Domestic violence, DUIs, gun charges, and dog fighting rings. It’s like the matching game for American athletes: Which athlete perpetrated which crime? It has become so common for athletes to get in trouble with the law that Saturday Night Live recently spoofed NFL game intros to magnify this fact.
But why are athletes and crime so intertwined? Certainly there are many reasons: Too much money, too much fame, too few consequences, and too many people willing to help them get out of trouble, just to name several. However, I’d argue that arrogance and entitlement are key factors that our culture teaches and feeds to talented athletes from a very young age.
Entitlement at Every Level
To preface: I was an athlete in a family of athletes who chose to go into a field full of athletes. I love sports and love the positive lessons that athletics can teach people, such as perseverance, toughness, and teamwork.
But I’ve also been privy to conversations and assumptions that reach far beyond the positive characteristics of sports. For example:
- In high school, I vividly remember athletes talking about how teachers would agree to give them passing grades on tests and projects because they were “in season,” and if they didn’t pass, they couldn’t play.
- In college, my boyfriend’s baseball teammates assumed I would let them cheat off me in class because “I was too tired to study last night because of my game.” (I didn’t let them cheat.)
- In my first professional position, I worked at a gym frequented by former Dallas Cowboys – one of them, who was married, repeatedly told me he wanted to “hang out,” and would be happy to foot my bill to Los Angeles to “hang out” away from his wife. (It didn’t happen.)
- In a later professional position, when I requested that the athletes follow the same rules as the general student population to gain access to the fitness facility, I had them balk, show me their national championship rings, and blatantly ignore my requests. It wasn’t until I talked to the coaches and received their support that my requests were respected.
Truthfully, these are minor offenses, but they speak to a greater problem: Athletes are used to getting special treatment, and are used to getting their way. What starts as something small (“Oh, of course I’ll pass you, Johnny, I wouldn’t want to be the one to prevent you from landing that scholarship”) often becomes something bigger (“Oh, of course I’ll let you off with a warning this time, I wouldn’t want to keep you from playing this weekend – I’d love to see State beat University this year”).
Eventually, special treatment seems like the norm – everyone’s there to bend over backwards for athletes, to help them get out of a tight spot, to brush problems under the rug. Entitlement is learned, and arrogance follows shortly thereafter.
When an athlete eventually creates a problem too big to be ignored – such as Ray Rice’s elevator incident of domestic violence, Aaron Hernandez’ triple homicide indictment, or Michael Vick’s dog-fighting ring – not only is he or she surprised that there’s accountability to be paid, but there is often no true understanding that a wrong was done.
Rehab for Rehab, or Rehab as a PR Mechanism
In some cases, athletes seek out rehab to address a problem – for example, Tiger Woods sought sex therapy, and Michael Phelps is seeking treatment for alcohol abuse. However, it can be tough to tell whether the treatment pursued is sincere, or if it’s a publicity stunt to mask the true feelings (“Whoops, I got caught this time – rehab’s a great way to shine up a tarnished reputation”) with no real intent to change.
Either way, I’m not knocking rehab. Sometimes it takes going through rehab to actually identify and address the problems that led to the treatment in the first place. However, I am strongly against the culture of entitlement that Americans have created around athletes, because, in many instances, one or more stints of rehab can’t undo a lifetime of learning that there aren’t consequences for your actions.
Anyone at the top of his or her field should be revered for stellar accomplishments, whether athletic or otherwise, but no one should be put on such a pedestal that he or she isn’t taught to respect rules, standards, and requirements. Athletes in middle school, high school, and college shouldn’t be given passing grades without earning them. Athletes who experience run-ins with the law at a young age shouldn’t be let off with a warning, simply to preserve a “right” to play. And athletes at any level shouldn’t be given the impression that they’re untouchable.
There’s so much good that comes from athletics and sports participation, and there are so many truly amazing athletes who have stellar characters to match their stellar skills. What saddens me is that bad behavior and crime are so prevalent in sports that they’re now practically considered the norm. While athletes need to be held accountable for their actions (whether through rehab or jail), there’s a larger, cultural change that needs to take place. We need to stop treating athletes like gods and start teaching them that their on-field performance doesn’t mean they can get away with murder off the field – both literally and figuratively.
What do you think – does entitlement contribute to the culture of crime in sports?
Laura Marks is based is Austin, TX and writes about pop culture, sports, health, and fitness.