The Hype, The Fame, The Fortune: Understanding the Complexity of Modern Day Athletes

We like to think of our favorite professional sports stars as super human. Reassessing that philosophy may go a long way in understanding the modern professional athlete.

Alex Rodriguez fields questions from the New York media.

Yankee fans seem to recognize that the “high pressure, high incentive” environment of pro sports encouraged Alex Rodriguez to take steroids.
(Photo courtesy of New York Post)

Ancient Greek civilization is remembered, among other things, for Greek Mythology, a collection of teachings and myths which commonly documented the accomplishments of gods and heroes. Of these mythological characters, Hercules was one of the most famous and widely beloved in Greek culture. Hercules was known for great courage, and the stories of his triumphs over seemingly insurmountable foes have been retold century after century.

In 2015, there is no modern day Hercules. The art of mythological storytelling has long been overlooked as a means to create an image of humanity that we can hope to aspire to. Instead, we have begun to look inward for our idols, placing responsibility on other men and women to be the model citizens we all hope to be. This phenomenon has become increasingly common in sports, where figures like LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Alex Rodriguez have evolved from athletes, to global icons.

At first glance, there is nothing glaringly wrong with this growing trend. In some ways, these athletes, and many more like them, typify the sacrifices required to reach the top of any profession. Their work ethic can set an example for others to follow, regardless of the dreams that one holds.

We expect perfection, when it is human nature to be flawed. We ask them to compete with integrity amid a world rife with political and economic turmoil. Individually, how many of us can truly say that we have not bent the truth in a pinch, found a leg up in the classroom, or even played a simple pick-up basketball game with perfect integrity?

Unfortunately, all too frequently athletes fail to live up to the lofty expectations that society has set for them. Most recently, Tom Brady was vilified for knowing (“more likely than not”) that eleven of the twelve footballs used by the New England Patriots during the AFC Championship game were inflated slightly below the regulation weight. In the aftermath of this news, which included a four game suspension to begin the 2015 NFL season, public opinion against Brady and the Super Bowl winning Patriots became as dividing as our politics. Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio commentator, found a need to dedicate an entire show to the discussion, and Keith Olbermann, the uber-opinionated ESPN journalist even went so far as to argue that Brady should be suspended for a year.

Elsewhere in the sports landscape, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, has been living in baseball purgatory following a one year suspension for his use of Performance Enhancing Drugs. Stuck somewhere on the fringes of sports society lies Rodriguez, where neither fan nor media outlet, has any idea of how to handle his rollercoaster story. Instead, we have chosen to largely ignore Rodriguez’s transgressions, and his relatively successful return to the Yankees line-up in 2015. Despite climbing the record books in significant offensive categories like home-runs, Runs Batted In, and most recently joining the 3,000 hit club, his accomplishments have gone oddly overlooked.

The issue with the way society views these polarizing athletes is that it is so obviously hypocritical. We expect perfection, when it is human nature to be flawed. We ask them to compete with integrity amid a world rife with political and economic turmoil. Individually, how many of us can truly say that we have not bent the truth in a pinch, found a leg up in the classroom, or even played a simple pick-up basketball game with perfect integrity?

The common counterargument is that athletes in the public spotlight should be held to a higher standard. They are role models and heroes, we say. Our children look up to them. They cash million dollar checks, so they need to earn their money, or prove they are worth the investment. This, in my opinion, is the greatest irony of all. What most people fail to recognize, is that this is our fault. Societies’ unquenchable demand for sport drives up ticket prices in stadiums, increases jerseys sales, and increases media attention surrounding athletes. Of course, this increased demand has the side effect of raising the valuation of sports teams, and by association the athletes that play for them. Just last year, Steve Ballmer paid two billion dollars to buy the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that historically has played second fiddle to the Lakers in their own city. By that paradigm, why wouldn’t players reap the benefits of an industry that has created thousands of jobs, and turned owners into billionaires with brands that have become globally recognized?

The unintended consequence of big money contracts and a 24/7 media cycle are the pressures that are associated with such attention. Expectations have become increasingly cumbersome for athletes, who are expected to perform on the field, all while leading enriching, inspiring lives off of it. Indeed, it was these impossible expectations that reportedly led Rodriguez to steroid use after he signed an astronomical contract of 10 years, $252 million with the Texas Rangers. Imagine, essentially the most physically gifted baseball player of our generation, having doubts that his talents would prove to be enough.

In fairness, this article is not indented to be a full blown defense of the athlete. Rodriguez’s use of Performance Enhancing Drugs is disappointing, if only because I worry about his long-term health, and I feel a bit cheated from ever knowing the true scope of his ability. In Brady’s case, if he was aware that Patriots’ equipment managers were under-inflating game used footballs, then I find it childish and unnecessary. After all, the Patriots smacked the Indianapolis Colts 45 – 7.

Regardless, this type of behavior is a product of the athlete’s environment rather than their individual character. Society often expects our athletes to play the role of modern day Hercules: strong, athletic specimens that also happen to be equipped with flawless character. There was a reason Hercules was part human and part god. Greek mythology recognized what we unfortunately do not: human beings are far from perfect.

I don’t know about you, but perfection seems rather boring anyway.

About Ryan McCormick

Ryan is an avid sports fan, and is willing to play or watch just about any sport ever created. He grew up playing baseball which helps explain his particular enjoyment of the sport, and love of the Yankees. As an Economics and English major in college, he developed a strong interest in writing, especially creative pieces. Ryan currently lives and works in New York City.

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