bryant's wife, so as to shield him from the media storm. He was actually living under the same roof as the man who just kicked him off the team. When Joe Scarborough brought the suspension up, Namath did something positively old-fashioned: he accepted responsibility for his actions. "I broke a training rule," he said.
Then, and now, there was no outcry from Namath about fairness or rights. He didn't say that Coach Bryant was taking money out of his pocket at the professional level, or that everybody else was doing it. He didn't claim a biological predisposition to alcohol. Nor did he blame the person who gave him the beer or say this was bad luck.
Transgress today in college football, and discipline is measured by college coaches in missed series, or missed quarters, or missed halves. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor played in the most recent Sugar Bowl despite the fact that he was all set to be suspended for the first five regular-season games this upcoming season for selling some of his memorabilia for tattoos. Apparently, there was concern from the networks and boosters that Pryor's absence from the game would affect its marketability. (I would have been curious to hear Coach Bryant's response to boosters had they expressed their concerns about marketability and Namath's absence.)
The value system that allowed Terrelle Pryor to participate in last year's Sugar Bowl is clearly pervasive throughout the rest of society. C.S. Lewis traces the progression from a system of acceptance of personal responsibility to a system where culpability is determined by external sources. According to Lewis in his essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," "to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral." Instead, society tells us there is a biological and pathological element to all wrongdoing and that corrective action (heaven forbid we should call it punishment) must take into consideration the wrongdoer's personal circumstances and environment.
Joe Namath's reaction and attitude stands in stark contrast to the current societal norm. What we saw from him was an honest admission of a deviation from an objective standard of conduct and an acceptance of the unpleasant consequences. He owned his mistake. When was the last time we heard a leader from either party admit to a mistake? Admissions to mistakes are presently associated only with public sexual transgressions and are forthcoming only after the salacious pictures have hit the internet.
Part of the reason why our current political, cultural, and economic system is broken is because as with any problem, there must be some recognition and identification of the root cause before any corrective action can be taken. No one wants to be associated or identified with the root cause. Until society on a collective and individual level does this, we will continue to be mired in a perpetual downfall. What we need is more Joe Namath.
Joseph A. Kohm, Jr. is a sports attorney residing in Virginia Beach, VA. He can be reached at [email protected]