THE BLOG

Kettles, Frogs and Plumb Lines

09/16/2013 01:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013
  • Tim Elmore Founder and President of Growing Leaders, Best-Selling Author

Football season is upon us -- enticing us to look forward to weekends and providing us a great chance to evaluate our work with young athletes.

The last few months represented one of the ugliest off-seasons in pro football. Since last season's Super Bowl, 37 players have been arrested or charged with crimes, from drunk driving to murder. The list gets even more unpleasant if you look at the second half of last season -- three more dead due to misconduct by NFL athletes.

To put it in perspective, this is an arrest rate of more than one per week. The volume hasn't improved since Roger Goodell took over as NFL commissioner and began to crack down on this kind of bad PR. During his tenure, athletes were arrested or charged with crimes 395 times. Ouch. That hurts like a horse-collar tackle.

Interestingly, some folks say things haven't really changed over the years. Denver Bronco's cornerback Quentin Jammer even said so, and he's been around for twelve years. Sadly, his team leads the league in players arrested or charged with crimes. But, alas, it's just the same old thing we've always seen. This is how athletes behave. His counterpart Champ Bailey would like to see things otherwise.

Are We in a Kettle of Water?
I am afraid we've fallen prey to the age-old story of the frog and the kettle. You remember the story. Legend has it, you can put a frog in a kettle of cold water, set it on the stove and slowly turn up the heat. The frog never notices because his body adjusts to the temperature change. Eventually, he boils to death. He lets it happen, however, because it happens slowly -- over time. The change escapes his notice.

I wonder if we've just gotten used to behavior like this, and said, "Ah, they're boys. They play a violent game. What can we expect?

I think we can expect more.

Have We Forgotten Our Plumb Line?
Do you remember what a plumb line is? It was an instrument used centuries ago to evaluate how straight or how deep something was. A plumb line is a string or cable with a weight attached to one end. When suspended, the weight pulled the line directly toward the earth's center of gravity. The plumb line was held next to a wall to determine if it was crooked or straight. The plumb line was also dropped into water to determine its depth.

It's interesting -- plumb lines help us measure straightness and depth. I believe there's some application to this tool in sports. What if we held a plumb line up and measured whether we have gotten crooked on our expectations of athletes and coaches? What if we had a standard that was virtually timeless to help us see if we are drifting from who we should be?

I checked for numbers of crimes in pro football in the 1950s or 1960s and couldn't even find a number. I wonder if it's because we didn't keep track back then. And I wonder if we didn't keep track back then because it wasn't an issue. Someone tends to notice a trend and write about it. The fact is, we need a plumb line.

So What's Our Plumb Line?
Let me get your staff started on a discussion. What if our plumb line involved:

1. Reminding athletes of the equation they face: playing competitive sports has perks and price tags. The perk is, you get known. People want to be around you. The price tag is, you become a role model, good or bad. If you play, you must pay. Athletes need to embrace the fact that on some level, they are examples for kids.

2. Reminding athletes that they must manage their emotions. Everything they do on and off the field, every tweet or comment they post is out there for future employers to see. If you tweet stupid things in college, it reduces your stock when pro teams look at you to recruit. Seventy percent of employers reported they didn't hire a recent graduate based on looking at their social media comments. Emotional intelligence is huge.

3. Reminding athletes that the privilege to play publicly in front of thousands of fans is usually personal disciplines practiced in private. The prerequisite to playing on a field is to working in a classroom. The prerequisite to holding up a trophy at the end of a season is holding down a job during the season, full of workouts and lifting.

4. Reminding athletes that the cost of autonomy (which they want) is accountability. In other words, if they expect the freedom of being treated like men and women and the luxury of nice facilities and gear--they must know the price is inviting someone to hold them accountable to the lifestyle that's required. Josh Hamilton knows he is vulnerable to alcohol or drugs, so he brings his accountability partner with him everywhere he goes. Independence requires interdependence.

5. Reminding athletes there is a balance to everything. To play a contact sport requires them to build habits of no-contact off the field--including alcohol, illegal drugs, date rape and certain language. Balance and discipline means doing what is right even when you don't feel like it. The good news is, the balance is worth it.

What happens when we hold this plumb line next to our players?