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 shape up this week are writer Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor of the Islamic monthly and founder of the Muslimguy.com, joins us from Chicago. From New York, Pablo Torre senior writer with ESPN. And here in Washington, D.C., Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. Take it away, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Wow. The gang's all here.
MARTIN: That's right.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: That's what's up. The gang is here.
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: It's the A Team.
MARTIN: That's it.
MICHAEL STEELE: Spread out around the globe.
MARTIN: That's it.
IZRAEL: The man of steel, welcome back. And fellas, everybody, welcome to the shop. How we doing?
PABLO TORRE: What's up?
IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey. What's crackin'?
STEELE: Doing well, man.
IZRAEL: All right. Well, there's something crackin'. You know, there's this Texas teen who - he killed four people in a drunk driving accident, escaped a jail sentence this week. His lawyers claimed he suffered from affluenza, Michel?
MARTIN: Yes. This is a term, which - it's interesting 'cause I had been hearing this term like, if you're in school world. Like if you do any work around independent schools, you've heard this term a lot in recent years, but I've never heard it outside of that context, you know, before. And the defense argued that - and I'll just tell you this, that at NPR, we are not choosing to name him because he was prosecuted as a juvenile. That is our general rule here. So that has - although other news outlets have named him.
It's easy to find out his name if you wish, but that's the decision at NPR. And that their defense was that his wealthy parents did not cause him or require him to suffer consequences for his actions. And this is a clip of his psychologist, Dick Miller, who explained the term this way.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
DICK MILLER: It's just a saying that I've used for 20 years to say, you have too much and you don't know how to distribute it. Affluenza is not exclusively for the rich. I think it's for anyone. And you see in our society in eating and all sorts of ways, you know, in finances - generally, across-the-board.
MARTIN: So there you go, Jimi.
IZRAEL: This sounds...
STEELE: Where's my baseball bat?
IZRAEL: ...Like something Bret Ellis - Easton Ellis came up with. Holy crap. This is a - this is something. I wonder if this - so is this like being ghetto, too? Is this like if you're poor and - do those rules work in reverse? I...
MARTIN: Are you saying slang that isn't necessary?
IZRAEL: Well, perhaps. But what I'm getting at is - wrong is wrong, right? No matter how much money you have, you certainly know the difference between right and wrong.
STEELE: Well, maybe...
IZRAEL: Michael Steele, you seem to want to jump in here, go ahead.
STEELE: Oh, yeah, I do 'cause...
IZRAEL: All right.
STEELE: ...This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Maybe if you you're poor, you have poor bubonic plague or something, you know. What is affluenza? You know, folks come up with stuff to excuse crap that they don't know that they need to be responsible for. So I just think it's important that we recognize the kid killed two people.
STEELE: Four people.
STEELE: Four people.
STEELE: And that there are consequences that attend to that. And so they give him 10 years probation, which means he'll - even if they'd given him the 20 years, under the law, he would've been out in two. But he would have been in jail. He would've realized that there are consequences. Now he just realized, oh, OK, I got probation.
MARTIN: Well, for - at a long-term inpatient facility. I mean, I have to ask it 'cause I understand that a lot of people are outraged by this across the political spectrum.
MARTIN: But we've done a lot of reporting on criminal justice issues, and the argument is look, that this country incarcerates too many people for too many things. And that this does nothing to - and part of it's a racial disparity that people are upset about. And part of the argument here is that we need to rethink the way we think about incarceration. We need to lock up people we're afraid of, not people we're mad at. And the argument is that we're mad at this kid. It's not that we're afraid of him. We don't think he's going to go around doing this.
STEELE: He killed four people.
STEELE: It's not a question of whether you're mad at him, you don't like him. It's not personal. You killed four people.
TORRE: The law says...
MARTIN: Which was an accident.
IFTIKHAR: Listen, listen.
IZRAEL: He bought the justice he wanted.
STEELE: Even in an accident, there's consequences.
IZRAEL: This is just his a la carte. Arsalan, you're the man with the JD. Weigh in here, bro.
MARTIN: Well, Michael does, too.
IFTIKHAR: You know, Jimi, if this kid suffered - this is Arsalan - if this kid suffers from affluenza, you know, I have a mad case of vomititis after listening to this story. You know, listen to this riddle. You have a 16-year-old...
MARTIN: Could we move away from the body fluids in this conversation, please? Could I - just as a general standard, could I ask everybody to move away from the body fluids, if I may.
IFTIKHAR: You have a 16-year-old rich white kid whose blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit driving 70 miles an hour in a 40 mile an hour zone killing four human beings, and he gets no jail time. Now let's fill in the blank and say that it was a 16-year-old black kid - rich kid, poor kid, doesn't matter. Would a 16-year-old black child not get any jail time for killing four human beings? You had Michael Vick who served two years in federal prison for killing dogs. But this guy kills four human beings and gets no jail time. This just proves - continues to prove that our American legal system in is not colorblind.
TORRE: This is Pablo jumping in. Yet, and the thing that is not surprising to me but just as staggering all the same is that affluenza isn't in the DSM.
IFTIKHAR: Right. Right.
TORRE: It's not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I'm typically a person who's willing to give a wider berth. I know there's always doubt around mental illness and mental health issues. I'm just not convinced that this is one of them yet or, at the very least there isn't the scientific basis for it. What it seems to me is a case of a condition, quote-unquote, with terrible branding. And it seems like an Onion article, right? I mean, affluenza, it's not even trying to be weightier or more serious. It's branded terribly and that still worked. And that's what's mind-blowing to me is that what threshold do we have here? I mean, it's just insane.
MARTIN: But what about the argument that minors - that we have a different standard for minors. This was used - prosecuted as a minor - and the argument is that there is a level of adult thinking that we cannot hold them responsible for, and that the purpose of criminal justice at this level, at this age is rehabilitation. It's not vengeance.
MARTIN: What's the argument?
STEELE: Partially true, given that, you know, the standard that we're using was adopted in the '50s and the '60s where a minor really was a minor, and those types of offenses you just didn't have on a list. And that's what I mean by when a minor was a minor. You didn't have kids going out, taking their parents cars and driving and killing four people. You didn't have the level of gun violence and all these other things. So the behavior of these children has changed. It has - they've adopted more adult behaviors. So you've seen this transition over time away from this idea that, you know, these kids are just kids. A 16-year-old...
MARTIN: But the argument is that their brains haven't changed. Maybe their opportunities have changed....
STEELE: You can't sit here and tell me that a 16-year-old kid in 2013 does not know that there is a legal ramification for getting behind the wheel of a car, drunk.
MARTIN: OK. Jimi, you - final thought on this? I mean, I think you backtracked here 'cause I thought you were saying earlier you thought it was hard but fair. Have you changed your mind about that?
IZRAEL: I have changed my mind, Michel. That happens from time to time. It's one of those things where, you know, I look at this young man - and this defense, it just doesn't hold water. You know, I got to quote my favorite modern psychiatrist, Dr. Chris Rock, whatever happened to just crazy?
MARTIN: OK. All right.
STEELE: That works.
MARTIN: All right. We're having our weekly Barbershop conversation. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael - that's who was speaking just now - commentator Arsalan Iftikhar, also a civil rights attorney - former chair of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele, and sports writer Pablo Torre. Back to you, Jimi.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, well, so let's talk sports. Washington's football team coach Mike Shanahan might be the most hated guy in D.C. right now, and that's saying a lot. You know, he decided on Wednesday to bench star quarterback Robert Griffin III for the rest of the season. He explained why. Can we drop that clip?
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
MIKE SHANAHAN: You got to take a look at the risk and reward. And with Robert, I thought that his hits were piling up on him, giving him his toll, and I was afraid that we would set him back. And the only way you realize you're going to get set back is if he gets hurt.
MARTIN: You know what? I am fascinated by how fascinated people are with this story. I mean, that team, whose name is its own controversy, I'll just say, because many people consider it a racial slur. It's like, I was up way too late online shopping - I'll just admit this - and they're still talking about it in the wee hours of the morning, Pablo. Why is that?
TORRE: Well, it's the best soap opera maybe in America right now, certainly in American pro sports. I mean, the level of politics, of palace intrigue, because it's not just Mike Shanahan, it's Mike Shanahan versus Dan Snyder, who's the owner.
Everybody thinks at this point that Mike Shanahan is trying to get himself fired because he no longer wants to work for Dan Snyder. And this is one way to do it. And then, as if you didn't have enough as the world-turnsiness (ph) to it, you have Kyle Shanahan, who's the offensive coordinator, who's Mike's son, saying yesterday that he doesn't agree with his dad's decision. And then you have RG3 who's the guy, the star quarterback who was superimposed into those pseudo-Barack Obama "Hope" posters back when he was winning everything last year.
So to me, it's every ingredient. The weird thing about this story to me is that despite the dysfunction that brought the Washington football team to the point where they're going to bench RG3 for the rest of the season - despite that dysfunction, I ultimately think that that's the right move because RG3 at this point - if the best thing you can say about your football team going into next year - this is a lost season if that needs to be clarified...
MARTIN: They're statistically - it's statistically impossible for them to get to the playoffs. They're what? 3-9?
MARTIN: Am I right about that?
TORRE: Correct. It's just over.
TORRE: And so the only upside you have is the fact that he's going to be healthy. He's been hit 102 times this season. Twenty-four sacks in the last games.
STEELE: It's ugly.
TORRE: You want to get that guy out of there.
MARTIN: What do you think, Michael?
STEELE: You know...
MARTIN: This is your team, right?
STEELE: This is my team. And my view of it is, a lot of this - my estimation begins and ends with the owner - I would not agree that the most hated man in D.C. is Shanahan. I think it's the owner. I think a lot of folks kind of look at the owner as sort of corralling this thing - or not corralling this thing, and controlling it in a way that needs to be controlled. I think at the end of the day, RG3 should not have even started the season. He should have waited. They should have benched...
STEELE: ...Him for the first six weeks of the season to give him time to get acclimated and integrated back into the system. There was a lot of pressure from RG and his team to get back on the field. Shanahan got bit once last year by playing him and getting injured, and listening to all these other folks who say, well, let him play, let him play, including RG himself. And so Shanahan's erring on the side of caution. What I find most fascinating is the coaches say, all right, you really want to play with me like this?
I'm just going to put it all out on the street. So they just started leaking stuff and putting it out there. And so now, you know, the emperor has no clothes on this whole thing. RG3's going to be benched, and I think he should be. Shanahan will be back next year.
MARTIN: Really? You think so?
STEELE: I think he will.
TORRE: Come on, man.
STEELE: OK, we'll see.
MARTIN: Oh, OK. Pablo, what do you think? Oh, wait. Arsalan, you haven't gotten in on this.
MARTIN: I think they're 3-10 now, which, Pablo, correct me. 3-9? 3-10?
TORRE: Whatever equates to super terrible.
STEELE: Can I just make one point...
STEELE: ...On why he will be back next year?
STEELE: Name me a coach in the NFL or the college ranks who will come here and coach?
IFTIKHAR: Money. They'll play...
MARTIN: Oh, I think somebody would play.
STEELE: No, no. No, they...
MARTIN: I think somebody would...
STEELE: We've done this...
IFTIKHAR: Listen, listen.
STEELE: Everyone's got the secret here on the sauce and the money. It ain't worth it.
IFTIKHAR: Listen, this is...
MARTIN: Oh, I think it's worth it.
MARTIN: Go ahead. All right.
STEELE: We'll see.
MARTIN: Go ahead, Arsalan.
IFTIKHAR: This is Mike Shanahan's big middle finger to Dan Snyder as he's walking out the door. You know, you have the Redskins are the bottom five defense, one of the worst special teams in the league, a below average offensive line, no first-round picks this year or next because they had to give them up for RG3, bad coaching from Shanahan and an impulsive owner in Dan Snyder. This has been an entire recipe for disaster. I do see him, you know, trying out Kirk Cousins, you know, to try to get some trade value for him. But I literally think that this is his middle finger to Snyder as he walks out the door.
MARTIN: So should he play or not play, Arsalan? What do you think?
IFTIKHAR: He should. He's a second-year player. He's healthy. I don't see - you know, if Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts was having a lost season, I don't see, you know, Chuck Pagano benching him for the last three, you know, three games of the year. I think that, you know, a lot of people talk about RG3's, you know, off-season swagger and, you know, his head getting too big with the Adidas, you know, ad campaign of "All In For Week 1," and not focusing on his rehab. I think that obviously the Shanahan-RG3 rift has grown throughout the year. And I think that this was Shanahan's sort of swipe at everyone before he leaves the Skins.
STEELE: So, Arsalan...
MARTIN: I like Pablo's - I like Pablo's argument that this is a soap opera - a soap opera for guys who don't want to admit they watch soap operas.
TORRE: Oh, it's what it is.
STEELE: But the...
IFTIKHAR: That's true.
TORRE: It's absolutely perfect.
STEELE: ...The question is what...
IZRAEL: Or it could be that RG3's bones rattle when he walks. That brother needs to - he does...
TORRE: Well, he's not right.
IZRAEL: ...Need to take some time off.
TORRE: And that's the thing.
MARTIN: No, he ain't right.
TORRE: Last point. There was a point where Mike Shanahan was asked, do you think he's healthy? Do you think he's 100 percent? And Mike Shanahan said, yes. And Mike Shanahan, who then the next day I believe, said, I'm going to try to be honest with you people - talking to the media - I don't normally try to do that, which is the greatest sports moments of all time.
MARTIN: It was really one of the great - you know, what do they say? Many a truth is spoken in jest.
TORRE: Yes. He sounds like a boxing promoter. But this is the - he could've said, he's not 100 percent. If he wanted to lie for the benefit of his team, tell people that RG3 isn't 100 percent 'cause I don't think he is, personally. He was the best athlete and quarterback we've ever seen. Now he's something not resembling anything close to that.
MARTIN: Can I just ask one more thing 'cause we only have a couple of minutes left. So, Pablo, this whole issue - another issue that broke this week is Major League Baseball wants to ban deliberate collisions at home plate. No more runners and catchers bumping heads. And, gosh.
STEELE: How do you tag them out?
MARTIN: That's what I' wonder. How do you...
MARTIN: I don't understand how it works?
IFTIKHAR: Side swipe. You got to right side swipe on that.
MARTIN: Pablo, how does that work? What do you do? Oh, pardon me. It's like asking for some Grey Poupon. Pardon me. Step aside. I don't understand. How does that work?
TORRE: May I tag you now?
MARTIN: May I tag you now? Can I touch you?
TORRE: Listen, listen. I have never seen Major League Baseball act so swiftly to repudiate tradition in the name of safety. What the mechanics of tagging people are, they will change. But the fact that a sport like baseball that's steeped in the old fogie-ness (ph) of black-and-white footage has been deigned to do this in the name of medical research and advancement, that's my take away. I think it's a great idea regardless of how awkward it may be to collide at the plate these days.
MARTIN: Can they really do that? Did anybody here play baseball? Did any of you play baseball? No?
MARTIN: So I mean, we got to ask - yeah, exactly.
IFTIKHAR: Yeah, same here.
MARTIN: Well, that's all of us, right, at some point. All right. Well, Jimi, before we go, we want to give you a minute to give a Barbershop shout-out.
IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. We had a long-time jazz broadcaster. He passed away this week. His name's Bobby Jackson. He was the music director here at my home station WCPN for a long, long time. More recently, he hosted the syndicated jazz program called The Roots of Smooth. So the Barbershop sends him off.
MARTIN: Yeah, we're sad to lose him. A long-time jazz broadcaster. One of the people kind of lifting up that tradition and keeping it in the forefront. So our condolences to Bobby Jackson's family. So we want to go out on one of his favorite songs. That's Wynton Marsalis' "Sister Cheryl." And here with us this week, Jimi Izrael, writer and adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He was with us, as he said, from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. From New York, Pablo Torre, senior writer for ESPN.
Arsalan Iftkhar is the founder of the muslimguy.com and senior editor for Islamic Monthly, with us from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago. Back with us in Washington, D.C., Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a columnist for The Grio. Thank you all so much for joining us.
MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.