Athletes aren't special
Sunday, June 20, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Forty years ago this summer, the new head coach of our high school football team called a meeting.

Of the cheerleaders.

Football players, he told them, are born, not made. Football players, he told them, are special people.

It was a shame he hadn't addressed this topic with the players first, because we could have told him how spectacularly unspecial we were. We won two and lost nine the previous autumn, and didn't manage an offensive touchdown until the fifth game, by which time we'd been outscored, 97-7.

If we were special in any way, it might have been that we could have been replaced by any random sample of 30 other students without negatively impacting the result on Friday nights.

But see, this is how quarterbacks end up following drunken 20-year-olds into bathrooms for non-consensual sex, isn't it?

Stay with me now.

Someone who is spectacularly unspecial gets the wrong idea, that they are easily special enough to be entitled to take what they want -- drinks, trips, meals, sex -- and mayhem ensues.

"Do you know who I am?" they are wont to say.

Yes, unfortunately. Do you?

This psychotic sense of entitlement, however, is not the fault of our most notorious athletes. It's the fault of coaches, parents, fans and the media, and not necessarily in that order. If an educator was willing to make the case that the comically unsuccessful 16- and 17-year-old footballers in a tiny Pennsylvania high school were special -- 40 years ago! -- imagine all the damaging warp-speed distance that wrong-headed idea has come since that summer.

Some of the smartest people in America, its university presidents, are powerless to alter the decades of momentum this idea has gathered. Instead, they accelerate it. Check out the chart on Page A-6 of Friday's Post-Gazette. It lists the median per-student spending of schools in the various sports conferences against the conference's per-athlete spending. Congratulations to the Mid-American Conference, by the way, where spending per athlete is only four times that of spending per student ($48,139 to $12,032). The major conferences are closer to the sickening disparities of the Southeastern Conference, where the schools spend almost 11 times on athletes as what they do on non-athletes ($144,592 to $13,410).

So, no, athletes don't come upon their sense of entitlement by pulling their Hummers up to the loading dock at Entitlement City. They get it from people who should know better and they get it at a very young age. They get it from adults who devise Little League batting orders where the "better" hitters bat twice as often as the others. They get it from coaches who cherry-pick the "better" players for traveling teams, the "better" to make the "better" players "better." They get it from people who politic to get certain players into certain high schools.

And then they get the burgeoning idea that they're special endorsed for them by hyperventilating media, newspapers listing the top 25 teams in the USA (who could possibly know?), and broadcasters who put high school kids on television. And that's before the fawning college recruiters even get started.

More than 200 media credentials were issued this month for a Tuesday night game between the Pirates and the Washington Nationals, two organizations who couldn't field a competent team between them. We were all there to watch Stephen Strasburg, who'd never thrown a pitch in a big league game.

From what I know, Strasburg has no inflated sense of entitlement, and that would be a small miracle, wouldn't it? Once you're deceptively entitled, through any of the usual channels, the notion of what you can get away with can get fairly twisted.

Pete Rose bet on baseball in large part because he loved the action, but in an equal part because he felt he'd never get caught. He was Pete Rose. "Do you know who I am?" Tiger Woods lined up mistresses because he enjoyed it, but just as much because he thought he could get away with it. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, all thought they were more important than the game itself due in great degree to this exact sense of entitlement.

I want it, therefore I shall have it, because I am special.

But you don't have to be a superstar to display the very same symptoms. At UCLA some years ago, nine football players pleaded no contest to fraudulent use of handicapped parking placards. They applied for them using made up maladies and phony physicians' names. In other words, the least-handicapped people on campus took the parking places of the severely disabled. When they were sentenced, those players were heckled by people in wheelchairs outside the Los Angeles courthouse.

Some of them even sat out a couple of games.

It just happens that Roger Abrams, the Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern University and an arbitrator for Major League Baseball for the last quarter century, put this point about as bluntly as possible in a recent post.

"There is no particular reason why athletes should get away with what otherwise would be criminal or civil offenses if we had engaged in the same activity. We value the social entertainment they provide in their play, and we are willing to pay some steep prices to watch them perform at their best. We elevate them to the status of role models because modern life seems to provide few persons worthy of emulation.

"That is our fault, not their fault.

"To change this sense of entitlement, we must alter our definitions. A star athlete is valued for his athletic prowess, not for his moral rectitude. We should teach our children to enjoy playing sports because they are fun and can be a healthy experience. They should learn while watching sports that the participants are not necessarily great people, but are simply great players."

Uh-huh. And not always even that.

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