Culture

The NFL Borrows from the Iliad’s Playbook: Ray Rice and Achilles

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did a rare thing earlier this month — so rare it’s hardly ever been done since the 1200s BC. In cracking down on Ravens running back Ray Rice for a savage act of domestic abuse, Goodell (begrudgingly, after getting backed against the wall by public outcry) plunked for morals over talent. That, as the ancient Greeks knew from reading the war stories of their cultural icon, Homer, is easier said than done.

It shouldn’t have been a hard choice. Rice seems to have been caught dead to rights on camera, beating his fiancée senseless in a public place. Even the snippet of the video that’s been publicly released by TMZ is difficult to watch: with the casual unconcern of a man used to being treated like a demigod, Rice drags the unconscious woman out of an elevator like a rag doll. He takes his time, as if daring anyone to stop him.

Worst of all, no one did stop him. Rice was right to assume that starting running backs with Super Bowl rings and solid rushing averages can do what they want and get away with it. Rice is a star; he sells seats. So for an offense that may put him behind bars, the league suspended that naughty, naughty boy for two whole games. It looked like Rice was in line to join the ever-growing complement of suspected criminals and potential felons to be slapped gently on the wrist before returning to their adoring fans and multi-million-dollar contracts. Ray Lewis, Leonard Little, Andre Smiththe list goes on.shutterstock_22453414

Add to that list Achilles, MVP of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. In Homer’s epic, the Iliad, the Greeks bring Achilles to the fight against Troy as their ultimate weapon, the star player that makes it impossible for them to lose. He was a jacked-up super-soldier, half divine and twelve feet tall, with biceps that made Andrew Luck’s throwing arm look like a floppy rubber chicken. He was also a petulant narcissist with the maturity of an overgrown toddler.

Homer writes about Achilles’ erratic and irresponsible anger, which “spelled death for thousands of Greeks” (1.2). In the opening scenes of the poem, Achilles gets in a screaming match with his superior officer, throws a temper tantrum over his bruised pride, then sits out most of the rest of the war sulking. He intentionally leaves thousands of his men to be mowed down without his all-important support. He was not what you’d call a team player.

Homer was dramatizing the same deep-seated tension that the NFL faces routinely: dazzling, indispensable talent weighed against disastrous egomania. Men with godlike abilities and childish tempers. Talent is blind, and sometimes it falls on preening reprobates convinced the world exists for their consumption and abuse. The lavish adoration and corporate sponsorships that get heaped on them don’t do much to relieve them of that delusion.

Take Ray Lewis. Last week, the Ravens erected a thunderously majestic effigy of Lewis, nine feet tall, complete with triumphant pyrotechnics. This is a man who was almost certainly involved in the murder of two people. Now, the NFL has no responsibility to police its employees’ personal lives, but surely we all agree double homicide crosses a bit of a line. Lewis avoided jail time, but come on: a statue? What gives?

The dirty secret that both Homer and pro sports make painfully clear is that, when it comes to talent, justice goes conveniently mute. The Greek soldiers in the Iliad hem and haw to excuse Achilles just as Goodell did to exonerate Rice — it’s painful to watch some of the noblest Greeks eat crow to appease the drama queen who puts his ego before the wholesale slaughter of his fellow soldiers. The genius general Odysseus has to grovel, offering Achilles heaps of trophies and a hero’s welcome from Greeks “who will honor [him] like a god” just for coming back on the field and fighting like everybody else (9.303-4). Not a far cry from Goodell, who originally tied himself in knots to excuse Rice’s obviously inexcusable violence, offering a few lame remarks about how Rice “did not have another incident” and is therefore somehow allowed to flagrantly beat a woman unconscious. “Sure, we all believe in the rule of law and women’s rights,” he might as well have said, “but have you seen this guy’s forward hustle?”

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The Greeks’ ethical acrobatics were understandable. War is war, and when people are dying it makes sense to overlook quite a bit for the sake of getting back on the winning team. Football, difficult though it may be to believe, isn’t a life-or-death situation. So this willful moral amnesia isn’t just about pragmatism, or survival. It’s about the talent itself. We worship talent. It intoxicates us, blurs our sense of right and wrong. It’s not just the NFL — talented celebrity defendants routinely get off easy. Rice, Lewis, Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan: they get a pass because the stars in our eyes make us forget our consciences.

That’s why Goodell’s about-face on domestic violence, halting and lukewarm though it may be, is actually pretty impressive. It contradicts centuries of tradition, millennia of reverence for gifted but reprehensible thugs. It’s a start at holding people with extraordinary talent to ordinary standards of common decency. In contemporary America, we have that luxury in a way not many people have, because of our unprecedented peace and national security, and because football isn’t war. We’re not currently depending on our star athletes to save our lives, so we have a chance to demand that they clean up their acts a little bit — a chance for which ancient Greek military leaders would have given their right arms. Goodell has an opportunity to stick to his guns on the new cases of Quincy Enunwa and Ray McDonald. Let’s hope he does — it’s a once-in-an-epoch sort of thing.

This is the third installment in my series on the Iliad. For more cinematic gore and thrills from Greece’s greatest action writer, Homer, check out my first two pieces: “The 10 Goriest Deaths in the Iliad” and “The 5 Most Epic Scenes in the Iliad (And What They Say About Heroism.)” Next week will be all about leadership, in Homer’s Greece and our America. Stay tuned!

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images via shutterstock / Panos Karas