Sports sections today read like the business section of the newspaper, or even worse the crime beat section.
Since I have spent almost 40 years advocating the concept of athletes serving as role models and triggering imitative behavior, it is especially distressing to see the model of poor decision making. The advent of 24-hours-a-day news channels, talk radio, blogs, cellphone cameras and all celebrity oriented media has the effect of amplifying negative behavior.
When Ryan Leaf, the former Chargers quarterback, was caught on tape yelling at a reporter in the locker room it was shown ad nauseum until viewers had seen the same clip over and over again. The impression left by multiple viewings was that Leaf was always out of control and in confrontations. The clip messed up his career.
Fans are led to believe that most athletes drive drunk, engage in domestic violence, are involved with guns and bar fights nightly, and cannot stay away from drugs and alcohol. The reality is that we test athletes and monitor their behavior closely and rates of drunk driving, domestic violence, gun use, fighting and drug and alcohol abuse have dropped dramatically in the last 30 years.
When Babe Ruth walked through a team train with two girls on his arm, wobbly from alcohol, writers didn't write it. No press reported on infidelity, domestic abuse or certain crimes in the past. Now it is all fair game in our celebrity news madness. There are readers and viewers who feel better about their own failures and difficulties when they hear about athletic misbehavior. One incident is too many and can push fans away from sports.
How can they be prevented?
In the first meeting with an athlete I have always emphasized the fish-bowl nature of their existence and the need to behave in a circumspect manner. If an athlete is offended by having to obey laws, refrain from substance abuse, graciously sign autographs and comport themselves in a decent manner, I tell them they have an alternative: play on a sandlot.
No one can criticize or judge them; they also will not benefit from all the financial and celebrity largesse that sports provides them. I talk with rookies as they enter the draft training process and warn them of the dangers. We suggest a designated driver or cab from events where alcohol is present. I also caution athletes that if they go into a bar they risk being challenged physically or insulted by drunk fans. They need to take friends with cool heads with them and learn to walk away from gratuitous insults.
They are warned about the severe risks of performance enhancing stimulants or certain types of romantic behavior. Matt Leinart learned that even his private hot tub behavior could be captured on a cellphone camera and very rapidly disseminated on the Internet. An athlete involved in a fight may get hurt, be arrested, see the incident make nationwide news, get sued, have to deal with legal expenses and consequences, and is subject to team and league discipline.
Each of the players' associations in team sports holds seminars prior to draftees' rookie season, which heavily caution players about the consequences of risky behavior. At the college level there are courses in compliance with rules and regulations. USC had a test that players were expected to pass to be eligible. One of the questions was: "If Leigh Steinberg approaches you with an offer of financial assistance or wants you to sign a contract with him while you still have eligibility, is that permissible?"
The answer is that the example could only occur in an alternative universe since I spent 37 years scrupulously avoiding such behavior.
A major difficulty is the presence of entourages around athletes who will encourage or justify wrongdoing. Most agents are afraid to give their clients advice that the client will disagree with. They allow an athlete to live in a world of unreality and they avoid confronting them with the consequences of their behavior.
I represented the best running back in football some years ago who was desperate to be traded by his incumbent team. I arranged a trade between his current team and a desirable franchise. All he had to do was report to his current team for training camp and the deal would go through. He was suspicious that he would be trapped with his current team if he reported, and was refusing. I told him if he didn't report he would make it impossible for his team to arrange honorable trade terms because the new team would know that the incumbent team had a disgruntled player on their hands and drive an unfair bargain.
My client wouldn't believe that he would force the current team to suspend him and he would lose millions. I asked him why I was representing him if he was listening to all the so-called experts around him who were encouraging him not to report.
I said, "You could be standing on a 90th floor skyscraper threatening to jump and your friends would tell you: law of gravity doesn't apply to you. That's the oppressive system talking to you, you're Superman, go ahead and fly." He refused to report, got suspended, the trade never went through, he lost millions and I fired him as a client.
I did not get involved with representing athletes to encourage delusionary, self-destructive waste.
Did anyone tell Kobe or Shaq that they might be better off if they stopped their feud, stayed together and won more championships?
Did anyone tell Michael Vick to stop his behavior, or that a statement supposedly from him that said, "I'm so sorry to miss spring training with the team," might be suspect?
Athletes need to hear the truth and act in the best interest of sports and themselves.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.