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Saturday, April 04, 2009

The responsibility of sporting greatness

How much do we expect from our sporting heroes?

We are avid readers at The Science of Sport, and as is often the case our reading material provides inspiration for posts. So today we will have a look at the "Social Science of Sport" because I have just finished "A People's History of Sports in the United States," by Dave Zirin. It takes the format of the "People's History of. . ." books, mostly by Howard Zinn. Zirin's book is a pretty fast read and encompasses all the sports and many different aspects of them over the last few hundred years in the USA.

Much of the section on the 20th century examines how athletes, especially those of color, had to choose whether of not to be part of the struggle for civil rights. For many of the great non-white athletes it was very much a case of choosing sides, because there was very real pressure for them to take the up the struggle and promote the cause of civil rights. Failure to do so often brought criticism from civil rights leaders and advocates because the athletes had most certainly been on the receiving end of discrimination as they made their way up to the professional ranks.

The athletes had a fine line to walk, though, because their livelihood as an athlete could just as easily be taken away if they were seen to be too vocal about the fact the their league was not hiring more non-white athletes. So it was a catch 22 as they had to decide either to stand up and be vocal about discrimination and hiring practices, yet risk their own job, or quietly play ball but be criticized for not taking more advantage of their position of prominence in society. Adding to their difficulties was the fact that, were they to be released by their sport, the chances of them getting a job doing anything meaningful were slim---this was in the height of discrimination in America, so there were no coaching jobs after retirement, no cushy commentating positions offered by the networks.

So we have a tendency to expect more from our sporting heroes, be it more performance on the field or more social responsibility. Presently those expectations are probably as high as ever because the athletes earn incredible amounts of money both from salaries and endorsement deals, and so we expect them to do something more since deep down it probably seems ridiculous to us that a person can earn 10+ million a year for throwing/catching/kicking a ball around a field or court!

What's an athlete to do?

One thing the high-paid athletes can do is take up a cause and try to give back to some community somewhere, be it their own neighborhood where they grew up, or a foundation for a disease that effects one of their family members, or something else entirely. It is kind of like an opinion I heard on nepotism once: everyone knows you got the job because your dad owns the company, but the one thing you can do is work your butt off to show people you deserve to be there. The parallel in sports is for athletes to take up charitable causes, and as such we see athletes who endorse things like the Big Brothers/Sisters program, and lend their name and image to other public service announcements. One interesting part of the book was how Zirin pointed out that one particular athlete has so much yet did so little with it socially. It might surprise you know that the athlete is Michael Jordan. His airness did not take up the mantle of any cause in spite of earning over $30 million per year in salary alone during his last two years in the NBA.

A present-day case in point is of course Lance Armstrong and his Lance Armstrong Foundation. Few can argue against his contributions to the fight against cancer, and even fewer can argue that any other athlete has done more for a given cause. The really interesting thing about this, however----and this is where the Social Science of Sport intersects with The Science of Sport----is that many fans will say, "Who cares if he is doped? Look at what he has done for cancer! Look at the hope he gives to all cancer patients!" Indeed they are right, he has inspired hope and raised awareness, but if you buy into this argument then you must agree that the ends justify the means, and therefore he (or any athlete) may have cheated their way to the top of their sport, but so long as they give back tremendously in some way, shape, or form, it makes it ok to have done so.

Mixing sports, life, and politics

The bigger picture here is that we do not see our sporting heroes in the same light as we see our colleague in the cubicle next door----they are not just other people doing their job and living their lives. Somehow we expect more from them on all fronts, and hence the debates that will rage about how much or how little athletes give back, and how they might have achieved their fame that allowed them to give back so much in the first place. Even more interesting is that we do not apply these standards to all top athletes. The one that comes to mind now is Barry Bonds, a sure bet for the hall of fame and current holder of the home run record, or even Mark McGwire, also a hero in his day. These figures have gone quietly away and we do not seem upset that in spite of their multi-million dollar salaries they give nothing back.

So if you are looking for a new book and a quick read, I really recommend Zirin's book. It provides a great view of history in the US as viewed thru a sporting lens. In the mean time we will try to recover from a dismally slow month here on the site. It was inevitable, but alas, the call of our real jobs plus other work and the "normal" commitments of life (work, family, fatherhood, friends) call, and they compete for time spent posting here. But marathon season is upon us, and you can be sure we will be tuning in to see how the big city races and their epic fields unfold!



cassio598 said...

An interesting read, and an excellent summary of public opinion. Of course, and Charles Barkley has famously brought up, many famous athletes have no desire to be a role model, which can be a source of friction.

Just a quick point of clarification. While both Bonds and McGuire were sluggers who have since been disgraced, McGuire, anyway, was a vocal advocate for abused children.

Farid said...

just a note on bonds/mcguire... I believe the disgrace they've brought upon themselves in the last five years and the way each has handled their respective situation has eclipsed their support (or lack thereof) of community organizations. It seems baseball fans are now trying to decide whether they feel cheated out of their fan-dome or whether the boost their respective home run races brought to a dying sport was just what baseball needed. As sad as it is, North American sport has made it so an athlete's role in the community is overshadowed by his value on the field/court. As such, fans are more likely to contest the authenticity of a performance rather than how much the athlete gives back.

I was wondering what reactions were in other parts of the world to cases like bonds/mcguire and whether other sports have caused the same friction as they did in north america...

Edgar said...

"The one that comes to mind now is Barry Bonds, a sure bet for the hall of fame and current holder of the home run record, or even Mark McGwire, also a hero in his day. These figures have gone quietly away and we do not seem upset that in spite of their multi-million dollar salaries they give nothing back."

Nothing? I hate to defend Big Mac, but there was the Mark McGwire Foundation for Children and the 1997 Sportsman of the Year award for his charitable work. He's no Dorothy Day, but that's not "nothing." Barry Bonds, on the other hand...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Everyone,

Thanks for the comments here, and I stand corrected---he and his wife indeed started the Mark McGwire Foundation for Children, which works to help abused children, as cassio598 pointed out above. It also looks like the foundation mostly doles out grants to many other programs who work with children.

To Farid, interesting comment and it relates to what happened in cycling after the Festina scandal in 1998. Cycling seemed doomed and many thought sponsors would pull out, but we all know what happened in 1999, and how the doping problem of just one year earlier was forgotten for the feel-good story of the next seven years.

That story boosted cycling's popularity, but of course turned our attention (mine included) away from the seriousness of the doping problem!

We would love to hear what the international readers have to say about their popular sports figures and whether or not they engage in any community work?

Kind Regards,

NYVC said...

Guys, I really love this blog. I just interviewed Michael Ashenden and he talks extensively about Coyle and Armstrong. I'd appreciate it if you'd read it and give me some feedback. Thanks, Andy Shen


Mouth of the Mersey said...

This series (though of its time) is brilliant and amongst the best journalism I've ever read. It proves (pretty unequivocally to this reader) that Smith, Carlos and Norman were right in their famous podium protest and made me think about sportsmen's and sportswomen's roles in fighting for good over evil today. Sitting on your hands shouldn't be an option.


Sam said...

I have very mixed thoughts on this topic.

Before anyone starts spouting off about what an athlete should do with his/her fame or money, ask yourself "Do YOU want someone else questioning what you do with your money or time?"

I applaud athletes who take on a cause or charity. In most cases, they are going to choose things that are relatively "safe". I mean who opposes Big Brothers/Big Sisters or the Boys and Girls Clubs here in the US? Or fighting a disease or child abuse?

However, if an athlete chooses not to participate in such activities, then that is his/her free choice to do so. That is one of the essences of freedom: the freedom to do as he/she pleases as long as it does not interfere with another person's rights.

Plenty of US athletes start foundations. I am cynical enough to think that some of that is either a tax issue or a PR ploy, but then I have met several athletes that really are involved and not just slapping their names on the foundation. Warrick Dunn is one. A friend of mine did a lot with Dunn's Foundation and Dunn would show up at house raisings frequently.

I wish people would learn to spell "McGwire".

The Sports Scientists said...

Hi Andy,

I read your interview with Michael Ashenden, it is excellent, well done.

Please can you email us at



Kind Regards,