No, seriously: atheletes are great role models

This photo appeared in Friday’s LA Times, and I’m sure in several other papers across the country. The accompanying story is about former NHL player Bob Probert, who recently died of heart failure.  The article doesn’t have as much to do with his death as it does about what was found afterwards. Mr. Probert’s post-mortem brain shows signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that more commonly affects former boxers.

This announcement is troubling, but apparently, not a huge surprise; more and more retired athletes (primarily football and hockey players) are receiving this diagnosis.

Saddest to me, and what the story doesn’t touch upon, is the way the lure of careers in professional sports drive (mostly) boys and young men to damage their bodies in different ways.  And how they’re encouraged by coaches to “walk off” any number of injuries, from twisted ankles to concussions.  At 15, I was even told to walk off what wound up being torn ligaments and cartilage in my knee.

So why would we send young people into the arms of these demon taskmasters to suffer the perils described above? I’d suggest that because there’s physical exercise and “life lessons” involved, we’ve collectively assumed that organized sports are inherently good for kids. And as the media perpetually reminds us, every child is about a heartbeat away from becoming a strung-out, zombie gang member who has complete disregard for his own or any other life.  Given this choice, staying after school and practicing for whatever team seems very much like god’s gift of salvation.

I recently had a conversation with a professional football trainer who shared with me his understanding of the likely financial and physical ruin that awaits even successful players.  According to him, all those young and healthy linemen that you see beating each other up on Sunday won’t be able to walk, use their hands, or raise their arms above shoulder lever by the time they are 45.  And to make matters much worse, players’ NFL health insurance runs out (I believe he told me) 5 years after retirement — hence the financial ruin part of the equation.

The stories that the trainer told reminded me of the flack that Rasheed Wallace caught from NBA executives and the press when he equated being a professional basketball player with being a slave. I know that it’s difficult to feel sympathy for millionaire athletes like ‘Sheed. But the reality is that the vast majority of people who make it to the pros, regardless of the sport, only last a few years, and wind up making much less money than we might imagine — the league minimum for NFL players last year was $350,000.00, and the average pay was about $788,000.00.  That’s not a lot if you consider that the player who earns this has likely given up a college degree, and played for only 3 or 4 years before facing an uncertain future, likely with few marketable skills and possibly no health insurance.  And to this, we might consider adding the great possibility of depression that comes with the loss of lifelong dreams — imagine the intensity of spending every part of your being in pursuit of one single thing, and that thing being taken away from you.

But parents and children still buy into the myth that a pro contract is a one-way ticket to an instantly glamourous lifestyle.  Except for the extreme minority, it isn’t — I’m not sure of the odds, but I imagine that the likelihood of becoming a millionaire athlete must be similar to the likelihood of winning some mega-million-dollar lottery. The problem, of course,  is that there are really, really rich people who become even more wealthy by selling this dream to starry-eyed parents and children.

What further bewilders me about professional sports, and what this post was originally going to be about is that, to my knowledge, professional athletics is the only career in which one can bloody a coworker without going to jail.  Isn’t this totally bizarre?  Have any of you ever heard anyone talk about how weird this is?  I know I haven’t. Other than when spectators are involved have any of you ever heard of an athlete being arrested for an on-the-field/ice/court brawl?

A more interesting question might be, why do people in the sports industrial complex celebrate on-the-field violence?  Or, why don’t the cameras stop shooting, as they do when fans misbehave? (The accepted norm of sports broadcasting is that when a fan jumps onto the field or otherwise draws attention to him- or herself, the cameras stop shooting as a way of not encouraging such behaviors.)

The answer is that players getting away with misconduct that would be jailable offenses for the rest of us, is one of the sports dream’s most alluring messages: professional athletes live in a special realm — a never-never land where children don’t have to grow up. To be a professional athlete is to live outside of the norms and laws that the rest of us must obey.

And this reality highlights the hypocritical tightrope that team owners walk: making a sport appeal to family viewers, while still understanding and perpetuating the violence that is inherent (and profitable) in professional sports. So players get fines for fighting, and league higher-ups go public with their condemnation of violence, but they are clearly disingenuous in their criticisms. If they were serious, wouldn’t they encourage legislation that would have players arrested for attacking one another?  Wouldn’t violent players at least be barred from league play?

These are obviously rhetorical questions. We all know the answer; it is spelled M-O-N-E-Y.

…for more on this subject, this article was published in yesterday’s NY Times.


12 responses to “No, seriously: atheletes are great role models”

  1. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Wait, if Rasheed Wallace caught flack for saying that, it’s because it is not just offensive (who am I to police how people use slavery as a reference, I guess) but absurd. The worst case scenario there amortizes out to earning what you would’ve made working 30 years for $47K a year. The depression about lack of prospects and the failure to go to college happens to millions of people who don’t get to spend four years or more guaranteed to get laid whenever they want. My sympathy beyond the health woes is limited.

    A more interesting question might be, why do people in the sports industrial complex celebrate on-the-field violence?

    Captain Obvious answer: I may be missing the point in a spectacular way here because I’m not a sports fan, isn’t the basic impulse of spectator sports is the sublimation of aggression? That is to say, don’t you go to most sports to see some form of on-the-field violence–be that highly ritualized (baseball) or not very (football)?

  2. F. P. Smearcase says:

    There’s an extra “is” in there.

  3. lane says:

    that photo make me laugh and then go. god no more!

    : )


  4. SG says:

    Wow, mister Smearcase. Maybe the problem with you comment isn’t just one extra “is.” Anything else I need to know before I move forward into my day?

    I understand that the sporting world is foreign to many of us here in Whatsit land, but I think that it’s a mistake to suggest that people who are duped into a lifelong fantasyland don’t deserve (at least a) degree of sympathy.

    Yes, there are many people who don’t go to college and bla, bla, bla…but using this same logic, are we not to feel anything for people who lose their 47K a year job because there are people who make 23.5K a year? Or for people who lose their houses because there are people who are homeless?

    One of the reasons that I feel a degree (of obviously misplaced) compassion for these people is because most of us who pursue “normal” careers jump through all the hoops through which we need to jump, and at the end of the day, there is a career — or at least one that’s relatively close to the one that we trained for. Some of us are underemployed; I for example, only have two classes this semester, and likely only one in the fall. And of course there are those of us who can’t currently find any job, but we more likely than not will find one.

    The point is that I knew what I needed to do: get good grades, earn a college degree, go to grad school, look for non-teaching jobs that would look good on a CV, and so on…

    For people who pursue careers in sports of any other type of entertainment (though we may find them problematic people or whatever) may spend several years — the equivalent number that it would take to earn a PHD or longer — at at the end of it all, have nothing. You may say, “Cry me a fucking river,” but I think, regardless of the rest of the state of humanity, that’s a pretty tragic story.

    I happen to be someone who believes that pain, disappointment, and sorrow comes in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps that’s my weakness…

    And the “Captain Obvious” thing was just a shitty way to frame your other comment. I like you a lot, but…

  5. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Listen, I see kids once every couple of weeks who are duped into a fantasy, kids who tell me seriously that their plan is to be professional basketball players when chances are infinitesimal that they will succeed. Is it really so terrible that I feel a lot worse for them than for someone who rockets to wealth, albeit impermanent? The question is sincere and not rhetorical–I do think plenty about this kind of thing.

    The amortization thing was maybe a bad way to express this, seems to have made me sound as if I were condescending to you instead of outraged by Rasheed Wallace but (knowing nothing else about him) his comment struck me as really galling.

    I’m also not sure what’s so shitty about the Captain Obvious thing. It was a way of saying “I may be wrong here, but…” I think I must have truly not gotten this part of the posting. I’m sorry my response pissed you off so badly.

  6. LP says:

    Wuh-oh – I think we’re about to have our first TGW fistfight! Let me get my video camera!

    I”m going to try to bring the love back, here… I think both you guys make salient points. Scotty, it’s true that pro sports are the only place where fighting is part of the norm. On the other hand, the whole point of pro sports is intensive, aggressive physical activity aimed at defeating the other guy – not by fighting, per se, but often by banging into him repeatedly, as in football and basketball. So it’s maybe not surprising fights break out – but I totally agree with you that the cameras should cut away, as they do with misbehaving fans.

    It seems that one issue here is not that pro athletes are bad role models, but that the people tasked with making sure they are properly protected and cared for are not. Perhaps football players with a certain number of years in the league should have lifetime insurance. And young basketball players who enter the league having no idea how to shop at a grocery store, make a meal or properly take care of their money should get some assistance from their teams or the league with that. Sure, you might say, none of the rest of us get that kind of hand-holding, but we’re also not in the spotlight and getting pummeled and having others make zillions of dollars off our talent the way these people are.

    I don’t feel worse for pro athletes than I do for all those who had a dream to play and couldn’t. But they all have their problems and issues, and there are too many “cautionary tales” wandering around broke or with head injuries or whatever. I wonder if any studies have been done as to how former athletes are faring, healthwise and finance-wise…?

  7. SG says:

    ” Listen, I see kids once every couple of weeks who are duped into a fantasy, kids who tell me seriously that their plan is to be professional basketball players when chances are infinitesimal that they will succeed. Is it really so terrible that I feel a lot worse for them than for someone who rockets to wealth, albeit impermanent? The question is sincere and not rhetorical–I do think plenty about this kind of thing.”

    Perhaps I was incomplete in my communication, but my post (at leas in my mind) included these people as well. In fact, I had “Hoop Dreams” playing through my mind the entire time I wrote this post. Maybe I should have been more direct in addressing the people who never actually make it to the pros.

  8. F. P. Smearcase says:

    SG and I had a huge fist fight (we met in Iowa. He won.) by which I mean we emailed a little and figured out why we accidentally had the least huggy exchange ever on TGW (sorry, “My Left Hand’–you had your day!) and all’s well, I think it’s fair to say. My original comment, in my head, sounded like a snarky response but still an engagement in conversation; on the fake paper of the internet, it came out really dismissive of a thoughtful post. I would’ve put on the boxing gloves, too, had the shoe been on the other foot. Why did that sentence involve so many garments?

  9. SG says:

    Yes, F.P. and are are still in love with each other. All is right in Whatsitland.

  10. lane says:

    brain damage makes me quesey, so i could only read a little of this.

    yeah i had a friend in high school that thinks he got brain damage playing little league. i think he did too.

    ,,, : (

  11. Dave says:

    Why don’t you people fight here in public like hockey players do, so we can watch?

  12. swells says:

    Wait wait wait! I want to round up my kids first so they can watch.