05/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sports Entitlement

A few blocks from my hotel here in Washington, Gilbert Arenas of the hometown Wizards was sentenced in the D.C. Superior Court to serve two years probation to begin with 30 days in a halfway house. D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert B. Morin also ordered Arenas to serve 400 hours of community service and pay a $5,000 contribution to a crime victim's fund. Arenas had pled guilty earlier this year to violating the district's gun laws by bringing four guns to the Verizon Center. He has already been suspended by the NBA for the remainder of the season in which he was to earn $16.2 million.

The real question in this case is why Mr. Arenas would think he could get away with this type of conduct. He thought it was a prank, but that is far from a justification. At times, young men (and, occasionally, young women) do not have a secure hold on reality. Blame it on hormones and macho demands for respect, but science tells us it is more than that. In fact, studies of the brain show that the prefrontal lobes of young adults are not yet fully matured. That is why when I teach Torts to my first-year law students, I suggest that there really can be no such thing as a "reasonably prudent 19-year-old male." Prudence has nothing to do with this lifestyle.

Arenas and other premier athletes face another challenge in dealing with reality. They are sports stars, and, as such, they enjoy a heightened sense of entitlement. For many of them, their entire sports lives have been a pampered experience. While enjoying the plaudits of the crowd, star athletes begin to believe they are special. It is true that they have special athletic talents, and have worked hard to develop them. However, they are not immune from the other strictures of life.

Pete Rose, another great modern tragic sports figure, explained that he gambled on baseball because he thought he would never get caught. That might also have been the excuse that Tiger Woods gave himself. Whether it is wine, women or song, athletes excuse their excesses based on a deep-seeded feeling that they are entitled to them. Normally, we accept their idiosyncrasies as part of the package. We see these men and women as larger than life. Remember how the Greeks invented a series of vices their gods were able to pursue on Olympus?

There is no particular reason why athletes should get away with what otherwise would be criminal or civil offenses if we had engaged in the same activity. We value the social entertainment they provide in their sports play, and we are willing to pay some steep prices to watch them perform at their best. We elevate them to the status of role models because modern life seems to provide few persons worthy of emulation. That is our fault, not their fault.

We should be able to divide up the lives of sports stars performing on the field or court from pampered athletes in the tabloids. Our almost insatiable need for gossip, however, makes the distinction difficult to draw. Just watch the oogling masses. We take their private lives and make them public. We buy the products they endorse because they endorse them. We make them our heroes.

No wonder these young men think they are the masters of the universe. They also know that their status as stars is short-lived. The average career of a professional athlete in the four major team sports is about four years. While some have much longer stays in the public limelight, for most the end is just a twist of their ankles away.

To change this sense of entitlement, we must alter our definitions. A star athlete is valued for his athletic prowess, not for his moral rectitude. We should teach our children to enjoy playing sports because they are fun and can be a healthy experience. They should learn while watching sports that the participants are not necessarily great people, but are simply great players.