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current events, morality

A Scandal Went Down to Georgia

Another high-powered alpha male is in trouble for alpha male behavior.  University of Georgia Athletic Director Damon Evans was arrested for DUI late Wednesday night.

There are several embarrassing elements to this story.  First, Damon was the star of a public service announcement urging UGA students not to drink and drive.  Whoops.  Second, there was a passenger in the car with him who was arrested for disorderly conduct.  She’s 28.  He’s 40 and married with two children.  Whooops again.  (A reliable inside source has informed me that her appearance was “disheveled” and that she was arrested for repeatedly getting out of the car, approaching the officer and begging him to “work something out.”)  Third, like many high profile NCAA figures, Evans is reported to have a “personal administrative assistant” — responsible for driving his drunk ass around and keeping him out of trouble.  Evans’ assistant was nowhere to be found.  I wonder why…

Ok… in fairness, some of this is gossip, albeit gossip from knowledgeable UGA staff.  (No, I will not reveal my source.  Are you crazy?)  I can’t prove that Evans was up to no good with his 28 year old female friend.  But you know that’s what you were thinking, and you know that’s what everybody else thinks.  I don’t know if Evans has a moral turpitude clause in his contract, but he might.  Oh… did I mention that he just started on his brand new 5 year contract which included a more than 100k per year raise?

Ok… enough with the scandalous gossip.  What does this have to do with my blog’s theme?  Well, admittedly I’m engaging in a little sensationalism, but this story does raise some interesting questions about human nature.  Before going on, I must ask for a bit of indulgence.  This post will wander a bit and cover several topics.  I’m not really trying to make a single point.  Rather, I’m thinking aloud about various aspects of this story as they apply to human nature.  So think of it more as stream of consciousness than a tight essay.

I’ve written about several high profile “whoops” cases — Rick Pitino, Tiger Woods, etc. — and I’ve maintained a certain sense of sympathy for all of them.

We have a kind of double standard in the West, and it’s a great example of our competing instinctive drives.  On the one hand, we’re supposed to be rich and powerful.  We admire people who excel and make lots of money, especially in sports.  But we don’t extend our admiration to the evolutionary conclusion of being rich and powerful — getting lots of tail.  For that matter, we also get pretty aggravated when rich, powerful people are treated better under the law.  (I wonder if your average American black man would be released on his own recognizance several hours after being arrested for DUI in Atlanta.)

Lucky for Evans, the focus of this scandal is likely to stay on the DUI part of the incident.  He’ll insist that he and Courtney Furhmann are “just friends,” and lacking a hotel keycard or other incriminating evidence, his wife and the Bulldog nation will have to just take him at his word.  He’ll still be able to make it to work and back, and since it’s a first offence, he probably won’t spend any time in jail.  He’ll probably receive some sort of punishment from UGA.

While all of this is going on, everyone will pontificate on the evils of drinking and driving, and the horrible example Evans has set for the young, impressionable minds at college towns everywhere.  (You show me one college student who says, “Gee… Damon Evans drinks and drives… I think I’ll drive home drunk tonight,” and I’ll eat my hat.)  Until the next scandal, Evans will spend at least a tenth of his public time doing penance for his crime.

So now, the $64,000 Question:  Why don’t high profile alpha males use more intelligence while behaving badly?  Evans is rich.  He could easily have discreetly hired a limo for the night to carry him and his “just friend” around.  Chicks dig limos.  Why didn’t Rick Pitino leave the restaurant and wear a condom?  Why didn’t Tiger Woods come up out of the pocket and pay his extracurricular playmates a stipend that was likely to buy silence?  Why didn’t Plaxico Burress pay a half dozen bodyguards to escort him into the nightclub instead of carrying an illegal weapon?

Being an alpha male is a double edged sword.  The same drive that compels them to become rich and powerful also makes them more likely to engage in high risk behaviors.  The bravery that enables them to take on sports and business competition also tells them that they can get away with drinking and driving.  The sex appeal that attracts their wives also attracts women looking for one night stands or affairs.

There’s also a weird human nature element in the public reaction to this and similar scandals.  Precisely what does Evans’ DUI and potential dilly-dalliance have to do with his ability to do his job?  He’s almost made UGA fans forget Vince Dooley.  His ability to generate revenue is unprecedented in Georgia athletic history, and under his watch, Bulldog athletes and teams have consistently been in the top 20 in  a wide variety of sports — golf, tennis, gymnastics, baseball, softball, football, to name a few.

Is Evans’ crime serious?  Absolutely.  There’s nothing good about drinking and driving, and he’s damn lucky he didn’t hurt someone.  But isn’t it odd that we, the clamorous public, demand that the university punish him?  We have an institution designed to punish him.  It’s called The Police Department. But we feel like there ought to be more.

We only do this with high profile people.  One of my friends works for the university, and received a DUI last year.  He had to spend a couple of days in jail, do community service, and pay hefty fines.  But that was it.  Nobody in his department was yelling for him to receive additional punishment at his job.  In fact, I’d guess that if someone had suggested such a thing, there would have been considerable resistance to the idea.  It isn’t fair.

But for Pitino and Evans and Woods?  More is demanded.  We want unequal standards based on fame and power.  The more famous and powerful someone is, the more we demand from them when they behave badly.  The reasoning behind this often centers on the perception that public figures have to “set an example” or be role models.

The concept of a role model is pretty odd, if you think about it.  We humans are prone to idol worship.  When someone is extremely successful, we fawn over them and try to emulate them.  We tell all of our friends when we are lucky enough to sit near a celebrity in a club.  But for some reason, we also extend our admiration and expectations to areas of famous people’s lives that have nothing to do with their success.  We assume that if children are going to emulate Kobe Bryant’s shooting style, they’ll also emulate his sexual predation.

All of this conjecture raises an interesting question.  Can we predict people’s moral behavior based on the celebrities they admire?  Has anyone ever bothered to ask the question in a scientifically meaningful way?  I can’t find any such research, but I only have access to the journals in my university library.   My gut tells me that we make too big a deal out of things like this.  I don’t believe there is a significant “moral degradation effect” that would justify additional punishment for celebrities who behave badly.

I suspect the real culprit for our double standard is our collective mythology.  In a perfectly rational world, there would be no difference between John Doe and Damon Evans if they both committed the same crime in the same suspicious circumstances.  But in our world, we need to maintain the collective illusion that we’re all equal.

We’re not equal, though.  Damon Evans’ life would hardly be disrupted if he was punished as a commoner.  We know that.  Even if a judge were to fine him an amount proportional to his salary, he’d still be OK.  What about jail time?  If he were to be sentenced to a year in jail, we’d know instinctively that it was unfair.  But what else can we do?  We’ve decided to punish first offense drunk drivers by suspending their licenses, fining them, and making them do community service.   It’s not a problem with the punishment — it’s a problem with the inequality of our society.  We want people to have the ability to achieve power, wealth, and fame because we’d like to imagine that we can get there ourselves.  But we have a problem with the decrease in the relative power of punishment for crimes committed by powerful people.

So, we need to tell a cultural story that makes us feel better about this inequality.  We want Evans to spend some time in metaphorical stocks so we can throw metaphorical rotten eggs at him.  In the end, he’ll still come out better than an average poor man in Georgia who gets arrested for DUI, but we’ll feel better for having fulfilled our role as keepers of cultural equality.  We’ll feel like we’ve “preserved” the culture and its disapproval of bad behavior.

This is a powerful example of how human morality works.  We all have an instinctive understanding that Evans needs to be held accountable in a meaningful way.  We will band together as a macro-organism and inflict a significant punishment on him.  The process is largely unconscious.  We don’t feel like we’re acting on instincts designed to promote group cohesion.  Each of us just feels indignant and wants to throw our own rotten tomatoes in his direction.   But that’s how it works!  We’re all instilled with the same desire to gossip, and the tendency towards idol worship.  We all have a “gut feeling” that standard punishment isn’t good enough for celebrities.  While each of these traits seems a bit irrational when examined individually, when we put them all together, we get a recipe for maintaining cultural cohesion through collective censure.

Neat, huh?

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “A Scandal Went Down to Georgia

  1. Damon’s success is the other double-edged sword. He needed to get drunk and score some 28-year old poontang.

    Posted by jdubs | July 2, 2010, 5:02 pm
  2. very well said, let this be a good reminder to us all to be cautious and always be aware of our actions. There are people who are always keeping an eye on you and just waiting from tpi tp ask assistance.

    Posted by babytyche08 | July 2, 2010, 5:15 pm
  3. Panties between his legs = no longer about the DUI; he will no longer be UGA’s AD.

    Posted by Cap'n Ken | July 2, 2010, 6:17 pm
  4. Hmmm… Hadn’t heard that, even from my inside source. Where’d you hear this?

    Posted by hambydammit | July 2, 2010, 6:31 pm
  5. I think you’re generally right about the broader sociocultural phenomenon of throwing metaphorical rotten veggies at successful public figures who screw up (and screw around). On the other hand, your explanation is hardly the only one. For me, the real problem with Evans’ behavior is deeper.

    UGA athletes get suspended and potentially kicked off the team for underage drinking, drunk driving, and similar missteps. As Athletic Director, Evans is at the top of the hierarchy which enacts and enforces all of the strict behavioral rules to which student athletes are held – and he just lost every scrap of moral authority he has on the matter. This isn’t about hypothetical people mimicking the behavior of celebrity role models, which I agree is bullshit: This is about young men (and women, but let’s face it – gymnasts and equestrians and softball players aren’t the ones who need to be reined in by those strict behavioral rules and punishments) who actually do look to Evans for leadership, and over whom he actually does have power: He not only has direct authority over them, he also has some psychological influence on them as an actual role model – not a distant celebrity or other public figure, but an adult authority figure directly involved in and connected to their lives.

    In short, Peter Parker was more or less right: With power comes responsibility. When the powerful behave irresponsibly – and most especially when they behave irresponsibly with respect to the very matters on which they wield power over others – they demonstrate that they are not worthy to hold that power, and it ought to be stripped from them.

    I don’t particularly want to pillory Damon Evans: He fucked up. People do. But I don’t think he can effectively lead the athletic department after fucking up in exactly the ways he’s supposed to prevent the young people in his charge from fucking up. That makes him rather different from, say, Tiger Woods – whose fuck-up was about his private life, and who has no particular authority over anyone else. It makes him a lot more like all the anti-gay-legislation-pushing male Republicans who’ve been caught fucking men: The hypocrisy is the real issue.

    Posted by G Felis | July 2, 2010, 7:57 pm
  6. That’s a great point, George. I really hadn’t thought much about the student population as a direct line of responsibility for him. I was thinking of him more as “generic high profile guy with high paying job.”

    That brings up another interesting quandary. How much is the $23 million or so a year he’s increased revenue worth? How do the university big wigs weigh the potential loss of “moral authority” vs. the fact that he’s really good at his job, and good AD’s are really hard to come by?

    Furthermore, could we also counter that objection to some degree by pointing out that in the real world, with great ability comes substantial invulnerability? That is, when you’re the best at your job, a lot of people will put up with your bullshit as long as you keep them on top. (Just look at T.O. and Manny Ramirez.) It’s not fair, but it’s a truth of the world. The University isn’t going to stop suspending student athletes for DUI. It’s not as if anybody’s going to be able to get off the hook by saying, “But he did it, too!!”

    In other words, the loss of “moral authority” is more on paper than in reality when we consider that very little will change, policy wise, if Evans remains the AD.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 2, 2010, 8:53 pm
  7. I think what also plays a factor is that we expect people in the public figure and with lots of power to be perfect and flawless, I mean look at the tabloids etc.. it’s always about how Hilary Duff farted in a resturant etc… etc.. we seem to be surprised when we find out that public figures are human too.

    As for the issue, I agree with G Felis, but they could throw it off as a “Do as I say, not as I do” type of thing. But then again hypcrocy is hard to get past. I mean if the cop that pulled him over was drunk, then a lot of credibility would be lost.

    I can see where you’re going with him being good at his job, but couldn’t you find somebody as good who doesn’t pick up whores and drive drunk?

    Posted by cptpineapple | July 2, 2010, 10:15 pm
  8. I think that’s a good point, Alison. We have a collective drive for “hero worship.” Hell, it’s probably why we invent gods (and by that, I mean the very broad definition, including the various pantheons of superhuman heroic figures who played out complex morality plays, etc…). When we worship someone, we want to believe that they’re some kind of symbol of perfection that can inspire us to move towards perfection as well.

    However, I should also point out that this is a naive and immature thought process. The aged and wizened seldom expect perfection from anyone. In fact, as a general rule, we can say that people move from wide-eyed hero worship to jaded complacency with the imperfect human condition. But then again, the aged and wizened are retired, and the young people are running the world… so there you go.

    I’m really interested to see what happens with Evans. In an absolutely informal, unscientific poll of my friends, it’s leaning a little bit towards him getting fired, but hell. What do sports fans know about anything? There are a LOT of factors to consider:

    * Evans is a black man in Georgia. That is not a small factor. Most of the donors to the athletic department are white and Southern Baptist. How will his sins affect their willingness to both overcome their racism and come up out of the pocket with donations comparable to what he’s generated in past years?
    * Speaking of past years, the economy sucks. Was his success more of an indicator of his ability as a revenue generator or the relative prosperity when he was hired? Will revenue go down regardless, simply because the economy is in the shitter now?
    * Speaking of the economy being in the shitter, there’s a HUGE budget and hiring freeze at UGA now. Nobody’s gotten a raise in years. But Evans just got a raise. How will the collective university conscience deal with a “sinner” getting the only raise at UGA?

    But… then again, good ADs are very hard to come by, and if the economy is going to reduce revenue for the next few years, they’re going to have a hard time enticing someone to come in for the reduced pay they’ll need to offer to make the budget work. Do they risk keeping Evans and praying to the football gods that he can still work magic? Do they cut their losses and fire him for moral turpitude and do their best to find someone to replace him on short notice? (Football season is two months away.)

    Posted by hambydammit | July 3, 2010, 4:39 pm

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