Why Is The Media So Fixated With Charlie Sheen?

The extended deadline for a possible NFL lockout and the media's fixation with actor Charlie Sheen's troubles are two topics under discussion in Tell Me More's weekly "Barbershop" roundtable. Host Michel Martin speaks with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, political science professor Lester Spence and Sport Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, Johns Hopkins political science professor and blogger Lester Spence, and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, how are we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: What's up? What's up?

IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop.

LESTER SPENCE: Hey, what's up?

PABLO TORRE: Winning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: All right, well...

TORRE: I couldn't help myself, I'm sorry.

IZRAEL: All right, well, let's get started talking about what football fans are buzzing about, the possible labor shutdown in the National Football League. Now, you all know that NFL and the NFL Players Association had gone nowhere on a new collective bargaining agreement apparently until yesterday, the final day of the present agreement. Now, that's when the two sides decided to extend the deal another 24 hours, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, I'm interested in what Pablo has to say about this. But, today, as I understand it, they're trying to work out whether they've made enough progress to warrant another week or 10 days of negotiations. So, you know. You know what else I wanted to add? You know that President Obama was asked about this, because he is a football fan, after all, and in the news conference with the president of Mexico, which is dealing with some serious situations, as I think we know, we talked about it this morning, today on the program - he was asked about the possible lockout and this is what he had to say. Here it is.

BARACK OBAMA: I'm a big football fan, but I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans, who are the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they're making. So my expectation and hope is that they will resolve it without me intervening, because it turns out I've got a lot of other stuff to do.

MARTIN: Snap.

IZRAEL: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Snap. Snap.

IZRAEL: I thought that was kind of flip. I mean, I think there's a lot at stake here, certainly for the players whose bodies are being worn out by this game. And they want them to play even longer. They want to extend the season. You know, and I really - I wish Obama had something about that. You know, if for no other reason, just because - I mean these guys, you know, we talk about these millionaires, they're making all this money, these football players, but after they're done, they're done. And some of them can't walk from here to across the room anymore.

MARTIN: No, no, I get what you're saying. I totally understand what you're saying. We've talked about this a lot on this program, but I also have to say he's meeting with the president of Mexico, where, like, 34,000 people have been killed in the last, you know, couple of years through this drug war. So you can see where he's saying, you know, work it out for yourselves. Can ask Pablo, though, what role, potentially, could the president be asked to play in this? That's the only piece I wasn't getting.

TORRE: Yeah. I mean, as far as President Obama, I think what he would be used as is just a bellwether of public pressure and public opinion. And I think what his public opinion was at that press conference, as ill-timed as it may have been for the reasons we just stated, you know, he, I mean, he's siding with the folks that the American public sympathize with. I mean, you don't really...

MARTIN: Which is who?

TORRE: I guess the fans and the players, really. I mean, I think, you know, he kind of dug in at the plutocrats, at the owners, the multi- billionaires who make, as they said, $9 billion in profits off of this product. And so I don't think the public sympathy is there. I think when, you know, rubber meets the road here, if a lockout is going to occur, it's going to be - it's going to fall upon the shoulders of those owners most likely because we have the figures, you know, that they're making the most - more profit than they ever had before. It's $9 billion.

And again, with players, with fans, I mean fans want to see games. The owners are the ones locking out the players. It's not a strike, it's a lockout. And so that's a preliminary step. But as you said, there is some good news. I mean, these extensions are, in fact, positive. You know, it's hard to tell right now whether we can conclude or derive anything truly concrete. But the fact that they're moving towards extended negotiations and reports are indicating out of D.C. that the sides are willing to negotiate, that D. Smith and Roger Goodell have both approached this in a way that's impressed everyone else at the table. I think it's likely, more so than ever before, thanks to this deadline, that a deal is going to be reached in the next week or so.

MARTIN: Can I ask Lester, is it your sense that the - Jimi was saying he thinks that the sympathy and well - or Pablo was saying that, both of them I think are saying that the sympathies are with the players at this point because the fact is people do understand - are starting to understand the physical toll that the sport plays.

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if you feel that the sympathy is with whoever instigates the shutdown. Like when there was a strike, people were mad at the players because they thought they instigated it. In this situation, if it's a lockout, the owners are instigating it. So you think that the fans will - they'll be with whoever didn't start it. Does that make sense?

SPENCE: Yeah, it does. I'd change it a little bit. I'd say that they're going to be - the fans are going to be - with whatever side does the best image construction job, right? So it's not just about who instigated it, but it's who instigated it is different from who's perceived to be at fault. So I think both sides are going to allay, are going to use a lot of rhetoric, a lot images to tar the other one, and I think the one that does the most effective job is going to win. And I'm not sure. I'd like it to be the players, to be honest, given my politics, but I'm not sure who it's going to be.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, this is Arsalan. For me, it's important to keep in mind, you know, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported yesterday that the extension will probability be extended again for another seven to 10 days, you know, giving the owners and the players, you know, time to talk a little bit more. But what's interesting is that one of the last ditch legal resorts that the players can take is to decertify the union, which would then make it into a trade association. And Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees have already - and, I believe nine total players have already agreed to be lead plaintiffs in an antitrust litigation lawsuit against the owners...

SPENCE: Right.

IFTIKHAR: ...as a last ditch resort. Of course, nobody wants...

MARTIN: Some of the most popular players in the league.

IFTIKHAR: Well, of course, you know, it...

MARTIN: Coincidence.

TORRE: Where is Ben Roethlisberger on that memo?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I don't know about that. You know, but a lot of people, you know, some pundits are talking about this being, you know, billionaires versus millionaires but, you know, for some people it's sort of the analogy of, you know, the owners sort of represent what Wisconsin Governor, you know, Walker represents.

TORRE: Right. Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: And, you know, the players represent, you know, essentially these union members. And so it's important, you know, everybody sees Tom Brady's $18 million contract but, you know, the average salary in the NFL is only $1.9 million. The median salary is only $790,000 a year and the average lifespan career for an average player is about three and a half to four years so, you know, these are important things to keep in mind.

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: And one point that the union keeps making 100 percent injury rate.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

SPENCE: Right.

TORRE: And that's, to be honest with you, I think it would've been a really interesting move to have three anonymous football players be the lead plaintiffs on that suit, as far as the public image goes. I think that could have been really interesting. And the side issue...

MARTIN: No, say why.

TORRE: Yeah, I think...

MARTIN: Well, tell me why.

TORRE: Well, for the reason that Arsalan just sort of hinted at was, you know, I think the public should be reminded that football is played by so many more people than the stars at the top income bracket. I mean there are these guys who play in the league for an average of under, about three years and under and these guys aren't making millions and millions of dollars, sometimes they're not making millions of dollars at all. And so these guys are the ones who also have as much of a vested interest. I mean these guys don't have sneaker contracts. They don't have these cushiony warchests as some of these other players and owners do, certainly. And so I would've been intrigued to see what that would have done in terms of the public debate and certainly, in terms of the 18-game schedule, which is a huge, huge lever in this negotiation process.

If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, political science professor Lester Spence and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right. Well, from the NFL to college football. We've all heard the stories of athletes behaving badly so what do we expect from college kids, right? Well, CBS and Sports Illustrated decided to look into the athlete's criminal histories for the top 25 teams in the league, Michel. Whoa, clutch the pearls.

MARTIN: Clutch the pearls.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, according to the investigation, about seven percent of players at those schools in 2010, one of out of every 14 had a criminal record, and of those, about 40 percent were found to have committed so- called "serious" crimes like robbery, and I say serious in quotes because that's the terminology that they use, robbery, assault or domestic violence, 56 were for violent crimes like robbery, assault, battery, domestic violence, even sex crimes. So I don't know. I think that just raises a lot of interesting questions. Because one question that I...

IZRAEL: It does raise a lot of...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Jimi. Go ahead, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Yeah, it does raise a lot of interesting questions, Michel. But, you know, we've got to remember these young men are coming from troubling backgrounds to begin - a lot of them are coming from really troubling backgrounds to begin with. But, you know, the college experience is transformative and I don't believe we should hold these young men's past against them. I mean if we look at some of these politicians, I don't know how many we'd let run if we looked at their wrap sheets.

SPENCE: There's a real...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Lester.

SPENCE: Yeah, I'm sorry. There's some real troubling stuff about this report, right, so what we need here is the baseline. So, for example, if we were to survey a random sample of college kids in general, how many of them would have records, right. Of the 7,000 records they called, you've only got 97 like real serious crimes against either property or crimes against persons, 97 out of the 7,000 records, right. What we need is the baseline. If we were to go to, for example, a random subset of financial houses in Wall Street, how many records would we come up with, right?

MARTIN: Well, the other question though, I have, I don't Arsalan, was this some, maybe you and I were talking about this earlier is part of the question is who is subjected to law enforcement scrutiny in this country?

IFTIKHAR: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: And it happens that, you know, football happens to be a predominantly African-American sport. On the other - at this moment in its history. And so the question is we've asked this time and time again, is the same conduct committed by different people treated differently?

IFTIKHAR: Right. Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: And, but then you cross that against the fact that a lot of women on these campuses have been saying for years that behavior - particularly abusive behavior toward women is overlooked because people are athletes.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: So then there's that piece of it, you know, Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. No. I completely agree with you and, you know, I think that there is a legal double standard here in the United States for people who are celebrities or professional athletes. You know, we'll talk about Charlie Sheen in a minute but, you know, in terms of what people could get away with, you know, if you can, you know, run a 4.2 40, you know, or throw a 65 yard laser and commit a crime, as opposed to if you're just, you know, Joe Schmoe on the street and commit that same crime, you know, the punishment for both of those things in terms of repercussions to your life and your livelihood are going to be very different.

And I think that, you know, obviously this is troubling within the college realm, but I think it's more troubling within the profession realm of athletic sports today - where people, you know, tend to get away with things, you know, with impunity because they might have a sneaker contract or because, you know, they rush for a thousand yards a season. And so, you know, I think there is a legal double standard when it comes to celebrities and professional athletes and regular Americans on the street.

TORRE: Yeah. And I think for me, I mean obviously, the obvious disclaimer is that I work for one of the companies involved in this. And I think, I mean the bottom line for me was that this is a valuable study because there's so much discourse and discussion about just how much of a problem it is. And regardless of what conclusions SI, CBS or whoever else wants to draw from the data, I mean, it's important to do projects like this to get empirics into the discussion to actually get a sense of the numbers. And obviously, it's imperfect.

Florida, for example, allows a very open juvenile record, criminal records system, other states don't. And so the numbers are slightly skewed that way. They're obviously a ton of compounding variables sociologically and race, socioeconomic background, all those demographic questions. But I think getting at least a beginning of a handle on the problem is an important first step.

And also, there's this other question that was raised.

MARTIN: But what problem are you getting a handle on? That's my question.

TORRE: Well, I think...

MARTIN: That's my question. Is that...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...are you getting a handle on the fact that, you know, a black kid who breaks a window goes away in handcuffs, whereas a kid who, you know, breaks a window gets a good talking to? That's the question. You know, what question are you getting a handle on?

TORRE: Well, the fundamental question that's been raised so often is that whenever you see these instances which are so highly publicized with athletes running afoul of the law, the question is how much of a problem is this really when you look at the broad scheme of things?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

TORRE: How often does it actually happen?

IZRAEL: Well...

TORRE: And honestly, I mean what this does, I mean one of the facts that was uncovered was that background checks aren't done on athletes - on football players, you know, in recruiting, in admissions. And obviously, there's a question of well, should they be treated separately from the rest of the students, and maybe there's an argument there. Maybe because these students are given a scholarship are treated as ambassadors of the school in a way that is unique from a lot of other kids, maybe more scrutiny ought to be levied upon them.

MARTIN: And they're also treated as employees who make a lot of money for these schools. I mean, I'm sorry.

TORRE: I am not going to disagree with that.

MARTIN: Well...

TORRE: I'm just saying that there are a lot of issues and I think the impetus in large part lands upon the universities. I mean are you willingly, you know, take a principled stand, are you willingly saying we're not going to look at these kids backgrounds or are we doing this because it would be negative recruiting because we're not going to get a kid because we're looking more closely at another school is going to turn a blind eye to that?

MARTIN: Okay.

TORRE: I think as long as you're open and frank about the motives behind it, I'm totally fine with one way or the other personally.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, speaking of...

IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: ...speaking of men behaving badly, Jimi...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...allegedly.

IZRAEL: Charlie...

MARTIN: Men allegedly behaving badly. She would put it that way?

IZRAEL: Charlie Sheen...

(Singing) Men, men, men, men, men.

IZRAEL: Should I say anything else? I mean "Two and a Half Men" song show was kind of cancelled last week. You know, he's been publicly dissing his bosses and, you know, but he's been on the air for a while, Michel.

MARTIN: But, you know, he's not the only, the Christian Dior designer John Galliano made these, you know, crazy statements at the Paris restaurant. He clearly knew he was being filmed by some, I mean he's sitting so close to the people involved and you thought, I don't know. What's going on? You know, these kinds of insults in France have legal consequences because his remarks were anti-sematic.

SPENCE: That's right.

TORRE: Right.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: But I just...

IZRAEL: And reportedly, he's been doing that kind of thing for years. And that was the kind of thing that made me ask the question, you know, you've got Galliano on one side, you've got Sheen on the other, both of these guys got steady jobs. You know, Isaiah Washington dissed his gay co-actor on "Gray's Anatomy" and homeboy, he has a film coming out next week - not next week, next month - but he still having a hard time getting a job. What's up with that?

MARTIN: Yeah. What is up with that? I know, Arsalan, what is up with that?

IFTIKHAR: With Charlie Sheen, you know, I'm just reminded of, you know, what Rick James said that cocaine is a hell of a drug. It's I think John Stamos actually encapsulated it perfect on Twitter when he said quote, "contrary to rumors, I am not replacing Charlie Sheen on "Two and a Half Men." However, Martin Sheen has asked me to become his son."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

IFTIKHAR: You know, when Charlie Sheen, you know, goes on TV and says things like, you know, I'm on a drug, it's called Charlie Sheen and I'm still alive, which is pretty cool, it's really amazing to see, you know, this celebrity train wreck. And getting back to the earlier discussion...

MARTIN: Is it interesting or is it just voyeurism and sad and we should just really quit?

IFTIKHAR: We...

IZRAEL: I don't think it's a train wreck. I think it's a ploy to get more money out of CBS, that's what I think.

MARTIN: Really?

IZRAEL: I mean I just because he's been complaining for years that, I mean look, this is just one of the most popular shows on television. It's dubbed in the, you know, 10, 15 languages, and by his standards he's only getting like a million seven, eight per episode, so...

MARTIN: So he...

IZRAEL: ...I mean he wants three. You know, and I...

MARTIN: So you think he wants out? He wants out and that's what this is about?

IZRAEL: No, I think he wants more money, that's what I think you wants.

TORRE: But this is the ultimate, I mean this is the ultimate evolution our media culture, right. It used to be deny, deny, deny. Now it's go completely the other way, be as intentionally insane as you possibly can and basically turn your life into a reality show where people actually become a fan of yours, which is, you know, maybe the most brilliant thing that could have come out of Charlie Sheen.

MARTIN: I don't know. Lester is just holding his head and shaking his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I just think he's like, oh no of which more later.

Thanks everybody.

That was just Pablo Torre who you just heard. He's a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from our NPR studio in New York. Lester Spence is a blogger and a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He was here with us in Washington, along with Arsalan Iftikhar, a civil rights attorney and the founder of muslimguy.com. And Jimi Izrael, a freelance journalist and author of the book, "The Denzel Principle" was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Thanks everybody.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

TORRE: Thanks.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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