Athletes and the ‘Club’: Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight | The Socjournal


Social Class and American Sports

We are not alone.  Growing up we were not the only people to hear our mother’s invoke the adage that nothing good happens after midnight.  This saying was designed to justify a curfew, to soften its implementation, and to warn us of those who were out after midnight.  As we read day after day, week after week, month after month we are astonished by the number of reports of bad behavior-assaults, gun shots, rapes—perpetrated by athletes that occur at the bewitching hour of 2 A.M.  This essay was born in a conversation we had after the recent incident in which Michael Vick was accused of cavorting with his former associate and co-defendant who was then shot.  The incident took place outside of a club, where Vick was hosting his birthday party, at 2 A.M.

Certainly there are many people who get in to trouble at 2 A.M.  Their activities and crimes, however, are not fodder for the 24-hour sports news networks, sports blogs, and even national news outlets including USA Today and the New York Times.  Additionally, there are some logical reasons why incidents occur at 2 A.M.:  by 2 A.M. people have typically been drinking for many hours, by 2 A.M. there has been plenty of time for individuals to become annoyed by each other, jealousy that was just beginning to brew at midnight is often boiling by 2 A.M., and in many locales the bars and clubs close at 2 A.M., thus forcing people who otherwise might have been successfully avoiding each other or sufficiently distracted in to the streets.  Despite all of these plausible—and likely—explanations for the high incidence of athletes behaving badly at 2 A.M. (why is it never 1:30 A.M. or 2:15 A.M.?)—in this essay we explore three aspects that are unique to the lives of most athletes playing high profile sports, that contribute to the over-representation of bad behavior at 2 A.M.:  (1) social class backgrounds, (2) conspicuous consumption (or the problem of new money) and (3) privilege (coupled with hyper-masculinity).


Professional athletes are a preferential status group in American society and they are highly privileged.  For the purposes of our argument here, athletes are privileged in three key ways: gender, social class, and in their role as athletes.

Though there are likely some cases of female athletes behaving badly at 2 A.M., we are unaware of any pending cases.  Furthermore, it is obvious to even the most casual observer that the vast majority of these incidents involve male athletes.  And, a direct outcome of the privilege men hold in a culture of patriarchy, many of these incidents involve acts of violence against women or are propelled by arguments and jealousies that involve women.   For example, in the last year, Pittsburgh Steeler, Superbowl Champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was involved in two reported acts of sexual aggression against women.  In the second case the police documents allege that he was walking around the club with his penis hanging out of his pants essentially threatening women who did not want to interact with him.

As we have argued elsewhere, athletes both commit acts of deviance, especially violence against women, and receive preferential treatment because of their status as athletes.  Though we focused on incidents of violence against women, our findings likely extend to other incidents as well, including assaults and shootings.  When high profile athletes are involved in deviant behavior they often receive differential and preferential treatment by law enforcement.  Though many of the cases that ultimately make it to the news do not involve preferential treatment, our systematic examination of the literature as well as cases reveals that by the time an athlete is arrested and/or sentenced for a crime he has received preferential treatment in multiple, previous incidents.  Thus, many athletes develop a sense of invincibility that may contribute to their willingness to take the types of risks that put them in situations in which they are likely to be involved in the typical after 2 A.M. incidents.

Since the golden days of sport, when the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Jim Brown and so many others played the professional games, and earned a reasonable salary—though most of these same athletes “worked” in the off-season—successful professional athletes today hold contracts at rates of: 6 years @ $126 million (Alex Rodriquez of the New York Yankees or, $27,500,000 per year).   Even those football, basketball and baseball players making the league minimum earn at least double the median household income; in short they are rich.  At least salary wise.

Conspicuous consumption

With this kind of wealth these athletes can buy homes like the 9,000 sq foot one Tiger Woods owns in Jupiter, Florida – costing in the range of $55 million for the purchase of the property and destruction of the existing home.

Consider also that four-time boxing champ Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield who made over $250 million in cash during his boxing career, but whom we recently learned is flat broke, lost all his money by making “smart” business decisions that in the end look really foolish. For example, Holyfield bought a house the “size of Rhode Island”: $20 million house with over 54,000 square feet and 109 rooms. The house has 11 bedrooms, 17 bathrooms, a movie theater, a bowling alley and an Olympic-size swimming pool.

In addition to buying extravagant homes and fleets of cars, as many of the wealthy have done for decades, athletes seem to have a propensity for extravagant entertaining as well and this entertaining seems to frequently take place “in the club” despite the fact that they have homes large enough to host their parties privately.  As noted above, Michael Vick got in to his most recent trouble at his birthday party which he staged at a club rather than in his expansive home.  Perhaps the most illustrious example comes from Adam “PacMan” Jones who staged “its raining money” in a strip club in Las Vegas during the 2007 NBA All-Star weekend.  Trouble began when the strippers began fighting over the hundred dollar bills PacMan was tossing in the air [see this news story].  

We argue that this propensity for extravagance and conspicuous consumption—which is characterized here by its highly public nature, is typical and indicative of the fact that the vast majority of high profile athletes grew up far south of the incomes they now command.  Indeed a disproportionate number of football and basketball players grew up in extreme poverty.  Thus, they enter the ranks of the Nouveau riche athletes without societal social acceptance and often revert back to what they know best based on their social upbringing.  The motto seems to be: “if you’ve got it, flaunt it!”  What good is the extravagant birthday party if others can’t witness it, and better yet be denied access to it!  (A surprising number of these incidents, including the case of Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg in a New York night club take place in the VIP Lounge:  AKA The Very Important People Lounge).

Is it any wonder, then, that Michael Vick close to less than a year after serving a 19-month prison sentence at Leavenworth, Kansas for the crime of engaging in and conducting an illegal for-profit business in a pit bull fighting ring while financing the dog fighting business is back in trouble with the law.

This time Vick is a “person of interest” in an incident that came at his 30th birthday party hosted by his brother Marcus Vick at a Virginia Beach nightclub. The shooting victim was felon Quanis Phillips, a co-defendant in the dog fighting case. Vick is still on a three-year probation, which clearly stipulates that he is not to have contact with his partners in crime.

Lastly, and tightly coupled with both of the former, is the fact that many athletes playing the high profile sports of football and basketball are increasingly coming to college and the professional ranks not only from poverty but also from the crime ridden and gang infested urban ghettos of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and so many other places, both urban and rural.  In a presentation at Duke University in October 2009, Sociologist and University of California Sociology Professor Harry Edwards noted that a disproportionate percentage of the young men who play football and basketball on high profile college teams as well as in the NFL and the NBA bring with them the lessons learned in the ghetto.  These lessons may include “packing.”  Thus, perhaps Plaxico Burress wore a concealed weapon on his hip because this is how he has always “dressed” for the club.  Edwards suggested that one of the major barriers for the major California schools—University of Southern California (USC) and Cal-Berkeley recruiting in Compton is gangs.  Many highly recruited football and basketball players coming out of places like Compton are already members of gangs and are reluctant or even entirely resistant to playing for a college whose “colors” are the same as the rival gang.  NBA commissioner David Stern had to impose a “dress code” for this very reason. And, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has had to impose restrictions on excessive celebration in part because players were flashing gang signs when they scored touchdowns and these signs were being broadcast over national television.  Furthermore, in the winter of 2010, NBA commissioner David Stern was forced to deal with a situation when two teammates allegedly were settling a gambling dispute by bringing guns to the locker room (Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton).  Both men faced felony weapons charges.

Thus we argue that the world of high profile sports brings together three factors: privilege, conspicuous consumption, and background characteristics, that lead to a disproportionate amount of trouble—assaults, gunshots, violence against women—that occurs at or outside the club at 2 A.M.  When we begin to understand this phenomenon through the lens provided by this framework, we are able to move past the myth that these guys are just “thugs” and understand the ways in which their behavior is shaped by the structural circumstances in which they find themselves, often suddenly. Additionally, this more complex analysis provides us an opportunity to address—prevention and intervention—these behaviors and their consequences more effectively.  Lastly, we note that we see a similar phenomenon among entertainers, particularly rap and hiphop stars and thus suggest that this is a ripe and interesting area for further sociological examination.

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