Last Friday, actor Columbus Short confirmed that he would be leaving the cast of “Scandal,” after a season-ending cliffhanger on the political drama suggested his character was about to be on the receiving end of a headshot. That plot line seemed to be motivated by more than the frenetic pace of series creator Shonda Rhimes’s version of life in Washington, D.C. Short was charged with spousal battery of his wife in February, arrested in March over a fight in a restaurant, and he then allegedly threatened to murder his wife in April — after a judge told Short to stay away from her.
Rhimes’s decision to jettison an actor whose off-set behavior was a distraction even by the standards of “Scandal,” which keeps up a steady roster of torture, terrorism and sexual gymnastics, is welcome. Given that it is more the exception than the rule in the group of industries which, somehow, manage to keep Charlie Sheen and Ben Roethlisberger employed, Rhimes’s relatively unusual choice poses a challenge to her colleagues in both the entertainment and sports industries.
I think we can all agree that people who have served appropriate sentences for their offenses deserve opportunities to reintegrate into society. But what should the standards be for repentance before someone deserves not just a shot at a job and to be treated decently, but public esteem and unusual privileges? And what happens when powerful industries use the idea of bringing someone back into society as a cover for their pursuit of the profit motive?
Jobs like acting or playing professional sports may, at their core, simply demand that an actor convincingly become someone else, or that a pitcher be able to fool hitters on a consistent basis. But an ancillary part of the job description is the ability to command admiration and respect so fans will watch live in the timeslot, buy tickets when a movie opens or a team is in town and load up on merchandise. In pursuit of that esteem, studios produce flashy promos and set up publicity tours to burnish their stars’ images, and teams use Jumbotrons to encourage us to cheer and to stun us into overstimulated submission.
Those lifts are easiest when efforts to burnish stars’ images are charged only with producing larger-than-life versions of real people, rather than with papering-over widely-publicized transgressions. But in the latter situation, it is not unreasonable for fans to respond to different situations in different ways.
If Rhimes had decided to keep Short on staff at “Scandal,” she might be making a statement that she is presuming his innocence. But by letting him go, she is also suggesting that she would rather confer the considerable prestige that comes with a part in the show on people who do not require her to contort herself to support them.
In the sporting arena, quarterback Michael Vick plead guilty to charges related to the dogfighting ring he operated, served time in prison, and then committed to work with the Humane Society on his release. That is a different standard of taking responsibility and an active approach to restitution than the one pursued by Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Josh Lueke, who pleaded no contest to a charge of falsely imprisoning a woman through use of violence, and later described the incident, which involved an alleged sexual assault, as “a freak accident kind of thing.”
If professional sports leagues and entertainment studios think that it is an appropriate use of their tremendous resources to provide structures that can help players improve their behavior, that is fine, and potentially even admirable. The support of the teams he has played for seems to have done a lot to help outfielder Josh Hamilton in his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as providing a public service announcement about how severe those diseases really are. But if our loyalty and esteem are enlisted as part of the rewards system in that process, it seems reasonable to set some standards for when someone deserves access to those resources, and some milestones they ought to hit if they are to continue benefiting from them.
There are no simple solutions to these attempts to balance values and commercial interests. But when studios, networks and sports leagues employ the language of rehabilitation and reintegration to avoid making hugely inconvenient decisions, they are not doing anyone any favors. Rhimes’s decision to cut Short from “Scandal” should alert her colleagues in sports and entertainment that they have more options.