In Defense of Athletes

Clint Irwin, Toronto FC goalkeeper

Some athletes have done some bad things recently so resident athlete-expert Buzz Bissinger wrote some thoughts down that someone at the New York Times deemed worthy enough for publication. Let’s take a look. 

SEVERAL years ago, in the course of writing a book, I spent a season with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. For much of that time I was in the cloister of the clubhouse, even when it was off limits to other journalists. And I can say with full authority that they are called clubhouses for a reason, because they are clubs, among the most exclusive in the world, right alongside the United States Senate.

And right alongside the book writers club and the off-limits-to-journalists club, and the New York Times Opinion Section club because those are just completely open and not exclusive at all.

Senators at least engage with the real world, or make the gesture. In too many clubhouses…there is not even the pretense of such engagement.

Right, playing in front of thousands of real world people, for their pleasure, is not engagement. Neither are community appearances. Or charity work. Or signing autographs. Or flying coach (at least for us in MLS). 

It’s not that I saw anything untoward in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, except perhaps for a left-handed relief pitcher who liked to lounge around in the nude. But the devil is always in the details, and time and again I was struck by the cocoon of insularity and extreme pampering, 

So, there was nothing “untoward” but the “devil is always in the details?” You mean the details you’re searching for underneath the nude, lounging relief pitcher? Here we get the classic sports pundit assertion walk back. The “I’m not saying, I’m just saying,” hot take that’s become de rigeur for the talking heads that dominate the sports discourse. If you’re going to go all in on athletes, don’t give us this faux-high minded, even handedness. It’s patronizing, not to your readers, but to us athletes, who you probably didn’t think were smart enough to detect it. 

…on the field of real life, the athlete rarely faces similar accountability. 

No one holds us accountable. We are unaccountable to the real world. We don’t pay our bills. We run red lights because we can.  I just took out the trash because I am unable to face accountability. We are oblivious to human kind.

I would imagine that all those real world people would be held accountable for purchasing a $22,000 coat

Issues that most of us deal with every day, whether it’s making a living or worrying about Ebola, have no place in the athletic realm…

Guess what? We deal with making a living pretty much every day. Just like you. And if you’re seriously worried about contracting Ebola, you have no place in the serious writing realm.

…except when a public-relations staffer thinks it would be a good idea for a player to speak out about it. If it doesn’t have to do with the sport the athlete plays, then it does not matter.

The reality of media interactions remains, that reporters rarely ask athletes their thoughts on anything outside of sports. I’d be happy to opine on how to confront the threat of ISIS (as big a threat to American life as Ebola, if you were wondering), but no reporter has asked, “Talk about the threat of ISIS.” That’s not a question either, that’s a command. So yeah, you in the media have a part to play in this whole speaking out thing. 

I look forward to Peyton Manning’s press conference on Ebola.

Televisions were dispersed in various ceiling corners; on all the time, they never once were tuned in to anything except sporting events. CNN didn’t exist. “Talk of the Nation” didn’t exist. The nightly news didn’t exist.

“Talk of the Nation” was cancelled, presumably held to real world accountability.  Are you really suggesting we watch CNN? 

Sports are on the televisions in the clubhouse because it’s our job. We’re interested in it. We’re interested in what our competition is doing. We’re keeping ourselves abreast of happenings in our industry. Almost like watching CNN. 

Then there’s the gum... But God forbid the players be expected to exert the effort to actually unwrap a pack of Doublemint themselves. Instead clubhouse attendants once again came to the rescue, meticulously unwrapping several packs and placing individual sticks, still in their silver foil, in a basket.

I agree, this is stupid. 

True, the clubhouse of a major-league baseball team is a far cry from a high school locker room, even at a championship school like Sayreville. It is highly doubtful that packs of gum are individually unwrapped in most clubhouses and locker rooms.

Buzz! You’re doing that thing again. That thing where you assert something that sticks in the readers’ head, a vivid image, then walk it back with a measured “highly doubtful” (but still possible enough to mention it). 

But having covered sports at all levels for four decades, I see more similarities than differences. Too many of them, at every level, promote the same atmosphere of willful ignorance, the outside world seen not only as distraction but impediment to the task of winning.

It’s not willful ignorance. In athlete-speak, it’s called “focus.” As soon as an athlete expresses interest in outside interests, and performance drops, those interests are deemed “distractions.” Why talk about these noble interests, when it’s just used as a stick to beat you with?

Athletes are not stupid. The demands of playbook study and video analysis are complex. But the nature of sports demands intellectual submission. Athletes at high echelons are dependent on authoritarianism. Many accept the trade-off: To win, you should learn only what coaches want you to learn, and the prevailing attitude is that the less you know about the outside, the more successful you will be on the playing field.

I almost thought for a second that “willful ignorance” was a euphemism for “stupid,” but I’m glad Buzz put things right. And for the record, no coach in any sport at any level has told me to only learn what he wants me to learn. Ever expanding knowledge has never been seen as a threat to winning in anybody’s eyes.  Submission to authoritarianism is, like in most workplaces, a way to keep your job. 

Coaches and adults dictate, but they also protect. Sadly, and too often with tragic repercussions, athletes don’t distinguish right from wrong because they actually have no idea of what is right and what is wrong. Rules don’t apply. Acceptable standards of behavior don’t apply. Little infractions become bigger ones, and adults turn a blind eye. If someone gets into trouble, the first move is for an authority figure, usually in the form of a coach, to get them out of it.

Let me get this right. We’re blaming athletes for not punishing themselves. The offence rests with the athlete, yes, but blaming them for not disciplining themselves seems a bit backward. Maybe the “authority figures” should get a little bit better at applying appropriate discipline

It would be nice to say that any of this can be changed easily. The excesses of sports are now being examined with greater scrutiny than ever before. But much of it is still wink-and-nod lip service. For every statement of outrage made by an ESPN commentator about the culture of abuse in professional football, you can hear the ka-ching of the cash register as the networks score another megaton deal to televise more college football. 

All of this, coming from a guy who’s book and subsequent TV series, “Friday Night Lights,” rode the football money train to amounts that allowed him to spend upwards of $600,000 on expensive clothing.  That ‘ka-ching’ sounds like designer leather rubbing together. Funny how no one ever talks about the “excesses of superstar journalism.”

It is in vogue now to blame and condemn athletes. 

Thanks Buzz, for bucking the trend. 

They should be held accountable for their behavior. Too many of them may be monsters. But we are just as culpable, allowing them to exist in a realm all their own and not caring a bit about what we have turned them into — as long as they bring us victory.

Yes athletes have problems, but not because they are coddled or insulated from real world issues. No, these problems are the same problems that everyone in society grapples with.  In the NFL, these problems are below the national average.

Athletes are easy, high-profile targets for the type of weak punditry that characterizes our debates these days, the type that Buzz nails here. Bissinger dabbles in that time-honored columnist practice of decrying things that are universally disagreeable. "Athletes should be held responsible for their actions! Communities shouldn't turn a blind eye to people doing bad things! We live in a culture of excess! There's too much money in some parts of society!" To broadly paint all athletes in the way Buzz has, well, that demanded a response.