Athletes' actions shape kids' lives
Winning isn't everything. It isn't even the large majority of what it means to be an athlete these days.
What really counts is whether or not you are a role model to the younger generation. Sure, if you can win all of your games, people will call you a great athlete, but in today's sports world, a lot depends on how you play on the court and how you present yourself off the court.
Whether we like it or not, sports have become a major part of our lives. Sure, the country has been enthralled with baseball, football, basketball and even hockey, but never before this era has the business of sports and the conduct of athletes made the daily headlines on the hard news side of journalism.
It used to be that the worst thing that surfaced in pro football was an occasional cocaine abuser (Lawrence Taylor). But with the advent of players whose criminal record become part of their story, such as Lawrence Phillips, crime has been almost shrugged at in this sport. For extreme examples, three pro football players have been accused of murder in the last five years. The notorious O.J. Simpson case was divided in the courts between Simpson being criminally not guilty, yet civilly liable. Rae Carruth was implicated in the drive-by shooting of his pregnant girlfriend. Then, most recently, Ray Lewis was accused and indicted in a club brawl stabbing in Atlanta.
That same criminal attitude has seeped into the college game. Florida State was so beleaguered at one point in the season by criminal accusations that they put their players on guarded curfew during the nights before the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
Basketball has seen its share of problems as well. For example, few players are as good in the paint as Dennis Rodman is. But on Wednesday night, the Dallas Mavericks waived Rodman and ended his stint with his third team in two years. Why can such an excellent player not find a home? Because fans and owners alike cannot put up with the kind of idiotic attitude that a player like Rodman brings to the game.
Players like Latrell Sprewell get away with these disgustingly overt displays of violence because they can play the game. But forever they are branded with the label of "thug" or just traded around until they are put on a team where the are not the worst kid on the block.
Baseball is not immune to its legal problems either, although most of them are limited to the personally destructive types, such as Darryl Strawberry.
In hockey, perhaps the most brutal of the sports mentioned, two recent events have brought home how widespread this culture of violence has become. Marty McSorley's slash of Donald Brashear caused the latter to be knocked unconscious and bleeding on the ice and the former to be brought up on assault charges in Vancouver. The second instance of violence that has sorely tarnished the sporting world was the recent arrest of Dallas Stars goalie Ed Belfour on charges of assault and resisting arrest.
This, coupled with the internationally embarrassing vandalism of a Japanese hotel room by the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1998, all of whom were pro hockey players, proves that this phenomenon is not limited to the warmer sports.
With ESPN's family of networks, Fox Sports Net and all the various sports web sites, news and sports are becoming synonymous like never before. Fewer and fewer of the stories concern what the players did on the court. More often they are concerned with what the players do off the court.
And well they should be. These are men and women who stand up as an example to every little kid who watches the sport, dreaming to have the skills and the chance to play in the arenas that these people play in. Whether or not you win or lose is secondary. It isn't how you play the game, either. This attitude of being unaccountable in the face of the law and the standards of society transfers back to those very same kids and creates an entirely new generation of players that just take it a step farther.
Thus, the cycle will never end until some players stand up and say, "I AM a role model."
Matt Loughran is a former news editor and currently attends graduate school at Saint John's College in Annapolis, Md.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Friday, March 10, 2000