Once there was a time when the daily sports section was filled with scores, standings and stats. I for one loved nothing more than sipping my early morning cuppa hot Earl Grey while drinking in yesterday's box scores and tomorrow's pitching match-ups; of learning who scored the winning touchdown; whether anyone had achieved a triple-double; which teams were leading their divisions. Nowadays, I am sorry to report, the daily sports pages more closely resemble a police blotter than a chronicle of athletic achievement. The line between heroism and hooliganism has become as indistinguishable as a chalk yard marker in the fourth quarter of a game played during a snowy blizzard. (Note: The box score on the left is from Sandy Koufax's 4th no-hitter, a masterful perfect game he pitched against the Chicago Cubs on September 10, 1965.)
This week, the sports pages have been filled with the story of now suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. This past March, Rice, who is the Ravens' second all-time rushing leader (behind Jamal Lewis) was arrested and subsequently indicted for third-degree aggravated assault relating to an incident where he punched his then-fiancée (now wife) in the face. The blow knocked her unconscious. The incident became a prominent controversy after TMZ released a video of the encounter, which led to an NFL policy change regarding how it handles domestic violence cases. Rice's contract was terminated by the Ravens on September 8, 2014, following the release of an additional video of the incident. Ravens' management also began encouraging their fans to exchange their Rice jerseys for other Ravens jerseys at their official team store. The incident has also led to questions about what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell knew, and when he knew it.
Ray Rice is but one of many, many professional athletes whose actions have turned the sports page into a police blotter. Consider just the cases of NFL players arrested since July 4 -- a mere ten weeks ago:
- 9/13/14 (yesterday): Vikings RB Adrian Peterson surrendered on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.
- 8/31/14: 49ers DE Ray McDonald was arrested for domestic violence.
- 8/20/14: Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell was arrested for marijuana possession and DUI.
- 7/21/14: Eagles S Keelan Johnson was arrested for assaulting a police officer, passively resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct.
- 7/20/14: Rams LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar was arrested for battery and disorderly conduct.
- 7/12/14: Ravens CB Jimmy Smith was arrested for disorderly conduct.
- 7/4/14: Browns WR Josh Gordon was arrested for DUI in North Carolina.
And this is just from the world of professional football. It does not take into account other professional sports -- both team and individual -- or anything on the college level. And believe me, the numbers are staggering.
Ever since the days of the first Olympians, athletes have been heroes to people of all ages. To a certain extent it is perfectly understandable. For these men and women can run faster, throw harder -- and straighter -- jump higher and possess far better hand-eye coordination than 99% of the public. Additionally, they are frequently magnificent freaks of nature. And today, even the mediocre ones make more money in a single season than most of us can even dream of making in a lifetime. As but one example, before he was indicted on triple murder charges, the New England Patriots signed tight end Aaron Hernandez to a 7-year, $41 million contract. The contract, which guaranteed Hernandez a minimum of $16.5 million, came with a $12.5 million signing bonus. Once Hernandez was indicted -- and held in jail without bail -- the Patriots voided the contract. "That's an insane amount of money for just catching a football," you say. "No one is worth that much." But the fact of the matter is that Hernandez -- and all the other insanely high-paid athletes are worth it . . . to their teams, their sponsors and the networks who broadcast their games. Otherwise these billionaire owners wouldn't be signing them to such fat, fat contracts.
Sadly, Aaron Hernandez is hardly suis generis. Those who have followed sports over the past generation will no doubt be familiar with such former heroes-turned hooligans as Ray Carruth, Robert Rozier, Ugueth Urbina, Dave Meggett, Mel Hall, Michael Vick, Lenny Dykstra, and of course O.J. Simpson. All have -- or are still -- been imprisoned from crimes ranging from drugs and murder to kidnapping and assault.
Without question, there are many upstanding professional athletes; men and women who are well educated, well-adjusted citizens who give back to the communities which have showered them with riches and adulation. But for every Bill Bradley (Princeton), Calvin Hill (Yale), Lou Gehrig (Columbia) or Brad Ausmus (Dartmouth) there are many many more who are ill-prepared for the acclaim and notoriety, the allurements and instant riches of athletic stardom. From their earliest days, pro-athletes-in-the-making are treated with kid gloves because they have these special physical gifts. They are sheltered and coddled, and become accustomed to having spotlights shining in their eyes. All too frequently, their sins and trespasses are swept under the rug. And when -- as inevitiably it must -- the spotlights grow dark, a high percentage of them are left defenseless; babes in the woods who are woefully lacking the most basic of life skills. Recent statistics bear this out: A Sports Illustrated article reports a grim reality -- 78 percent of NFL players face bankruptcy or serious financial stress within just two years of leaving the game; 60 percent of NBA players face the same dire results in five years; major league baseball players are four times more likely to file for bankruptcy than the average citizen. Precisely why this is the case is hard to pin down. Suffice it to say the "dumb jock" stereotype is both overblown and insufficient.
There has long been a tendency to believe that professional athletes are far above average -- but on steroids! And, truth to tell, they are stratospherical above average when it comes to physical and certain mental skills. They are wired differently than you and me. Research has found significant differences between athletes and non-athletes across personality characteristics such as inhibition, emotionality, and aggressiveness. Good characteristics on the field of play, they don't necessarily translate well to everyday life. Then too, professional athletes are more present focused than future focused as compared to non-athletes. In other words, there is much greater emphasis placed on today than there is on tomorrow. When the spotlight goes out, the game has been concluded and the adulation has ceased, that's when the realities of everyday life finally begin. For many, its the first time; in so many cases, these world-class athletes have never learned the most basic life skills.
As JFK once said, "Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan."
Is it any wonder how easy it is for so many heroes to cross over that fine line and become hooligans? We cheer every violent hit, every teeth-jarring tackle and then wonder why they act so violently off the field.
It would serve us all well to keep in mind that these idols have cleats of clay. To some extent, we bear a bit of responsibility for their trajectory of failure. In placing professional athletes high atop the Mt. Olympus of competitive sport, we are inevitably, helping create their downward path -- a road filled with dangerous ruts and rills.
And now, having concluded this piece, I'm off to catch today's opening kickoff . . . Go Fish!
Copyright© 2014 Kurt F. Stone