Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What is it about sports? Part 3

A sad story is unfolding as I write this. Former Louisiana State University star quarterback JaMarcus Russell has been busted in Alabama for possession of codeine. This is but the latest blow to the career of this young man, whose talents displayed at LSU appeared to have the potential for him to become a star NFL quarterback. It has turned out very poorly for him, however, and with this arrest, his chances for fame and fortune as an NFL star appear now to have been lost forever. He has money from his contracts, but that may wind up being consumed in legal defense. And his fame is rapidly changing to infamy ...

His history at LSU was checkered - he was the MVP of the 2007 Sugar Bowl, but had been subjected to various disciplinary actions. After his junior year, he opted for early entry into the NFL draft. Since then, JaMarcus has been a stellar underperformer in the NFL and been involved in more off-the-field behavior problems, culminating in this recent arrest.

Like all human beings, this young man has both positive and negative character aspects, and because of his talents and positive performances as a collegiate player, the negative things he's done have been played out on a public stage. Unlike the rest of us, however, athletes playing at the professional level are being paid a fortune to play a kid's game. This means that their transgressions are not private - in exchange for the millions they're paid, athletes typically will lose their privacy. This is especially so when their negative character aspects manifest themselves in actions leading to them being revealed in the media - Tiger Woods, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and others come to mind.

When we mere mortals commit such transgressions, they may be embarrassing to the point of humiliation and might make the local newspaper/TV, but the big-time media don't pick up such stories. We're not being pilloried in the tabloids, no paparazzi are stalking us, self-styled national pundits are not offering their opinions about us.

The reason for so much media attention is that professional athletes (and movie stars and famous musicians) are being very well-paid. They become public figures when they become rich and famous. There's a lesson here, if anyone bothers to look past all the media hype. Be careful what you wish for! Achieving fame and becoming wealthy in the process carries with it a price, that can be magnified enormously if your negative character traits are revealed.

One of my favorite quotes is from the movie Krull. When being asked to participate in a quest that involves considerable danger, one of the characters is encouraged to do so because he'd become famous in the process. His response:

Fame! It's an empty purse. Spend it ... and go broke. Eat it ... and go hungry. Seek it ... and go mad.

Many young people are motivated to seek fame (and fortune) via athletics. Only a tiny percentage ever become professional athletes, and only a fraction of them ever become rich and famous. In some cases, unfortunately, that very fame and fortune leads to utter disaster. I'm saddened by such stories, even as I admire the determination and effort that allows someone to achieve greatness in athletics. There are life lessons to be learned in sport, but some participants simply don't learn those lessons. They become stars who can't cope with the fame and squander their fortune on things like drugs, gambling, etc. To whom much is given, much is expected.