Journal: On Professional Athletes

What is wrong with professional athletes today?

(July 2013) 

            Recently, much has been written and said about the attitudes and behavior of professional athletes.  Part of that discussion has been generated by the arrest of Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots for his role in the murder of Odin Lloyd.  On a scale of lesser significance, but perhaps due to the same factors, have been the travails of Johnny Manziel.  Realistically, it is a growing trend, and one that I think may be evolutionary.  If so, there will be no relief from such acts in the near future.  It set me to wondering what the causes could be, since so few of the talking heads on television seem to have any clue as to why such things are happening.

            Many commentators have ascribed such behavior to a variety of social ills, some of which might serve to remove the personal responsibility these athletes have for their actions.  I would prefer to look at 3 contributing factors that are generally out of the control of any specific athlete, but for which they must be held accountable as to their operations within those constructs.  These are phenomena which athletes for the entire past century have had to cope with, but with which current athletes seem to be failing miserably to adjust.

            The first of these is an Altered Reality that seems to keep modern athletes from recognizing the effects of their actions.  This can be largely connected to the obscene amount of money that athletes earn today.  Ironically, it was Babe Ruth who ushered in this era, by becoming a player who was so enjoyable to watch, that he could use that leverage to increase his salary.  The famous story goes that Ruth was once asked if he realized that he made more money than the President of the United States, to which he responded, “Well, I had a better year, didn’t I?”  Despite that, I don’t think he would have realistically ever stated that he was a more important historical figure.  What he was getting paid so much for (as is always true in virtually any business) was producing income for his employer.  In spite of earnings that were high for the times, Ruth still spent much of his free time with kids, Gehrig maintained his class, and no one would have imagined that Ty Cobb would have played harder for a few dollars more.

            The fact is that money changes people’s perception of themselves and others, and the scale has become so outrageous even a “normal” person might not be able to handle it.  A large number of players in every professional sport are now making over $20 million per season, a figure that is nearly impossible to fully realize the effects of.  The most debilitating side-effect is that so few players realize that such money will not always be available (due to the shortness of careers, injuries, etc.) and thus do not prepare themselves adequately for life after sports.  There are few paradigms so pervasive as the former athlete who is now middle-aged, beaten up, and scraping to get by.  Some of them brought disaster upon themselves through the use of drugs or guns, some have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous agents or hangers-on, but many others have struggled to recalibrate their lifestyle once the enormous paychecks stopped coming.  A better system would long ago have found some sensible way to put the money in escrow and pay the athlete a reasonable sum for the rest of his days.

            People with such enormous amounts of money available to them have a very difficult time retaining their original values, even assuming that those values were ever sensible.  The availability of such an income causes most modern athletes to judge the quality of their life by the possessions they can attain.  Vastly oversized houses, numerous automobiles, lavish gifts to others, jewelry – early on, few athletes run out of money before they run out of unnecessary objects to buy.  Many crave the attention they are paid, and “buy” it by allowing a large coterie of followers to “feed at their trough”.  The problem comes later, when those same followers cannot (or will not) help the athlete in his time of need.  Worse yet, in pure economic fashion, most of the objects he bought came at a premium price, but when he was forced to sell, none of them brought back a good value.

            As for Manziel, one of the talking heads recently criticized him by saying that “he certainly wasn’t the first BMOC”, but such flippant remarks minimize the depth of the problem.  Whether he is inordinately ill-behaved can remain debatable, but the fact is that much of the adulation he has been given he could not have anticipated.  He cannot be to blame for a society that nicknames him “Johnny Football”, declares him the best player in America (Heisman Trophy) and lavishes praise and adoration on him, before he has even reached the age of twenty.  Compound this by making every breathing moment of his life subject to media scrutiny, and who could expect any different result?  How would any of us respond to having our every act and comment analyzed and criticized on television?  All this is even more complicated thanks to the information available through Facebook, Twitter, and other “social media”.

            It was once fully understood that fame brings consequences.  People watch more closely the actions of the famous, and now actively root for their previous “heroes” to fail miserably.  The money seems to make many modern athletes feel that they are above such judgments, right up to the point when they fail.  At that point, it is too late for the athlete to return to a position of humility that will gain the support of others.  Aaron Hernandez cannot manipulate the legal system the way he manipulated his “posse”, and in short order he will be only a distant cautionary message, as the Patriots install a new Tight End and go on to success or failure without him.  He will soon be poor, middle-aged, and beaten up, with no usable skills for the world.  At that point, his altered reality will have faded to black, and only the reality with which all the rest of us must live will remain.

            The second factor in creating these circumstances is a general trend in our society for Immediate Gratification.  For many years now, every member of our society has become accustomed to receiving feedback on every single action we take.  Teachers have been increasingly encouraged to lavish praise on every student as often as possible, coaches have been admonished for being “too intense” and expected to reinforce the self-concept of every player (no matter how horrible), and even parents have been expected to become their children’s friends, rather than disciplinarians.  Behavior modification has become almost completely one-sided: be positive, encourage the child, avoid criticism.  Anything vaguely negative is to be eschewed religiously.

            The end result of this is an entire generation of young people who expect to be rewarded for everything they do, and who will receive good feelings instantly without consideration for the actual value of their behavior.  This craving for instant gratification blinds most of our young people to the consequences of their greed.  It is a short leap from needing instant affection and support to also attaining instant revenge for perceived insults.  In a culture that makes little attempt to distinguish positive actions from negative ones, it can easily appear to the average person that all actions have equal moral validity, and are therefore not to be criticized.

Athletes are more susceptible to this phenomenon that other citizens, because they have been overly lauded throughout their lives.  Ironically, they have also been the most criticized, which I believe causes them to crave the positive attention even more.  From an early age, athletes get special treatment.  They receive excessive praise when they do something well, get trophies and free Slushies, and find themselves the subject of adulation from adults and peers who know nothing else about them than that they are athletically gifted.  As they grow older, the gifts become even larger.  Girls flock to them, supposed friends abound, scholarships are handed over freely, and more often than not, authority figures overlook their minor misdeeds.  For how long could any of us handle such treatment with equanimity?  I do not know that many people, subject to this sort of treatment for long periods of time (literally for many years in most cases) could remain humble, circumspect, and self-controlled.

Sadly, this need for instant gratification has come to infect some of our baser instincts.  Hernandez is certainly not the first athlete to be affected in this way, and will more certainly not be the last.  The sport of football is probably a psychological breeding ground for these baser instincts, since similar actions are rewarded highly.  Hurting other people, exacting revenge, and “being mean” are valued, so athletes are encouraged to adopt this mentality.  The recent bounty controversies show the extremes to which this mentality can be pushed, and that just within the sport!  To such a mentality, it is a very short distance to acts like that committed by Hernandez.  The rationale is obvious: “This man hurt me or my loved ones; he must pay a price; I must exact that price.”  Knowing that you are famous, and therefor untouchable, your vengeance must be swift and extreme.  How could we expect it to go differently?

Finally, there is the phenomenon of Arrested Development – a delayed maturity that is so evident in a large number of athletes at all levels, but terrifyingly so in professionals.  Baseball has long been a focal point of such criticism, for a variety of reasons.  Ironically, overt violent crimes are probably committed less often by baseball players than by other pro athletes.  A large percentage of baseball players were drafted directly out of high school, allowing precious little time for social and personal maturation.  Many other athletes, however, have spent so much time at camps, practices, and games that they also have limited their exposure to the sort of experiences that help one become a well-rounded person.  They are, in many ways, simply big kids making a living by playing a kid’s game.

In the Freudian sense, coaches particularly have spent so much time encouraging the athlete’s Id that virtually no time has been left for the development of the Superego.  Generally, coaches want their athletes to go into a game with violent intentions.  Batters are to “attack” the ball, Basketball players get high praise (and plenty of ESPN highlight time) for the slam dunk, and football has numerous violent references that approach the actual killing of others.  In such an environment, it may be a special tribute to parents who have managed to raise children who have a sense of perspective and social responsibility.  We should be less surprised to find that so many athletes who have spent so much time away from home and most of that time seeking approval from a succession of non-parental guides are misdirected in their intentions and actions.

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