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Pro athletes are paid to play, not feel

September 29, 2006|Dave Zirin | DAVE ZIRIN is the author of "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States."

WE MAY never know whether controversial Dallas Cowboy All-Pro Terrell Owens' emergency room adventure was a result of attempted suicide or mismanaged meds. But the subsequent damage control has spoken volumes about the way top professional athletes have become little more than corporations with muscle tone, with images to be protected at all costs, their mental health a distant concern.

Attempting suicide is the ultimate cry for help. Yet in the world of jock culture, vulnerability equals weakness. Our superheroes aren't supposed to be lonely, depressed or absent hope. The mere hint that Owens might wrestle with suicidal tendencies damages the brand of Owens Inc. It's like finding out that your PC has a virus, or that there's E. coli at your favorite fast-food place.

And, like at a corporation, public outcry about the event became a PR crisis to manage. It was Owens' flack, Kim Etheredge, who called 911, told police the star wide receiver was "depressed" and tried to pry two of the pain pills out of his mouth. Then she began spinning.

Less than 24 hours later, Etheredge was on camera soldiering for Owens Inc., saying a leaked police report was a fabrication and that "Terrell has 25 million reasons to be alive."

I'm still stunned by the ugliness of that statement. Twenty-five million is how many dollars Owens will be paid over the life of his three-year contract with the Cowboys. For Etheredge, Owens' life must be worth no more than his pay scale. Presumably, if cut from the team, his "reasons to be alive" would dwindle to nothing.

Owens followed Etheredge at the news conference by stating explicitly, and with a sideways smirk, "I am not depressed." In the stunted, backward world of jock culture, it is better to be seen as a dosage-miscalculating carnival distraction than someone burdened with the shame of depression.

As the self-described "recovering sportswriter" Robert Lipsyte wrote recently on tomsdispatch.com, "Athletes have been taught to appear invulnerable, to repress emotion, to never, ever let 'em see you sweat, much less show panic or pain. This is why for so many pro athletes, with their shallow marriages, false friendships and dysfunctional family relationships, the only places where true emotion can freely emerge are the locker room and the playing field. There, they can finally hug and cry. For many, these are the only times they feel truly alive, and one can understand how they might be tempted to do anything to stay in the arena, including drugs."

The stats back this up. As many as 80% of marriages involving male professional athletes end in divorce. Out-of-wedlock births are seen as so epidemic that rookies are given seminars on how to avoid being "trapped." Players feel paranoid, preyed upon and under the gun. Literally. Carrying a weapon is now so common that firearms guidelines are part of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement.

For the athlete, this is a nation of enemies. The mantra becomes: separate, insulate and isolate. Gated communities and anabolic masses of bodyguards seal them off from all nonsexual human contact. But little is done to help players deal with the pressures that create this siege mentality. The message seems to be that pot, paternity suits and pistols are preferable to Prozac.

Long gone are the days when Willie Mays played stickball with neighborhood kids. Back then, being an athlete wasn't automatically a ticket to another universe.

And this ticket is being dangled earlier every year. As a fourth-grade teacher in Washington public schools, I saw what happened to the talented kids recruited to play in after-school leagues. They sported fancy uniforms, new shoes and other bells and whistles their parents couldn't possibly have afforded.

For the majority of kids, however, we didn't even have P.E., a budget casualty in the age of standardized tests. The message was clear: Some are special; others are not even worthy of dodgeball.

But even the "special ones" became stunted by the experience. Most don't make it, and many who do see their dreams turn into nightmares. And as we've seen with T.O, nightmares are a luxury the corporation cannot abide.

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