The Reason Some Athletes Think They Are Above the Law is Because They Are!

My opinion of Falcon’s head coach, Mike Smith, dropped several notches week before last because of his action in the Babineaux case.  For those who don’t follow the Falcons NFL football team, Babineaux is a star defensive player for the Falcons.  He was arrested earlier in the week for felony possession of marijuana, an expired license tag, no valid driver’s license, really dark tinted windows, and a burned out tag light.  As one blogger wrote, “why not just wave a big banner saying, "STOP ME, I HAVE DRUGS!!" Jeez....some of these guys are just absolutely clueless.”

The Gwinnett County police report says Babineaux picked up a friend at the Atlanta airport and took him to a nearby town house to buy marijuana. It says Babineaux repeatedly told police he didn't smoke, then after his passenger contradicted him, admitted that he had smoked from a marijuana blunt at least once.  The police report says that Jonathan Babineaux was smoking marijuana as he and a friend drove through the northeast Atlanta suburbs.

The coach said he was “extremely disappointed” in Babineaux.  Well, I am extremely disappointed with Coach Smith and Falcon’s owner, Arthur Blank.  Babineaux started in last Sunday’s game against arch rival New Orleans.  Smith said Monday the team followed NFL rules in letting him play. All of Atlanta knows why Smith and Blank followed the NFL rules that let him play.  They needed him!  All that talk about character, young boys looking up to athletes and community responsibility be damned.  They followed the rules alright but what did it do to Babineaux and the rest of the team?

Even if the league eventually imposes a four-game suspension, which is likely, how will that affect the respect Babineaux has for his coach.  I am sure that Smith has rules and a code of conduct that all players are expected to follow.  Babineaux has undoubtedly broken the code and those rules.

Here is the deal.  Rules that are inconsistently enforced are not rules.  When rules are not for everyone and applied erratically, discipline breaks down and performance ultimately suffers.  This is true in football.  It is true in business and it is true in society.  There should be advantages for following the rules that those who don’t abide by them don’t get.  Unfortunately, all too often it is the other way around.  The person who breaks in line has an advantage over those who wait their turn.  The player who breaks the law is often exempted from any negative consequences.  It is interesting that Babineaux told the policeman that he was a Falcon football player.  Why did he tell him that?  I think you know.  In the past I would bet that there have been cops who on discovering that he was Falcon, would have given him a warning, asked for an autograph for his kid and let him go on his way.  What about such an incident would lead him to think is not above the law?

I have known of many situations where star salespersons do a poor job with paperwork, treats support staff terribly and think rules, policies and paperwork are for suckers.  Why? Because of the same reason that Coach Smith let Babineaux get away with his behavior.  Because they need them!! In the end the outcome of such tolerance is rarely good for the person or the organization.

Older sports fans remember that Coach Bear Bryant benched his star quarterback, Joe Namath for the Sugar Bowl because of violating curfews.  While coaching at UCLA, Coach John Wooden made his star, Bill Walton, stay home when he showed up at the bus with clothes that looked like he slept in them.  Coach had rules about the way the team dressed on road trips.  These coaches won in no small measure because they taught players the rules and were consistent and fair in their application.

Any time you see a celebrity who acts like s/he is above the law, it is because s/he has been positively reinforced for not following the rules.  Player behavior is a mirror of coach behavior.  It is not a cultural thing; it is a local thing.

Years ago when the Minnesota Vikings were known as “the purple people eaters,” they were fierce on the football field but stood at attention for the playing of the National Anthem.  They stood on the sideline with the toes of their shoes slightly touching the line with their helmets facing forward with their other hand by their side and facing the flag during the playing of the National Anthem.  They did not chew gum, nor did they talk.  They did this because it was important to Coach Bud Grant—not because they were afraid of what Coach Grant might do if they didn’t.  Could he do it with today’s players?  You bet he could.  He knew how to get people to follow the rules because they wanted to, not because they had to.

The laws of behavior show no partiality to entertainment stars of the stage, screen or athletic fields.  When the laws are arranged to favor law abiding, rule-governed behavior that is what you get.  When it favors behavior that is on the wrong side of the law that is what you get more of as well.  No mystery there.

A rule that is stated or written that does not have predictable consequences for rule-following and for rule-violators is worse than no rule at all.  As I am a loyal Falcon fan, I hope the incident with Babineaux is an aberration.  I worry that it is not.

By the way, the Falcons lost.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.