Exploring The Mind of The Professional Athlete-Why They Get In Trouble

Rae Carruth, Plaxico Burress, Jayson Williams, Oscar Pistorius, Josh Brent, Aaron Hernandez, Mike Danton, Dany Heatley, Lenny Dykstra, Dwight Gooden, Ugueth Urbina, Darryl Strawberry. The list goes on and on. What do these men all have in common? They were all professional athletes who were arrested for either driving drunk, drug possession, murder, attempted/conspiracy to commit murder, obstruction of justice or tax evasion.

So, the question is why? What is going on that is making these men, who are supposed to be role models, have total disregard for the law, themselves, and others?

Why They Get In Trouble

They say money is the root of all evil. In the case of athletes, especially young athletes, they may be right. If you are a star college athlete, and you are about to be drafted 1st or 2nd overall in the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL draft, you know money is coming your way. The number 2 pick in this year’s NFL draft Luke Joeckel, received a 4 year contract worth a fully guaranteed $21.2 million.  Before he even steps on the field Joeckel is getting $5.3M for this upcoming season.  Even if you take away half in his agent’s cut and taxes, that still leaves him with $2.65M.

Why do they get in trouble? Because of one word; temptation. This isn’t the 1950′s when farm boy Mickey Mantle from Oklahoma was grateful  to be a Yankee and was paid $7,500 for the season. According to DollarTimes.com, Mantle’s 1951 salary would equal $68,880 in today’s dollars. Not a bad salary, but certainly not the salary of a superstar. Most players those days played baseball and then went back home and took a second job during the offseason. Their pay for their sports job was not enough money to support the player, or often times the player’s family. If you want to look at it a different way, a $5M salary for a player in 2013 would have meant that in 1951 the player was earning $544,423. That simply was not happening. It is actually 7.25x what Mantle made. This kind of pay did not happen for decades to come.

With the way professional athletes are paid today, they can get anything they want. They are paid such an extraordinary amount of money that nothing is an issue for them. They have fancy cars, they have mansions in different cities, they have a girl on each arm. Basically, they are not used to being told no. At this point, if they are told no, they can go somewhere else where they are told yes.

I think it has a lot to do with upbringing and where these athletes grow up. In the NFL, MLB and NBA, a lot of these players come from inner cities, poor countries or bad neighborhoods in big cities. Of course, that is not every single athlete, but that is the case in a lot of respects. In any sport, if these kids show some sort of elite athletic talent, every effort is going to be made to make sure they can use it to go to college and possibly the pros.

But therein lies the problem. College can be a wonderful experience for people. It really allows people to grow as human beings and learn about themselves as they prepare for real life.  Unfortunately, when it comes to athletes, that isn’t always the case. In most instances, these guys are skating by based on talent. If you truly believe that they are there to learn and take tests and pass classes, you are sadly mistaken. These guys are there for one reason. To advance their athletic careers and spend as much time focusing on that as possible. That, in my opinion, is what can lead to issues. While other students are “living the college life”, these athletes are focused solely on advancing their careers. After all, a huge paycheck and a lavish lifestyle await. Who wouldn’t want that? But, it can come at a price. While we are off “growing up”, they are trying to get out of college as soon as possible, so they can start to live the high life.

As far as where the players grow up and how they are raised, well that’s something that really is an individual thing. I can’t tell you about the background of Luke Joeckel or anyone else for that matter, we only know of what we read. What I can tell you is that there is an alarming epidemic of professional athletes who are getting in trouble with the law. Just yesterday, Aaron Hernandez and a LB from the Browns were both arrested on murder related charges.  A few months ago it was Oscar Pistorius who killed his girlfriend.

A lot of people say that we are being too tough on these guys and they just represent a small segment of the population, where a certain percentage will get in trouble. Is that true? Are we being too hard on professional athletes? Are we holding them to a higher standard because of their athletic prowess? It’s entirely possible that we put them in the unenviable hero position and they cannot live up to it.

Charles Barkley once said that he “wasn’t paid to be a role model. ” While that’s true, it still happens. Kids need someone to look up to, and unless your name is Alex P. Keaton, it’s likely going to be a sports star. Who didn’t want to be Michael Jordan when they were younger? What New York kid did not want to Don Mattingly or Keith Hernandez, or in my case worship Mike Bossy. Every kid dreams big. They may not be paid to be a role model, but they sure are expected to be one.

The perfect case is Derek Jeter vs Alex Rodriguez. They were the best of friends. Inseparable. They both were rising superstars at the same position and had the world at their feet. But, sometimes that dirty word seeps in and ruins everything; greed. Just like the player with $50M contract who cannot control himself and acts like the King of the World, Rodriguez could not keep his ego in check. He told Esquire magazine in 2001:

“Jeter’s been blessed with great talent around him,” Alex says. “He’s never had to lead. He can just go and play and have fun. And he hits second–that’s totally different than third and fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie and O’Neill. You never say, Don’t let Derek beat you. He’s never your concern.”

When that article came out, the rift between the 2 was permanent. It started just off the field, as the 2 were never close again, and have not been to this day.  But, like many before him, Rodriguez could not be content with who he was and what he was doing. There is a difference between striving for excellence and letting it overcome you. That is what happened to Rodriguez. Although he was a highly touted player, and very much regarded as the best in the game, the pressure to excel and his personal belief that he could never live up to the ridiculous amount of money he was making, was uncontainable. It led to him taking Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), having a very high opinion of himself as an obvious defense mechanism and left his reputation, and a very promising career, in tatters. He is a shell of his former self.

That is another thing that young athletes face; the pressure to excel on a consistent basis.  Sometimes that pressure to live up to role model status can be overwhelming. For every Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, there is a Len Bias, or there is a Brien Taylor, or even a Ryan Leaf. These guys who were supposed to be the next best thing and just couldn’t handle the big time.

With Len Bias, it was drugs. With Brien Taylor, it was a fight defending his brother in which he tore his labrum and capsule in his shoulder. With Ryan Leaf, it was his temper and inability to perform, eventually landing him in legal trouble.

Why Hockey Is Different

Look at the backgrounds of most players in every sport. Hockey seems to stand out above the rest. Why? Most players in the NHL are from the Northeast of the US, the prairies of Canada, or countries in Europe. Of course, I am just making a generalization here, there are plenty of players from plenty of places, just talking majority.

In addition, with the sport of hockey, there are very few players who get involved during high school or later. If you are going to make it to the NHL, odds are  you started playing when you were 5 or 6, or even younger. Football, Baseball, Basketball…in all of these sports there are some players who took it up later in their childhood, or some not until high school. In fact, Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers, never played football in college. He played basketball, and signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent.

Hockey seems to be different in that respect. There are always going to be exceptions to every rule of course, but most of these players are living and breathing the sport from the moment they were able to walk.

In fact, remember what you were doing at 18? For 259 young men, it was playing in the NHL.  Although hockey is not the only sport to have 18 year olds playing, no 18 year old in any sport has put up numbers like these guys. Here’s some stats for you to chew on about famous 18 year olds in the NHL:

  • Wayne Gretzky-1979-80. 79 Games Played, 51 Goals, 86 Assists
  • Dale Hawerchuk-1981-82. 80 Games Played, 45 Goals, 58 Asissts
  • Sidney Crosby 2005-06. 81 Games Played, 39 Goals, 63 Assists
  • Steve Yzerman 1983-84. 80 Games Played, 39 Goals, 48 Assists

Amazing stats at any age, not to mention at 18.

As you may have noticed, the game of hockey has far less “troublemakers”, than other sports. It probably has a lot to do with upbringing and dedication. As with any sport, there are always going to be true talents. Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, those players didn’t just become excellent due to constant practice. Of course, that helps, but when you got it, you got it. For others it really takes a lot more to make it to the pros.  Not to say that other sports don’t require dedication, but there are NFL and NBA players who didn’t play until HS or even college. That doesn’t fly in the NHL.

With so many young players in the league, there is sort of a camaraderie that forms. If an 18 year old is playing, they are either the elitist of the elite, or the team is rebuilding. It’s most likely the latter. At 18, they really are just so pleased to be there that they aren’t likely to go out partying. Many of these kids came straight from Juniors and are just really learning what it’s like to be part of the big club. Not everyone is going to score 137 points at 18, but being part of this kind of experience can really help a young player develop and mature.

In hockey especially, veterans usually take younger kids under their wing. For example, when John Tavares first came to the New York Islanders, he was taken in by team captain Doug Weight and his family. That is the kind of thing that happens in hockey. That is what makes the sport unique.

Hockey players are used to being away from home, it starts at a young age. Often times the kids who want to advance to play professionally have to play midget and junior hockey hundreds, if not thousands of miles from home. They usually get to stay with a host family, or billet as they are called. The player stays with this family, and the team pays them a small stipend for his expenses etc. The kid gets to stay with them and is treated like a member of the family. This is something that is very unique to the game of hockey. It could also be why you don’t see a lot of hockey players in trouble with the law. They are able to stay grounded from the time they are young.

Troublemakers

Every sport has its ups and downs and its good players and bad. Hockey is no exception. There have been some extraordinarily awful things that players in the NHL have done off the ice.

Dany Heatley

Although Dany Heatley was not a goon, or a tough guy, he fell victim to the typical “athlete’s curse”. The same thing happens to Hollywood celebrities. They have too much money and too much freedom and it just gets to their head and they can’t seem to deal with it.

In late September, 2003 Heatley was driving in his Ferrari with his friend and teammate Dan Snyder. He was in a residential neighborhood in Atlanta driving 90 MPH, about 2x the speed limit, when he lost control and hit a brick pillar and an iron fence.

Heatley suffered a broken jaw, a minor concussion, a bruised lung and kidney in the accident. He also had surgery to repair a torn MCL and ACL as well as a damaged lateral meniscus in his right knee.

Snyder was not so lucky. He sustained a fractured skull and never regained consciousness. He died 6 days after the accident. Heatley was charged with Vehicular Manslaughter, but due to the wishes of the Snyder family he was sentenced to 3 years probation and community service. He had to do at least 150 speeches on why speeding is bad.


Bob Probert

When you hear the name Bob Probert, you think of one thing-fighting. Probert was best known as an enforcer for the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. He actually did score 20 goals twice, including a 29 goal campaign in 1987-88. That was the same season Probert rang up an astonishing 398 minutes in penalties; good for 6th most all-time.

Unfortunately for all the enforcing he did on the ice, Probert could not adhere to the same principles off the ice. He was arrested in 1989 for trying to smuggle cocaine over the Canadian border. He was found to have 14 grams of the drug on him and was eventually sentenced to 3 months in prison and 3 months in a halfway house.  He was also indefinitely suspended from the NHL, which was lifted after his prison sentence was completed.

His troubles did not end there however. He was arrested again in 1994 when his motorcycle ran into the back of a car. He was found to have triple the legal limit of alcohol in his system, as well as a trace amount of cocaine. He was again suspended from the NHL, this time missing the entire 1994-95 campaign.

Probert was arrested yet again in 2004 and twice more in 2005. It seemed he had finally cleaned up his life when he died of a sudden heart attack while boating with family in 2010.  He was just 45 years old.

Conclusion

No matter the sport, no matter the team, there is a terrible epidemic in sports these days; the athlete that feels money can make you invincible.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are definitely great role models out there. But, for every Wayne Gretzky and Derek Jeter, there is an Aaron Hernandez or an Oscar Pistorius.

There really is no way to stop this from happening unless athletes learn from their predecessors. The thug factor and the troublemakers may never be completely eradicated, but the only thing that can help is education.

As George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

 

-EB

Tags: Aaron Hernandez Alex Rodriguez Athletes Bob Probert Dany Heatley Murder

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