Sunday, August 12, 2007

Where did athletes go wrong?

When I was younger, I used to think the world of athletes. My two favorite players were Darrell Green and Cal Ripken, Jr., so obviously I happened to pick good role models at a young age. They both worked hard, respected teammates and coaches, and played the best they could at all times. Since I was focusing on them so much, and partly too because I was young, I didn't have much interest in looking at other players around different sports that were acting stupid or who were participating in activities detrimental to themselves and their team and sport. But those days are over, and it's hard to turn the other direction when every other sports story seems to be something negative about an athlete.

Back in those days, I always thought the vast majority of athletes were a special group of people. I thought they could do anything and were invincible; they could do no wrong, only great things. I eventually realized that some athletes are great at what they do, but not all of them are great people. They aren't superhuman.

The main event that opened my eyes was the whole OJ Simpson ordeal. I didn't even know who he was at the time, and I didn't even care, but that story was everywhere in 1995-1996. Athletes had been in the news for breaking the law or for other stupid things before, but that was the primary example of an athlete being in the most amount of trouble possible. It was shocking to see an individual with so much to lose in so much trouble.

I could go over an entire list of other notable events that happened with athletes, such as Kobe Bryant, Ray Lewis, and Latrell Sprewell to name a few, but that wouldn't really add much to what I'm trying to say -- and that is, that athletes are real people too, and many of them make mistakes. And while that's not any really profound statement, it's important to sit back and realize that after the games are over, the lights are turned off, and no one is around, athletes are normal people too. I thought that I had realized that, but it took me a while for it to sink in.

Many people probably think the same way that I do, but then I keep hearing some people ask one main question, and it's a good one: "Why would an athlete put himself/herself in a situation that would jeopardize where he/she is right now?" Most people are only looking at the money aspect because, apparently, only people who don't have money do dumb things or are involved in things they shouldn't be. That's a pretty bad assumption.

For many professional athletes, and recently this applies to Michael Vick, from a very young age to the time they are in the pros, they're told they're the best and are given everything they want. Sure, they still have to work very hard and put in the time and effort, but they can get away with doing things that "normal" people couldn't because other people are there to look after them. I don't know Michael Vick, I don't know if he actually was involved with dogfighting or exactly what his relationship was with the whole operation at his Virginia home, but I'd like to think that if he actually was involved, that reason had something to do with it. Maybe he figured that it was okay to be there because he couldn't get in trouble. He has been told that he's superman, that he's above normal people because he has a cannon for an arm and can run faster than most people can only dream about.

I'd like to think that's part of the reason why a lot of athletes put themselves in bad situations like that -- because they want to and don't feel like it's risky, and they've rarely been told "no" by anyone else before.

There's another large piece to the puzzle, though, and that has less to do with athletes themselves. After the OJ Simpson trial, which I brought up before, I remember seeing an increased amount of negative sports news stories. If athletes broke the law or were put in a bad situation, more journalists and reporters focused on that rather than positive stories or good-natured ones where an athlete beats all odds. They'd rather publish a story where, say, a controversial athlete beats his wife instead.

Mentioning and using the OJ Simpson trial as the main instance where things changed may be an oversimplification, but for me, that's where I noticed a change and began to look at athletes differently. I don't really believe that athletes now are any more prone to doing drugs or committing crimes than athletes in the past, but the masses seem to be flooded with so many more stories that it's impossible to read sports news without escaping them. If a reader turns the page, there is another article about players cheating. The next page may have something about gambling, or drunk driving, or drug usage. That may be everyday life for some people, but it makes many athletes look a whole lot worse than they actually are (at least some of them.)

I think the biggest change in this whole problem is money. Professional athletes are making so much money these days, and I believe that most of the public feels that if an athlete is putting himself in a situation to jeopardize all that money, then he's just being stupid and he deserves to lose everything. I've felt almost the same way too, that to live that kind of life that so few people get to do so haphazardly and reckless would almost be to waste a golden opportunity. And yet, I've never lived that life and never will, so I don't know the pressures or demands of what being a professional athlete entails. And then again, most people are like me, and they only see what's on the surface and never what's really inside that world.

I'm starting to confuse even myself with what I'm trying to get at, but the world of sports has become too confusing that it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Michael Vick and Kobe Bryant were supposed to be good guys, and they still may be. All most fans and outsiders see is what's on the TV, and all they read is what's in the paper. That's all they have to judge the character of all athletes on unless they've talked to them or know them personally, which includes only a small group of people.

I guess the best way to think of athletes would be just like every other job or profession that anyone has ever had. There are good guys, and there are definitely some bad guys. There are guys who make great choices and help other people, and there are others who really aren't good individuals at all. Some co-workers treat people with respect, and some, plain and simply, just do not.

It's just that, with millions of dollars and so much risk/reward involved, the stakes for athletes are so much higher. If they mess up, then everyone will know about it. And at the end of the day, if Pacman Jones has another DUI, is it really all that different than one of your neighbors down the street? Probably not, many would think, and they both may be in the local paper the next morning.

But one will be in every other paper in the U.S. (And, no, it's not Randy down the street who has a little too much to drink every now and then.)

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