The Culture of Entitlement in Sports
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”
The outrage was palpable after LeBron James uttered the following words during a one-hour cable special to announce his imminent signing with the Miami HEAT. While fans in Cleveland felt like they had taken a kick to their collective gut, the whole production didn’t sit well with most across the country.
Out of touch.
These where just a few of the words or phrases used to describe how people viewed LeBron after “The Decision.”
Thing is, we as a sports culture helped to create the very TV special that we claimed to hate so much. In other words, LeBron likely did not emerge from the womb as an arrogant human being. He was celebrated from such a young age that the people around him fostered a sense of entitlement in him.
This same sense of entitlement played a role in Lance Armstrong’s defiant lies that were finally exposed (at least officially) last week and is what allowed professional baseball players to tell blatant lies about the use of performance enhancing drugs when testifying before Congress.
There are of course people who are born with psychopathy, but the focus of today’s inquiry is the role we as a society play in creating antisocial, narcissistic and entitled athletes and not those who are born with such pathology.
I will never forget seeing LeBron play high school basketball on ESPN over a decade ago. This was like nothing I had ever seen. It seemed odd that such a young athlete (he was just 17 years old at the time) would be on national television. Something struck me as very uncomfortable about this even though his talent on the basketball court undoubtedly lived up to the billing. Of course, we now routinely see AAU games aired on national television.
LeBron was so good at basketball that he was rarely criticized because people wanted to ensure that they remained in his good graces knowing he was almost certainly destined for stardom. This might masquerade as support initially, but people that are truly supportive of a person will inevitably have to deliver difficult feedback that a young person does not want to hear. Too often “handlers” of good young athletes instead shelter them and tell them how great they are. This enables destructive behavior of which the true consequences are almost always hidden until years down the road. The AAU culture of young basketball players today can be especially problematic.
I can think of one professional athlete in particular with whom I spent a great deal of time around as he entered his 30’s. He often partied until the wee hours of the morning and had done so basically his entire career. His handlers helped cover up the trouble he got into and did so with incredible diligence and precision. Over the years, this became so commonplace that the athlete basically felt like he could do whatever he wanted. And in truth, that’s exactly what he did. As it became increasingly obvious that he was an alcoholic, his handlers continued to cover things up and deny that any problem existed. I fear that these handlers will still enable and cover things up for this athlete until the day he dies, likely well before his time.
What often happens when a retired athlete hits hard times is people call him an “idiot” for losing all of his money or not living his life in a different way. While the choices ultimately do fall at the feet of the athlete himself, it is hard for most people to imagine the existence of a superstar professional athlete.
Imagine for a minute a world where you had to do nothing on a day-to-day basis other than perform in your chosen sport. Someone else does your grocery shopping, manages your money, cleans your house, etc. When you go in for a workout your clothes and equipment are already laid out for you. When you’re done, you simply toss them in a laundry basket and go on your way. When you travel for road games, you don’t even pack your own bag.
This reminds me of a player who was once signed to a 10-day contract and was nervous before his first road trip because he didn’t have his bag packed. He kept trying to talk to the equipment manager and other folks to figure out what the protocol was for packing his bag as he had in the D-League. The equipment manager turned to young player and said with an agitated glance, “Look,” pointing to the superstar player to his left, “he packs a special toothbrush because he likes to make sure he has it. Everything else, we take care of. Shoes, socks, jerseys, suits… all taken care of.” I remember looking at the face of the young rookie as he tried to process all of this, obviously still nervous that something he needed would be left behind.
Juxtapose everything just described to the world of a retired athlete who suddenly has to navigate the world completely on his own. The handlers and posse who once seemed to love him so much are nowhere to be found. Now, all of his business is his own to handle and he hasn’t necessarily developed the skills to do it.
It would be one thing if the only person this sense of entitlement impacted was the athlete himself. However, it can also impact the community around him.
Imagine a world where you could also engage in nefarious behavior and have a team of people covering this up. While this obviously doesn’t transpire with every professional athlete, to act as though it doesn’t happen at all is to deny the truth. At its worst, this is the kind of behavior that allows athletes to potentially engage in behavior that hurts themselves and others.
Take the case in Steubenville, Ohio in which two high school football players have been charged with raping a 16-year-old girl who was reportedly too drunk to resist. People in the community, including other football players who knew something wrong had transpired, were too afraid to come forward. This is the kind of power sports now wields in some of our communities.
Ultimately, cases like these show that young people do not trust the adults around them to take the appropriate action. Said differently, young people suspect that adults will also kowtow to the power of the athletic establishment in a given community and perhaps even accuse them of lying about what they saw to protect the star athletes.
As a former high school and collegiate athlete, to see people accept this kind of athletic culture is appalling. During my time as an athlete, I saw it as a privilege and believed I had a responsibility to represent my community and family accordingly. I also saw the vast majority of my teammates adhering to the same standard. However, as young people we needed guidance, redirection and support. We needed the adults in our lives to step up and behave like adults as opposed to always telling us what we wanted to hear or enabling behavior that was unacceptable. I was fortunate to have parents and enough coaches in my life who did this.
When you think about it, if the worst thing LeBron James ever ends up doing is airing a one-hour special to announce where he’s going to play basketball, that’s really not a big deal. In fact, I would suggest he has done a fairly good job of navigating the sports culture that lifted him on a pedestal the height of which few of us could ever understand.
Perhaps one of my best friends who has worked in the NBA for decades said it best when I was speaking with him earlier this week as he left a college game he was scouting.
“This is so (messed) up,” he asserted. “I watch 18-year-old kids play basketball all day and get paid more money than most people in the world. Think about that. Just because a kid can dribble and shoot a ball he’s treated like a god. Makes no sense.”
At its simplest level, it is hard to disagree. And it is not only athletes. The same could be said about movie stars, musicians and various other entertainers.
You certainly won’t hear arguments from me about how much money these folks make. If the industry can generate it, pay them. However, with that money comes power. And with that power comes responsibility whether the athlete wants it or not.
The question in NBA circles is whether or not the adults in the room will act like adults when 19-year-old kids come into the league. In other words, is an organization more interested in “protecting” their players and willing to lie and “spin” or are they willing to do what’s in the best interest of the athlete and hold them accountable? Do organizations wish to enable their athletes or empower them?
Likewise, each of us needs to ask ourselves if we are part of the entitlement culture. Do we treat athletes at any level of competition like deities or as having special rights or privileges? If so, what impact might this have on our communities and the young people who are a part of our communities?
Sports have an important place in our culture. I know they have taught me many lessons that I likely couldn’t have learned in quite the same way elsewhere.
In essence, sports are a vehicle. That vehicle is not innately good or bad. It all depends on how we use it.
With what we’ve seen in the news just the last few weeks with Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and Steubenville, Ohio, I think it’s safe to say we can do a lot better.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.