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Competitive Spirit or Antisocial behavior: Are we failing our athletes?

At a time in which there is a selective microscope on the actions and professionalism of competitive athletes, there seems to be an emphasis on many aspects of sports conduct: Are we holding a double standard when it comes to the race of an athlete?  How about when considering the gender of an athlete?  Are we encouraging toxic behavior via social media?  

Notice:  not once did I ask, “Why do our athletes exhibit seemingly toxic behavior?”  

This question seems to fall between approval of volatile behavior for the sake of entertainment (ie, Conor McGregor or Russell Westbrook) or selective outrage when the behavior rises to the level of national awareness outside of the sport or challenges our collective awareness of norms amongst social groups.  

The conversation ends there.  

We ask a lot of our athletes and never really ask what it takes to get there.

Yet this question has often been at the forefront of my mind.  I’m a little nerdy, and I love the lore of athletes, musicians, actors, etc.  I believe it can bring us more of an awareness of what it takes to reach those heights; and assess our willingness to meet those requirements, even on a minuscule level, to see excellence in our lives.  

Often, I find myself thinking back to interviews with the legendary heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.  After an incredibly embattled career (marked with legal issues, extreme volatility, substance abuse, etc.), he’s found peace in the waning years of his life; and become a soft, unintentional guru and/or mentor to athletes currently in the spotlight.  Given the ferocity of his character back in his early teens to his retirement, it isn’t out of the norm for a reporter to ask for his take on an athlete who is currently bordering on the level of self-destruction he once displayed both in and out of the ring.  Tyson, now 56, often references the mindset instilled in him by an incredibly vicious childhood (marked by a lack of love or positive parental figures, violence, and poverty); and his early mentor/ coach, Cus D’Amato, who trained (and even hypnotized him) to be an emotionless machine when it came to training, and a violent (yet calculated) animal in the ring.  

Jon Jones (who has been on the receiving end of mentoring from Tyson) has also mentioned how he had to create an alter ego to accomplish what he has accomplished in his long ( yet troubling) career as a UFC title holder.  

In the NFL, we’ve also seen some pretty extreme personalities, as well as downright villains.  I’m recalling Aaron Hernandez, a tight end for the Patriots, who regularly committed violent acts throughout his career until those actions finally caught up with him and led to his incarceration and subsequent death.

It’s easy to hear such tales, which border on comic book origin story romanticism, and overlook them to a degree.  They clearly fall outside of the realm of acceptance…but these stories carry a throughline in many if not all, top-tier athletes: You don’t get to where they are by thinking the way the average person thinks.  

The skills of 1% of the 1% go beyond natural talent.  There’s a level of intensity that has to come with the countless hours of practice and study, day in and day out.  The athlete has to believe they are special, are gifted, they are destined for greatness.  And when an athlete is, at the very least, talented, these beliefs are validated by family, friends, fans, and even casual onlookers.  I always find Aaron Hernandez’s story quite heartbreaking, not only because of the childhood trauma he faced but also because of the allowances he was given for malignant behavior.  

By the time Hernandez arrived to the Patriots, he’d narrowly dodged the full brunt of assault charges and a double shooting when he was only 17 and 18 years old respectively.  

And he isn’t alone.  Often, we find out way too late that many of our sports heroes have skeletons in the closet, indicative of near antisocial tendencies.  

In many ways, this makes our more graceful athletes, like Tom Brady or Roger Federer, so unique and beloved.  We hold them up as the example; when, perhaps, we should hold them as the exception.  

It’s not to say that an athlete has to be a criminal to truly access their potential.  Rather, it seems checks and balances are needed for the handlers of our national talent.  Surrounding God given talent with yes men clearly isn’t working; and yet (as is typical of even our penal system) the emphasis is on public derision and isolation when one’s deviance finally reaches a level worthy of criminal law intervention.  Once the bad guy is “canceled” or jailed, everyone is lulled back to the status quo.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes, thousands of athletes are churned through the machine, bred for success, and forgiven every trespass.  

Even if that lack of chastisement is to their own detriment.  

Maybe this is by design.  I sit and write this article, not sure what the answer is.  Fire in the belly of an athlete is a basic prerequisite; but how do you get their family, friend, and teammates (who see the benefit of their loved one going to the league…or just being “happy) to value accountability over viability?


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