Everyone makes mistakes, yes, but athletes sometimes seem to make them at a much higher rate than other people. At the same time, though, the punishments and backlash for these athletes' crimes and errors in judgment are often lighter than you might figure.
Look at Manny Ramirez and Ron Artest, two notable stars of their sports who have stared controversy in the face and lived to see the next pitch or tip-off. As fans, we're prone to forgive, though we rarely forget, because these players' contributions and abilities are what draws us to them, not their decisions. Moreover, in these cases, the players' antics - on the field, even - have made the stars more likable and worthy of cheering and recognition.
Our forgiving nature is troubling for some to accept. Apologies can feel trite rather than redemptive. We want to move on, hoping that our favorite players have learned from their mistakes and will curb their behavior. Yet, in the backs of our minds, we know that if it's not these players it'll inevitably be someone else who will bring us back to that difficult and disconcerting position. The names may change, but the conflicting emotions remain the same.
This environment where we, as fans, are expected to pardon virtually all failings and vices of sports celebrities is a dangerous one. Young athletes need to learn that they are culpable for what they do and say on and off the court. they must know that people are always watching. This is one way that the old Nike Air commercials and Charles Barkley got it wrong: They are role models. The question each athlete must ask is whether he or she is responsible and mature enough to step up to the plate.
Our expectations also must be reasonable. Athletes entering the sports world today have little training and understanding of how demanding their jobs can be. They must speedily adjust to how to conduct themselves at interviews and to carry themselves in other places. And to make peace with an industry of reporters who are paid to interview them, photograph them and to cover them as more than just outfielders and forwards.
That's why it was particularly striking for me when reigning baseball Most Valuable Player winner, Dustin Pedroia derided reporters for not intimately knowing enough about the sport to be worthy of writing stories. Although Pedroia's impressions unquestionably stem from his intensity and passion for the game, it's perhaps indicative of how athletes feel misunderstood or misrepresented by the media. In fact, not long ago to prevent possible public relations disasters, some imposed bans on players from speaking to reporters at all.
The cure, though, is not to muzzle athletes or to impose severe restrictions. Rather, it's to educate them earlier on. During apologies for infractions and indiscretions, athletes acknowledge lessons they've learned from the experience of being the story of the moment. They should learn these lessons, however, well before they've paid their price.
Teams and leagues have long employed marketing professionals to manage the players and to hopefully propel them to make better decisions. As you'd expect, it's worked on some players and failed with others. The ones who've fared well, I'd say, are those work at maintaining a good image. Taking a seminar in public relations helps awaken athletes, especially the leagues' stars, to the burdens of their jobs. It shouldn't only be during failed times that athletes shoulder the weight.
This is one of the ways that Lebron James has set himself apart. During his first six seasons, James has dazzled on the court and stayed out of trouble off of it. He's also worked to get a profitable business off the ground. It's the businessman that will be attending this weekend's Allen & Co.'s annual media mogulfest.
James will attend lectures and discussions geared toward learning how to broaden his market appeal. He seeks out knowledge and education that extends well beyond his jump shot and defensive assignments. While his company is what fuels his interest in this media gathering, James will listen to and take note of the successes of others. He understands that sports is not a world of its own, devoid of difficulties and consequences.
This time around Lebron is the witness in the audience looking to be impressed and entertained. He isn't taking it easy in the off-season, choosing instead to continue to work toward expanding his appeal and his empire. Now that's someone to cheer for.
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