Groundhog Day: Surprised Again By A Star Athlete’s Flaws

Jeff Pearlman’s book, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, was released yesterday. Payton played professional football for da’ Bears from 1975-1987. The Walter Payton Man of the Year award is given annually by the NFL honoring a player’s volunteer and charity work, as well as his excellence on the field. Prior to 1999, it was called simply the NFL Man of the Year Award. Shortly after Payton died from cancer in 1999 the award was renamed to honor his legacy as both a great player and a humanitarian.

A humanitarian who, according to Pearlman, was in a long-standing close relationship with another woman besides his wife (who insisted not only on attending his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, but sitting in the front row), was addicted to pain pills, and seriously contemplated suicide. Apparently Pearlman spends twenty to thirty of the four hundred pages on the unseemly underside of Payton’s private life.

Payton’s coach, Mike Ditka, is leading a backlash against Pearlman’s book. “I’d spit on him,” he said recently. “I have no respect for him.”

In which case I have no respect for Ditka who needs a primer on the first amendment.

Dan Patrick, my favorite sports media person, recently discussed the controversy engendered by the book. His question was, “Do you the fan want to know the truth about the athletes you follow?” Patrick said he did. Others on his show said they did not. Patrick went on to say the fans don’t realize athletes are human beings. Ordinary human beings, a mix of good and bad, like all of us.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they were more like us. If we limit the discussion to professional basketball and football players (versus professional marathoners, swimmers, or amateur athletes for instance) from the last decade or two, there’s ample legal evidence that their behavior, on average, is far worse than the ordinary human beings that pay to watch them play.

Why? Some possibilities:

1) If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the same is probably true for money. I suspect, especially in cases where someone grows up without any, mad money blows those teetering on the fence of adhering to society’s norms off onto the “laws don’t apply to me” side.

2) Public adulation is another wind blowing those teetering on the fence of society’s norms off onto the “laws don’t apply to me” side. The star professional athlete’s classic line when pulled over, “Don’t you know who I am?”

3) In the case of football at least, the more violent the player is on the field, the more successful. Maybe it’s hard, when the stadium and television lights are turned off, to throw the non-violent switch.

4A) Some athletes blow through their money while playing short careers, don’t have enough of an education to fall back on after retiring, and turn to the “informal” economy to get by. See Lenny Dykstra. 4B) Some suffer from public adulation withdrawal. The Dennis Rodman effect. They’re committed to staying in the public’s conscience even if they have to repeatedly get arrested to do so.

5) Sociology. You are the company you keep. Middle school students aren’t the only ones susceptible to negative peer pressure. Locker rooms no doubt have tipping points.

Of all people, Ditka should know that every athlete is a one-person public relations firm. There are lots of faithful, law-abiding professional athletes making worthwhile contributions to society off the field. Just not as large a percentage of the readers of this blog.