What is our infatuation with athletes? I think it's because they are physical specimens who can play their sport much, much better than we can. Professional, college, even high school athletes give us an outlet to cheer, scream and vent our personal frustrations with other people who are on the same side as us.
The "athlete" has been completely transformed over the past few decades. What started for most players as a way to get some exercise and hang out with friends has morphed into perpetually wondering what ranking they are, even if they're only 9 years old. They wonder, "Will I get a scholarship?" "What AAU team will I play on?" "Can I start playing varsity in 7th grade?"
The player's family, friends, community and coaching staff only exacerbate the message. How many times have you heard a parent or family member say, "Oh, we don't care if he gets a scholarship, we just want him to have fun on the court"? In an era when athletes are constantly pressured with unreasonable expectations, internally, they may feel worthless when they're not the best. The plethora of YouTube highlight videos of "Best in Class of 20**" don't help either.
The fact is that many athletes have a rough time once they are finished with their sport. It happens because they dedicated nearly their entire lives to doing one thing. So when athletes go broke or go to jail, we automatically blame them. Our initial reaction is, "Oh, another dumb jock." The person we never blame is the coaches.
Throughout my years of playing basketball, I've seen every type of coach. I had some great ones, some who didn't speak any English, and one who benched me because I didn't grow up in a particular state. Coaches have more power on a sports team than we could ever imagine. They literally hold the lives of players in their hands. A coach can do nearly anything he or she wants, and justify it with any excuse.
Coaches need to step up and start taking more responsibility for the well-being of the athletes. The unfortunate reality is that many coaches have their own self-interests at heart. Their only goal: win games by any means necessary. Too often, all around America, coaches treat their athletes as an interchangeable number. The reality is that they are a number. For a college athlete, thousands of kids would love to be in their shoes. Our coaches need to stop only looking out for the wins and losses, and instead focus on cultivating these athletes for off the field, and life after their sport.
I knew Jovan Belcher when I was at Maine University. He was the Big Man on Campus. We weren't best friends, but when we made eye contact there was a mutual respect since we both played a sport. When I heard what happened to him, I was shocked. When I learned that he said, "I wasn't able to get enough help," I immediately wondered why. But thinking back to my playing days, I completely know why. The coaching staff doesn't want you to speak out. They don't want you to have problems. For professional athletes, it's your livelihood, and you aren't going to jeopardize that by reaching out and telling someone. You're going to hold it inside of you and hope that the bad things pass.
In reading the book League of Denial, it sickens me to see how much the NFL wants to sweep the brain trauma issues with athletes under the table. Many times, coaches of the NFL teams got pissed off when a player had a concussion and immediately asked the doctor when the player could get back in the game.
An athlete will listen, look up to and respect his or her coach. What our current coaches have to do is realize that. Instead of just focusing on getting wins, let's start to cultivate our coaches, who will, in turn, cultivate our athletes. Let's have coaches talk to their players about money management, life after sports and how to be a positive role model. An hour a week, get players together to discuss something completely unrelated to the sport. This will get them to start opening their minds, and not worry completely about who's got the best field goal percentage.
Seriously, it wouldn't take a lot of work. Getting in consistent habits when they're young will translate to future behavior. But the only one who can start the ball rolling is the coaches. Since athletes are role models for millions of people, let's get them ready for that at a young age.
Follow Tyson Hartnett on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TysonHartnett