Professional football involves systematic violence. On every play, men do things that would get them arrested in other contexts. What makes it a game — rather than a brawl, a riot or deadly combat — is that the violence is controlled.
There’s a penalty for “unnecessary roughness” because roughness must be kept within certain limits. Some types of brutal contact are allowed, but others are forbidden.
Some forbidden ones were committed by Cleveland Browns defensive star Myles Garrett in a recent game against Pittsburgh. Having made a late hit on the Steelers’ Mason Rudolph, which led to a scuffle with the quarterback, Garrett yanked Rudolph’s helmet off and then struck him on the head with it.
Shocking incidents like this put a choice to the NFL: Deal leniently or sternly with the offender. The league could have decided that Garrett’s ejection, coupled with a stiff fine and mandatory counseling, would suffice for his tantrum. Instead, it suspended him for the final six games of the season, and it gave no promise about when he will be reinstated. It thus sent Garrett a message that such outrageous conduct will not be tolerated.
But it also sent a strong message to all the players who get through each game without going berserk: that their stoic fortitude is recognized, respected and rewarded. To let Garrett off with a slap on the wrist would devalue their discipline. It would excuse bad behavior and generate more of it.
Donald Trump has a different attitude about punishing wrongdoers. He recently pardoned Clint Lorance, an Army officer convicted of ordering the murder of three Afghans, and Matthew Golsteyn, a Green Beret charged with murdering an Afghan prisoner.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired after Trump elected to reverse the demotion and preserve the SEAL Trident pin of Eddie Gallagher – who was prosecuted in a military court on charges of murder and other crimes, though he was convicted only of posing for a photo with a corpse. Trump justified his decision by tweeting, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!”
But even in war, some killings are not allowed. Trump’s intervention drew sharp criticism from military leaders, notably former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and former Marine Corps commandant Gen. Charles Krulak.
Retired Army Col. Mike Jason, who led combat units in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, tweeted, “The decision to pardon these three men, countering the sanctity of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, the decisions of commanders, the verdict of their peers, our adherence to the Laws of Warfare — WILL have long lasting battlefield consequences.”
These veterans know more of war than Trump does. It was Gallagher’s fellow SEALs who accused him of crimes. Nine members of Lorance’s unit testified against him. “It tainted our entire service,” one of them told The New York Times. “Every time a new story calling him a hero happens, I don’t sleep.”
The vast majority of our troops recognize that fighting a war is not a euphemism for mass slaughter or premeditated murder. They respect the rules of combat, even when it would be easier and safer not to. When the president sides with those who violate those rules, he effectively denigrates the integrity and self-control of everyone else in uniform.
What leaders get is what they reward and tolerate. Trump cares nothing or laws of war. He wants our troops to be “killing machines.” His indiscriminate blood lust will make it harder for commanders to elicit restraint from their troops.
The same logic, of course, applies to Trump’s own corrupt, reckless, self-serving and destructive behavior as president — most notably in his attempt to extort the president of Ukraine and his subsequent efforts to prevent Congress from learning all the facts.
No president since Richard Nixon has shown such contempt for law and such eagerness to misuse the powers of his office for his own benefit. Nixon was forced out, and his fate was a lesson to his successors on the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
If Trump is not impeached and removed, the message will be that presidents can get always with virtually anything. If he isn’t held fully accountable for his abuses, he will set a new, low standard for acceptable conduct. And we can expect the same, if not worse, from future presidents.
As musician Jason Isbell sings, “The right thing’s always the hardest thing to do.” Honoring the virtuous by punishing the vicious is one way to make doing the right thing just a bit easier.