Over the past few years (and especially the last three of four months), the NFL, NCAA, and NBA have each approached the verge of complete implosion due to shocking, highly-publicized character issues of some of their more high-profile members. From Ray Rice to Donald Sterling, Jameis Winston to Adrian Peterson, these ridiculously profitable sports leagues have been shaken to their cores and the public has had to face the real possibility of drastic change amongst them, if not total collapse. These relentless controversies have been sources of discomfort and shame for sports fans across the country, but overall it seems that this difficult time is like the initial swallow of a gross-tasting medicine–it all sucks right now, but the fact that society is putting pressure on these sports leagues to hold their athletes more accountable in terms of their behavioral traits may represent a revolution in how we hold our athletic idols. The same rules need to apply to them, everyone is saying, and it’s time they stop taking advantage of their fame at the expense of public good.
This type of revolution seems like an objective good for the advancement of society. However (maybe this is just the bad taste left in my mouth from all this ugliness talking), I can’t help but feel that this movement is either misdirected or simply futile. A large factor in whether this feeling of mine is founded or not depends on the answer to the question, has it always been this bad?
Distinct from other public figures, superstar athletes can rise to fame on the basis of a few physical traits that are, for the most part, independent of social factors. Unlike politicians, billionaire businessmen, and even actors, athletes pass through few “filters” on their way to stardom other than physical fitness and level of commitment to their sport; the driving force behind an athlete securing a shot at fame is his or her ability to help their specific team win, a trait which is arguably independent from (and possibly detrimental to) that individual’s ability to be a “good” person. As a result, there seems to be a long history of star athletes chronically behaving as non-ideal citizens, a truth which was more or less ignored (or maybe merely tolerated) by the public until Jim Bouton’s 1970 book “Ball Four” brought to light some of the truly graphic details of professional athletes behaving like frat boys–and in some cases, much worse. Superstar athlete accountability became even more of an issue following the O.J. Simpson saga in the mid-90’s, an event which represented one of the first live mass-media coverages of the disgrace of a former athlete. Since that time, such events have gradually become more common until today, where public revelations and shaming of pro athletes seem to be almost a daily occurrence. It seems reasonable to assume that this increase in coverage of such incidents is merely due to the evolution of news agencies–especially sports-specific ones such as ESPN–which now have the resources to reveal the slightest blemish or slip-up of an athlete to the entire world, and that the “background rate” of athlete immorality hasn’t really changed over time.
Another thought is that this over-coverage of the personal life of star athletes, especially up-and-coming ones, is only aiding their development as spoiled crybabies with an inherent sense of entitlement due to their crazy physical abilities. Watching (i.e. suffering through) SportsCenter every day makes this concept seem rather plausible, as the anchors and guest-speakers seem to spend more than half of the show giving attention to seemingly trivial, non-sports-related issues regarding certain young athletes–Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston are good examples of this, but many more cases exist. This over-coverage of young athletes might be creating a deadly positive-feedback cycle, where these stars are put under the spotlight, make a behavioral mistake, are only made more popular due to the mistake, and thus start to develop this mindset that they can do no wrong as long as they still perform well on the field. If this is the case, the expanded coverage of such personal issues with such athletes (and especially the tendency of ESPN to linger on certain issues for a long time) may be contributing even more to the ugly cycle of athlete immorality that we currently find ourselves bogged down in.
Either way, it seems that the current state of this moral revolution in the sports world needs to be changed slightly to have any real effect. A good first step in this process might be for the public to focus more of their criticism on the sports news companies that may be contributing to this culture of entitlement for young athletes–a step whose goal should be to attack the root of the problem rather than to just distract everyone from the blame on the individual athletes, which still cannot be forgotten. However, it may very well be that the very nature of a star athlete is simply not compatible with the concept of a role model, in which case it might be time for all of us to re-evaluate what we can reasonably expect out of our “gladiators” so as not to be disappointed in this way again. No matter which of these courses of action is truly the right one, I just can’t wait for this revolution to run its course, for a new status quo regarding athlete accountability to be set, and to begin enjoying the actual drama of sports again.