The responsibility of sporting greatness  //  How much do we expect from our sporting heroes?

04 Apr 2009 Posted by

We are avid readers at The Science of Sport, and as is often the case our reading material provides inspiration for posts. So today we will have a look at the “Social Science of Sport” because I have just finished “A People’s History of Sports in the United States,” by Dave Zirin. It takes the format of the “People’s History of. . .” books, mostly by Howard Zinn. Zirin’s book is a pretty fast read and encompasses all the sports and many different aspects of them over the last few hundred years in the USA.

Much of the section on the 20th century examines how athletes, especially those of color, had to choose whether of not to be part of the struggle for civil rights. For many of the great non-white athletes it was very much a case of choosing sides, because there was very real pressure for them to take the up the struggle and promote the cause of civil rights. Failure to do so often brought criticism from civil rights leaders and advocates because the athletes had most certainly been on the receiving end of discrimination as they made their way up to the professional ranks.

The athletes had a fine line to walk, though, because their livelihood as an athlete could just as easily be taken away if they were seen to be too vocal about the fact the their league was not hiring more non-white athletes. So it was a catch 22 as they had to decide either to stand up and be vocal about discrimination and hiring practices, yet risk their own job, or quietly play ball but be criticized for not taking more advantage of their position of prominence in society. Adding to their difficulties was the fact that, were they to be released by their sport, the chances of them getting a job doing anything meaningful were slim—this was in the height of discrimination in America, so there were no coaching jobs after retirement, no cushy commentating positions offered by the networks.

So we have a tendency to expect more from our sporting heroes, be it more performance on the field or more social responsibility. Presently those expectations are probably as high as ever because the athletes earn incredible amounts of money both from salaries and endorsement deals, and so we expect them to do something more since deep down it probably seems ridiculous to us that a person can earn 10+ million a year for throwing/catching/kicking a ball around a field or court!

What’s an athlete to do?

One thing the high-paid athletes can do is take up a cause and try to give back to some community somewhere, be it their own neighborhood where they grew up, or a foundation for a disease that effects one of their family members, or something else entirely. It is kind of like an opinion I heard on nepotism once: everyone knows you got the job because your dad owns the company, but the one thing you can do is work your butt off to show people you deserve to be there. The parallel in sports is for athletes to take up charitable causes, and as such we see athletes who endorse things like the Big Brothers/Sisters program, and lend their name and image to other public service announcements. One interesting part of the book was how Zirin pointed out that one particular athlete has so much yet did so little with it socially. It might surprise you know that the athlete is Michael Jordan. His airness did not take up the mantle of any cause in spite of earning over $30 million per year in salary alone during his last two years in the NBA.

A present-day case in point is of course Lance Armstrong and his Lance Armstrong Foundation. Few can argue against his contributions to the fight against cancer, and even fewer can argue that any other athlete has done more for a given cause. The really interesting thing about this, however—-and this is where the Social Science of Sport intersects with The Science of Sport—-is that many fans will say, “Who cares if he is doped? Look at what he has done for cancer! Look at the hope he gives to all cancer patients!” Indeed they are right, he has inspired hope and raised awareness, but if you buy into this argument then you must agree that the ends justify the means, and therefore he (or any athlete) may have cheated their way to the top of their sport, but so long as they give back tremendously in some way, shape, or form, it makes it ok to have done so.

Mixing sports, life, and politics

The bigger picture here is that we do not see our sporting heroes in the same light as we see our colleague in the cubicle next door—-they are not just other people doing their job and living their lives. Somehow we expect more from them on all fronts, and hence the debates that will rage about how much or how little athletes give back, and how they might have achieved their fame that allowed them to give back so much in the first place. Even more interesting is that we do not apply these standards to all top athletes. The one that comes to mind now is Barry Bonds, a sure bet for the hall of fame and current holder of the home run record, or even Mark McGwire, also a hero in his day. These figures have gone quietly away and we do not seem upset that in spite of their multi-million dollar salaries they give nothing back.

So if you are looking for a new book and a quick read, I really recommend Zirin’s book. It provides a great view of history in the US as viewed thru a sporting lens. In the mean time we will try to recover from a dismally slow month here on the site. It was inevitable, but alas, the call of our real jobs plus other work and the “normal” commitments of life (work, family, fatherhood, friends) call, and they compete for time spent posting here. But marathon season is upon us, and you can be sure we will be tuning in to see how the big city races and their epic fields unfold!

Jonathan

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