Sunday, July 5, 2009

When The Game Ends

Athletes are different. There is the obvious physical difference that elite athletes possess, the result of long hours of training and top level coaching. To reach the pinnacle of any sport requires the physical sacrifice of training lengthy and arduous hours and countless sessions with coaches. The payoff for all this effort is a chance to step on a field or skate onto a rink and play a game at a level that only a few can. A professional athlete is handsomely compensated for reaching the acme of his profession, but the compensation is not only monetary, but in the adulation of the fans that is lavished on their heroes. Anyone that has competed at any level in any sport knows the rush that comes from the approval of your fans. It is intoxicating, not only during the heat of competition, but in your daily life. For a professional athlete, the attention is lavish and constant, especially if you are a high profile player.

From an early age, great athletes are treated differently. Their physical prowess causes them to stand out. They are told they are different. They are treated deferentially in high school, and this treatment only becomes greater at the college level. Throughout their life, they have a different track than the average person, with greater attention lavished on them. At the professional level, the attention is overwhelming. Professional teams make a concerted effort to take care of their players and their needs. From nutritional counseling to financial planning to personal appearances, teams work to meet the needs of their players. Combine that with the efforts of a player's agent, and in many cases an entourage of advisors, and a majority of the needs, and wants, of an athlete are met by third parties. All this attention to the details of an athletes personal life as well as their professional life by outside parties has the unintended consequence of oftentimes shielding them from the consequences of their actions. In some cases, the actions of a collegiate or professional athlete are overlooked or mitigated by the school or team, at least until the behavior becomes so egregious that it must be faced.

So what happens when an athlete no longer is lacing up the skates or stepping on to the football field or the court? All those years of having someone manage your off field activities changes dramatically. The attention wanes, the lavish treatment that was so intertwined in their personal life because of their professional life diminishes significantly, if not altogether disappears. In many respects, the athlete is now on their own. Decisions are now made outside the confines of the team, and perhaps even an agent or advisors. And one of the immutable laws of life is that decisions, and actions, have consequences.

Does the deferential treatment many athletes receive do more harm than good? I'm spending a great deal of time these days with my children talking about decisions, actions, and consequences. Is this a lesson that has been lost on many athletes because of the way they have been treated through the years? As I write this, the tragic death of former Titans quarterback Steve McNair is fresh on our minds. I do not write this to condemn Steve, but to ask the question "Where is the personal accountability?" Athletes in all team sports talk about being accountable to one another- for their workouts or for their play in the arena of competition. Where is the accountability for life, and the ability to discern the consequences of the choices that can be made? And yes, I know there are societal, socio-economic factors, and the personal history of each individual involved. Nevertheless, this does not negate personal responsibility and ownership of one's actions. Perhaps the better questions are "Are you ready to be accountable?" "Do you understand you are responsible for your actions?"

I'm not moralizing here. Goodness knows I've made more than my share of stupid decisions, often without properly considering the consequences of my choices. And I know I'm speaking in broad generalities here- not every athlete that rises to the pinnacle of their profession is ill equipped to make good life choices. As we survey the tragic loss of two lives and the wreckage of two families because of these choices made, I am asking if an unacceptable degree of failure hasn't been built in to the system because of the way many athletes are treated throughout their athletic life?

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