Tuesday, December 11, 2007

You Can Take the Player Out of the City...

But Can You Take the City Out of the Player?

The sentencing of Michael Vick in the animal abuse case has given rise to many many hours of discussion by sports pundits, most of whom come from middle class white backgrounds. That does not mean that the pundits do not have a perspective on the issue, after all, one can write about a hanging without first having experienced it. They just don't have the same perspective as an inner city kid.Hollywood and television have had a history of showing things as they think the public will pay to watch them rather than how they really are. This is certainly evident in sports.

In most "Friday Night Lights" type shows, the football hero is a rich white boy. Sometimes he is a white boy from the wrong side of the tracks - father is a drunk, mother is an abuse victim, etc. But the fact is that most gladiators are poor, and in the case of basketball and especially football, minority. College coaches comb the inner cities for tough young men who can run fast and are willing to sacrifice their bodies in exchange for a college education (what the coaches will tell you) or "a chance to play on Sunday," (what the players will tell you).

When you think about it, football is a sport in which one must sacrifice his body. What else does a poor, inner-city kid have of more value than his or her body. The poor youngster is more willing to trade that body for a chance to move up the social and financial ladder than is the middle or upper class kid regardless of race, creed, or national origin.

During my stint working with college athletes I saw many phenomena, one of which is described above - the poor, undereducated, usually minority lad with a strong body is given an opportunity to raise himself socially, academically, and financially. And although most inner city schools do not pride themselves on generating Rhodes scholars, students from such schools may be behind because of having gone through a school that is likely an academic wasteland, but nearly every one is intellectually capable of earning a college degree. So why don't more do so?

The earlier a child in our society is identified with potential star athletic ability, the sooner he is fawned over, given perks and breaks not available to his peers, and the more time is spent developing his athletic abilities and not requiring him to develop his academic abilities. So the economically deprived inner city kid often enters college on scholarship but without comparable academic grooming that has gone into grooming of his athletic abilities. He is much more likely to drop out than his non-recruited peer even with the help academic support services.

A second issue that is often difficult to overcome is his loyalty to his culture - meaning his extended family and peers who were with him during the years of his teen development and often do not value a college degree. Such bonds that usually begin in childhood or junior high school are often lifelong bonds of love and loyalty. To the peers the scholarship football player becomes an up and coming star, and if he is fortunate enough to make it to the professional ranks, his old high school buddies become his "posse" or his "home boys," fawning over him and often becoming his "advisers." For they gain wealth and status by associating with their childhood buddy.

The problem is that even though the professional athlete has been schooled in the proprieties of society, his posse has a different frame of reference - inner city survival abilities and values often coupled with newfound wealth and with bonds just as strong, and in some cases stronger, than the athlete's fear of legal consequences. It is a recipe for the failure of the wealthy young athlete to grow and become a model in society.

Some professional athletes are strong enough to divorce themselves from the issues that place a drain on them and place them in harms way. Others are able to turn aside and ignore the problem, often supporting family, friends, and hangers on financially but keeping their distance. And others succumb to the pressures and make a mess of their lives.

One other issue with the young, unsophisticated males who come into huge sums of money through their athletic prowess is a syndrome similar to that of lottery winners. They are preyed upon by scammers, beggars, and many other parasites who wish to separate a portion of the wealth from the host. But in the case of high visibility athletes, the wealth makes them more obvious targets for not only parasites but thieves who would do them harm for money. Such was the case in the recent fatal shooting of a football player in Florida.

Some athletes have taken to sequestering themselves inside guarded homes. They have come full circle - from being behind walls in fear of their safety as a youngster, and protecting themselves with guns and vicious dogs due to extreme poverty, to hiding behind gates and protecting themselves with guns and vicious dogs and fences due to extreme opulence that comes with financial success. It is a sad commentary.

Dr. Forgot

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