Categorized | Women in Sports

The Entitled Athlete

Tiger Woods addresses members of the media on Feb. 19, 2010. (Associated Press)

An Elaborate and Seductive Dance


It was the first time a fallen star athlete said the word self-referentially, with a sense of guilt, for the country – and even the world – to hear.

Tiger Woods, in his now-famous press conference of Feb. 19, 2010 said that he felt “entitled.” He flat-out announced it.

Tiger Woods publicly apologizes on Feb. 19, 2010.

Dressed in a blazer and a modest blue button down, the golf star admitted that he “cheated.” He apologized to his wife for his many marital indiscretions – so luridly detailed by scores of media stories and sexually graphic text messages released on the Internet and in tabloid newspapers and TV programs. He apologized to the fans who once considered him a role model. Indeed, Woods had one of the most squeaky-clean images in sports history before news of his sex scandal broke.

“I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply,” Woods said, his voice meek and halting. “I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself.”

It was a uniquely revealing moment. As a word and a notion, “entitlement” has been on the lips of those involved in sports and those who watch sports for decades. For many, it is the very symbol of what is wrong with the culture of sports in American society.

The Woods case, and the more recent Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Taylor and George Huguely (University of Virginia lacrosse) cases, have no doubt been viewed as examples of athletic entitlement at its most extreme and hyperbolic. But the phenomenon plays out in less drastic ways, ex-players and sports academics say. Entitlement, they say, creates a world in which many star athletes – the fastest, the strongest, the best – flourish. It becomes the air they breathe. The sense of permission they enjoy by virtue of their fame is no delusion. It is a reality – an elaborate and seductive dance choreographed by coaches, agents, fans, journalists, and, eventually, corporate sponsors. And if left unchecked, it can make hollow, or even ruin, their lives.

Experts say that a sense of entitlement can begin playing a role in an athletes’ life as early as Little League, Pop Warner football or AAU basketball. Once a child displays a special ability – shooting a ball, hitting a ball or throwing a ball – he or she is at risk of drawing attention that focuses on solely on athletic ability at the expense of holistic wellbeing.

“Success at the youth league, high school, or intercollegiate level…can cause huge problems,” said Dan Doyle, the author of The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting, in an email.

It can lead to sundry exemptions: athletically gifted children may not have to run the same amount of laps, they may be excused for being late to practice, they may be passed along the academic ladder. Doyle, who also is the Executive Director of the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island, envisions the problem as relating to a “triangle of values,” with aspiration at the top of the triangle and mind training and character development as anchor values at the bottom.

“Deficiency in one of these two anchors is a big problem,” Doyle said. “Deficiency in both anchors is a huge problem. When a child is feeling entitled, often one or both anchors are affected.”

It is often said that in the sports world, if you’re not confident, you fail. But the natural, and potentially healthy, confidence a child may develop as a result of winning can quickly morph into cockiness, brashness and a sense of permission if it is not counterbalanced.

The issue is further compounded if college coaches, scouts or the media show interest in a young athlete. “Almost every publication and media outlet is guilty of this,” said Arthur Pincus, a journalist and ex-N.H.L. vice president of public relations who has worked as an editor in sports for the New York Times and the Washington Post. “They’ll write stories about kids when they’re ten or eleven. Going back in basketball and football you’ll see these stories, that they’re not only good but that they’ve been scouted already.

“That kid,” Pincus continued, “at [age] ten or eleven, they don’t have to do anything for themselves.” (Pincus and other subject questions in the story were interviewed by phone or answered email questions.)

Entitlement in sports can manifest itself in a variety of ways:

• A general sense of power.
• A feeling that one can do whatever one wants.
• A self-perception of one’s own entitlement, or personal inflation.
• A lack of consequences for inappropriate behavior.
• Protective and exclusive bubbles.

Posses and bodyguards have long been a staple, or status symbol, of successful athletes – especially in high profile sports such as basketball and football. They help create the “bubble” that is used to psychologically, or even physically, fence off stars off from the ordinary world.

“The posse, the boys,” said Pat Toomay, an ex-NFL defensive end who played for 10 years with Dallas, Oakland, Buffalo and Tampa Bay. “It’s about being the big dog. You surround yourself with a mirror that feeds back into your own inflationary importance. But you tend to get guys who want to move in that direction for their own purposes. You don’t have somebody saying, ‘wait a minute.’ That voice is off in the distance somewhere.”

Ben Roethlisberger

Such appears to have been the case with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who in March 2010 was accused of raping a woman in a Georgia bar. The Super Bowl champion was at the bar with an off-duty Pittsburgh police officer and an off-duty P.A. state trooper. When he took a female patron into a secluded area of the bar, the officers—who have been described as his “bodyguards”—reportedly stood sentry, blocking others access to the area. A concerned friend of the woman said that the guards physically stopped her from moving by them.

Authorities in Georgia concluded that they lacked enough evidence to prosecute Roethlisberger, but the incident – which fed into Roethlisberger’s past allegations of sexual violence – got the star quarterback a six-game NFL suspension.

Kathy Redmond, the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, said she believes that Roethlisberger’s wealth and star power may have dissuaded the Georgia D.A. from prosecuting him.

“With law enforcement it’s a question of, ‘Do we have enough resources to be able to prosecute this guy beyond a reasonable doubt, and to a jury of possible fans?’” she said. “These guys know that. And they know that they can tell their lawyers, ‘Offer them this much.’ It’s like a financial deal.

“Imagine the immense power you must feel when you can do something that harms someone, and you can just write a check.”

In many ways, as hinted at in the Roethlisberger case, entitlement contributes to behavior. Fans, media, groupies and money give rise to the culture. Athletes often become seduced by it. “Entitlement becomes a way of life,” said Jerry Sherk, an ex-Cleveland Browns defensive tackle who played from 1970 until 1981. “I remember going into the NFL. I was a pretty humble guy. Even as I went in, I saw the dangers of all the notoriety and all the money and that sort of thing. And I told myself I wouldn’t fall into that. But even going into it clearheaded and so forth, I was drawn in.

“I was sitting in a parking lot one day,” he added, “and some guys came up to me and said, ‘How does it feel to be Jerry Sherk?’

“I’m not sure anyone is really prepared for that.”

With some mega-celebrities, the arrogance that entitlement helps create can almost take on an unwittingly solipsistic quality.

Dr. Mitch Abrams, a psychologist and the author of Anger & Violence in Sport, believes the situation is far more complex than a chronic lapse of humility on the part of the entitled athlete, however.

“When athletes say they don’t feel like they have to play by the rules, they’re saying out loud what they’re seeing around them,” he said. “Everybody blamed Tiger. They said, ‘You cocky bastard. Oh you don’t think the rules apply.’ Well it wasn’t that he didn’t make the rules apply, there were a lot of people who conspired either with him or for him to make that so.”

“Just by being a successful athlete,” Abrams continued, “you’ve been told in so many different ways that you’re different. Can you really say that it is completely their fault? If you want to boil it down to one thing to blame it on, blame it on the dollar. Just follow the money.”

With the money comes celebrity and media coverage. Cocooned in a blur of stardom, some athletes mistake the world of enablement surrounding them with reality, according to sports sociologist Michael Kimmel, a professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island.

“Because of your celebrity status you get a distorted view of the world,” Kimmel said. “This is true of politicians and movie stars. Rock stars are the classic example.”

This can lead to especially distorted views of women.

“I testified in a case a few years ago in which four college recruits to the football team of University of Colorado were accused of sexual assault and gang rape,” Kimmel said. “It was really quite astonishing.”

According to Kimmel, the players pleaded guilty to the rape, which took place in 2001, and served community service. Eventually the incident resulted in Title IX lawsuits filed by a two of the victims, former student Lisa Simpson and another woman, Anne Gilmore, who claimed that the school failed to address previous claims of sexual assault involving its football recruiting program. In 2007, the school settled the cases by agreeing to pay $2.5 million to Simpson and her lawyers and $350,000 to Gilmore.

Kimmel recalled reading the deposition of one of the accused players: “The athlete said, ‘Look, at Colorado, being a football player in a major school, there are groupies everywhere. All I have to do is snap my fingers anytime I want, and there’s just always these girls around.’ So the lawyer says to him, ‘What percentage of the women students at university of Colorado would you characterize as groupies?’ This guy said, ‘About 50 percent.’”

Kimmel then said, “Now the truth is probably that .05 percent of the women at Colorado are groupies, but the perception is distorted because the athletes are always surrounded by people who seem willing.”

Toomay said that when the entitlement enjoyed by athletes reaches extreme levels, it destines them for ruin. “When you have gifted people, in any field—acting, musicians, artists, politicians—it’s the same thing,” he said. “You inflate, and when you do, the environment brings you back to your knees in one form or another. You bring something about that will blow up the bubble your living in.”

Toomay blames this partly on the heavy investment that American culture has put into the ideal of the role model. In an almost schizophrenic way, he says, the culture tries to split off the “bad” part of human beings from the “good”.

“We’re ceaselessly surprised when our stars let us down,” he said. “How many times does this have to happen before we abandon our expectations about human beings?”

And certain athletes do let the public, and themselves, down. If left unchecked, entitlement can leave athlete’s lives in tatters. Many, especially those who do not achieve extreme fame, are chewed up and spat out by the fleeting experience of celebrity. When their playing days are over they often lack the skills needed to sustain them in the real world. Others, like Woods, become the target of collective moralizing. It is a tale of excess and betrayal that baffles former Cincinnati Bengal’s strength coach Kim Wood.

“With Tiger,” he said, “whatever he was doing, everybody knew he was doing it. And the same people that built him up go and say ‘You let us down.’ That’s a funny deal. He’s not the only pro athlete that lives that.”

Tiger Woods felt entitled because Tiger Woods is entitled, Kim Wood said. But he argues that most would succumb to the temptations of fame if put in a similar situation. For Wood, there is a troubling double standard at play that says much about larger American culture. “Temptation is an interesting thing here,” he said. “It’s kind of a phony deal. Most people don’t have enough going on that they’re ever in a position to really be tempted. Of course there are cigarettes and dope and liquor. But the average American isn’t tempted like Tiger Woods. He’s possibly the greatest golfer ever; he’s got hundreds of millions of dollars. And then there’s a waitress with fabulous tits, and she’s nice. Most of us don’t find ourselves in that position of temptation. The doors aren’t open.”

He went on: “These damned men find themselves in that strange, hollow place in our culture—and it’s probably the same in most cultures—that has to do with fantasy and extreme wealth and desire. “There’s no definition,” Wood said. “What is it when fantasy becomes real?”

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