Off-field conduct reveals the pitfalls of professional athlete glorification

For the lovers of Boston sports, it has largely been a summer to forget. Fans of the Boston Celtics and New England Patriots have been exposed to depressing news atop of depressing news, ranging from nagging injuries to the departures of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and the void left by Wes Welker’s move to the Mile High. The shroud of invincibility that once encircled the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick duo has floundered, while the culture of grit and toughness once on display at the TD Garden has now completely faded from view.

The Patriots won’t be as mighty, while the Celtics will hardly be relevant.

But nothing trumps the behavioral issues that have plagued too many a Boston-based professional athlete. Jared Sullinger, a promising young power forward, faces assault and battery charges. Alfonzo Dennard, a promising young cornerback, was arrested in July for drinking and driving while on probation. And then there was Aaron Hernandez, the promising tight end who is now linked to multiple murders (and apparent drug abuse).

Three relatively big-name players have gone from youths with sparkling on-the-field potential to youths with serious off-the-field dilemmas. Sullinger was supposed to be a high-character individual with a boyish demeanor, much more likely to watch cartoons than threaten his girlfriend. Dennard’s legal problems were supposed to be behind him, somewhere in the rearview. Hernandez was supposed to be a talented pass-catcher with some swagger and a chip on his shoulder, nothing more. And then the summer of 2013 happened.

From promise to prison, or something like that.

I guess that in anything there’s a lesson to be learned, even if the circumstances are far from optimal. Sure, it shows once again that nobody’s too famous or wealthy or powerful to fail.  Anyone can fall, even if he’s one of the most explosive offensive talents in the National Football League. If he’s up really high, then the fall just takes that much longer. We love searching for the “rags to riches” storylines, while “riches to rags” is just as real and far more chilling.

But, my takeaway is this: the cases of Sullinger, Dennard and Hernandez should be wake-up calls to all of those youths who idolize the professional athlete because of his physical ability and idealize his character solely because he’s in the public eye. The failings of those three should open the eyes of the young sports fan, who consumes the athlete’s positive qualities and ignores the rest. Athletes, like everybody else, are far from perfect. Very far. Some of them are farther than others, and I’m not saying that every single athlete is just another Aaron Hernandez or Jared Sullinger – most are law-abiding citizens with few character flaws.

I’m just pointing out that athletes, and professional sports in general, blind us from the uglier things. Aaron Hernandez was brilliant in the open field; he was talented not because Tom Brady made him that way (even though it doesn’t hurt to have him throwing you the ball), but because yards after catch came like second nature to him. He would catch the ball near the line of scrimmage with seemingly very few options, but a juke here and a spin there would propel him to a big gain. From almost nothing to something.  Tricky maneuvers earned him five extra yards, ten yards, twenty yards.

And not only was Hernandez brilliant at picking up additional yardage, but Bostonians loved him for it—I certainly perked up whenever he caught the ball with a little bit of space to do his thing. My high school friends marveled at Hernandez’s quick cuts, good hands and high-spirited touchdown celebrations. Athletes like that don’t come around very often. The gracefulness of their movements makes them seem like deities on the playing field—they’re larger than life, majestic, heroic. So, we forget about the demons that evade our line of sight. The troubles that haunt them aren’t visible to us on a Sunday afternoon in Gillette Stadium. Aaron Hernandez was a disturbed human being, filled with insecurities and plagued by vice – we knew that three years ago, before this summer. But I didn’t pay attention to that. We didn’t care because the touchdowns trumped all. His time in court – along with Sullinger’s and Dennard’s – should be a time of enlightenment, when all of those sports fans who revered the athlete are now exposed to the criminal. Again, by no means are the aforementioned three representative of professional sports as a whole, but that does not mean that there isn’t a lesson to be learned. We should strive for more by looking elsewhere for role models. Charles Barkley came across abrasively when he contested his status as a role model for the younger generations, but he is right in a way. The professional athlete is too flawed and too prone to failure. There are much better alternatives out there. The Martin Luther Kings of the world, the Mother Teresas and the Mahatma Gandhis. Sometimes, even our own parents – they teach us and they love us, and we would be wiser to listen to them. Let the football players break free and score touchdowns. Let the basketball players run, jump, and slide. Let them stick to that stuff. We can control what role models we pick. And we can start by looking at a better batch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.