BENNER: Misdeeds magnified by ratings-hungry TV

May 22, 2010

Back in the days of my high school athletics career, there was an analgesic balm designed to bring warmth and relief to aching muscles.

It was called “Red Hot.”

Trust me, a little bit of Red Hot went a long way. And boys being boys, sometimes Red Hot was used the wrong way.

As a prank, it occasionally could end up lining the cup of a jock strap of an unsuspecting teammate, whose moment of, uh, surprise, upon donning said protective device served as the day’s collective amusement for all.

Ah, but no permanent harm, so no foul. It was just a joke, you see. Crude, but a joke. A few uncomfortable moments for the victim. A big laugh for everyone else.

I wonder how that would hold up today if brought to the light of public scrutiny.

Somehow I sense disciplinary action, at the least. And, at worst, expulsion, legal issues and the possibility of the unrelenting media glare. Especially if the story broke during a TV “sweeps” month.

At any rate, it would no longer be viewed as a harmless joke.

To be sure, there was nothing harmless or joking about the highly publicized charges brought last week against the four Carmel High School students/basketball players. The exact nature of the conduct that resulted in the misdemeanor indictments has not been reported, but, in the age of the Internet and communication that can be cloaked in anonymity, the specifics “out there” in the public domain are reprehensible.

If the charges are true, my heart goes out to the victims and their families. In the short term, their lives have been changed. Over the long term, let’s hope time does, indeed, heal.

There are other thoughts, however.

One of them is this: Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be … athletes.

Because if they screw up, there can be hell to pay.

I believe it’s legitimate to ask that if this had occurred outside the realm of sports, would the scrutiny have been this intense, and this sensationalized?

For a number of years, I taught a sports journalism class at Butler University. The class usually included two or three student-athletes. My message was that they should expect to be treated differently than their non-athlete peers, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The simple tag, “athlete”—whether on scholarship or not—brings with it a higher level of responsibility and accountability. Mess up and there’s a headline with your name and a mini-cam with your mug.

For a high school athlete, that can be an especially difficult concept to grasp. They are, after all, still just kids. And kids sometimes do really dumb things (as do adults … even congressmen, for crying out loud).

What the Carmel kids—yes, they are kids—are accused of goes far beyond dumb. One cannot fathom the thought process—that is, if there was a thought process.

Many believe they have gotten off lightly, given the grand jury did not return any felony charges. “Lightly” is surely a relative term. Punishment of some kind is ahead, civil suits are certainly in the offing, and the tarnish to names—their own and their families’—will last well beyond their teen-age years.

There is one area for which I actually feel sorry for the Carmel Four. They have been swept up in a media feeding frenzy the likes of which I can’t recall and is more generally reserved for serial killers.

We’ve got blood in the water, dirty laundry on the clothesline, and the cesspool of TV sweeps-month sensationalism. The perfect storm.

I guess I need to know what higher purpose is served by media camping out until 4 in the morning to get the tape of the four kids walking from the jail to a waiting minivan. Who is served by reporters excitedly holding blown-up prints of mug shots? What is the point of obtaining and showing video of those kids in a holding cell and using 20 seconds of mindless activity out of eight hours of captivity as a sign of a lack of remorse? Talk about taking something out of context.

But the purpose is sweeps-month ratings, which, in turn, generate ad revenue. For the local TVs, the Carmel Four could not have come along at a better time.

Ah, but the TVs say they’re only giving us what we want.

Yet another sad truth in this sad, sad series of events.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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