I graduated from a university famous for its basketball team. The star player was in my art class. At least he was theoretically in my art class. He showed up a few times during the semester sans homework. When the professor reprimanded him about his performance in her class, he responded with a bored, I’m-too-important-for-this look on his face.
And it was true; he was too important for art class because it didn’t matter if he failed. He, the team, and the university’s celebrity coach, brought glamour, fame and buckets of money into the school, so they were untouchable.
It was well-known that the coach — therefore the school — paid for the players’ sports cars, hookers, and trips to Vegas. They received full athletic scholarships and guaranteed graduation from one of the most prestigious schools in the country regardless of their GPA while the rest of us had to actually earn our degrees.
I found this so abhorrent that I attended only one basketball game during my undergraduate years. Many moons later, my philosophical objection to enabling the excesses of professional athletes is so deeply entrenched that I have little interest in any televised sport.
Which brings me to Lance Armstrong.
His Oprah-fueled admission to doping, after years of fervent denial, has outraged the public so much that he is being stripped the vestiges of his fame: Tour de France titles, lucrative sponsorships, and his association with Livestrong, the cancer foundation he started.
His admission seems to have shocked the public. But why? Why did anyone believe that one person could win seven Tour de France titles without synthetic aid? Especially after recovering from cancer?
Why did corporate sponsors continue to throw money at him when it was a not-so-well-kept secret in the cycling world that most of the cyclists were doping? And that Armstrong was lying? And that he was using his klout to threaten the careers of any colleague who grew weary of colluding with him?
Clearly news networks, sports networks, and corporate sponsors didn’t want to lose their cash cow. But by enabling the dark side of Professional Athlete Privilege, Sports Culture gave Armstrong full license to act like a sociopath. I certainly don’t mean to say that Armstrong isn’t accountable for his actions. What I am saying is that the athlete-idolizing public is accountable as well.
The Price of Enabling Professional Athlete Privilege
Personally, I think we should legalize doping in professional sports. If everyone gets to dope, no one needs to lie. Either that or we need to recognize there is a limit to what the human body can do and not require athletes to be superheroes.
Enabling Armstrong, and other professional athletes, is bad for our culture. It fuels narcissism and ethical misconduct. It teaches children that cheating, lying, and bullying are perfectly acceptable behaviors for gifted athletes, and, hey, wouldn’t it be swell to grow up to be a rich and famous athlete who doesn’t have to follow pesky rules?
As a parent, I find this message deeply troubling. How do I teach my kids about ethics and empathy when the Lance Armstrongs of the world prove that jettisoning scruples is an easy way to get ahead? Why should children listen to anti-bullying messages when they hear stories of athletes and CEOs terrorizing underlings to get their way?
My kids will grow up to inherit wealth from their dad’s family. Despite my ambivalence around inherited wealth, I must admit that I am relieved to know that they will always have what they need.
But if they weren’t going to inherit money, and I knew they would have to depend on increasingly quaint notions like ethics and hard work to be successful, I would be worried about their futures. Because children who won’t grow up to be insanely athletic, brilliant, rich, or connected, but WILL grow up to be principled adults who want to work hard are no longer ensured of even a middle-class lifestyle.
And THAT is why we need to stop enabling professional athletes, and all those who use their privilege to trample the rules. Because the fate of most children in this country depends on it.