A flood of negative stories regarding athletic behavior has filled all media outlets recently. The case of accused murderer, NFL star tight end, Aaron Hernandez has triggered a nationwide discussion. There are two dangers to address:
1) The system for preventing and regulating these incidents.
2) The danger that the public will generalize these stories as reflective of overall athletic behavior and become disenchanted and disillusioned with sport.
I have spent the past 40 years promoting the concept of athletes being role models. They are brought into living rooms as larger than life heroes. They clearly have the ability to permeate the perceptual screen that young people erect to tune out authority figures to trigger good values and imitative behavior.
Heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis delivering a public service announcement that says, "Real Men Don't Hit Women" did more to change rebellious adolescents attitude toward domestic violence than 1,000 authority figures could.
49er quarterback Steve Young and middleweight boxing champion Oscar De La Hoya teaming up for a "Prejudice is Foul Play" public service campaign, influenced what young people think is important to be a champion.
We ask our clients to retrace their roots to the high school, collegiate and professional communities and design scholarship funds and foundations that enrich the quality of life and target specific ills. Players throughout the world of sport do this every day with marginal media exposure. If athletes become connected with misconduct it sends a dangerous message to young people.
Continual monitoring of the systems that screen potential problem behavior prior to entry into pro sports and prevention safeguards needs to occur. There is rigorous testing and background checks that teams employ prior to a player being drafted. All professional leagues and players' associations have multiple day awareness programs that focus every potential pro on problem areas and how to prevent them. Franchises have ample psychological and counseling resources to help athletes who are troubled. Each league has substance abuse programs. Diligence is needed to predict and prevent troubling behavior.
Some perspective is needed before the public assumes that athletic behavior has degenerated compared to the pristine and pure days of sport they remember. The 27 cases of NFL players arrested since the 2013 draft are 27 too many and need to be addressed and prevented. Still, the exponential expansion of media outlets and the tabloidization of news contribute to an inaccurate picture. The number of high school, college and professional athletes is huge and most of them lead disciplined wholesome lives. This attracts little media attention, but every aberrational behavior or incident is now reported through every form of media.
The repetitive news cycle means that news of a negative incident is repeated over and over again. Someone may read or watch dozens of reports of one incident and it has the effect of amplifying the behavior. After we watched the Rodney King tape hundreds of times it conveys the image that the LAPD didn't have one ugly incident with a few officers -- they beat up defenseless blacks every day all day long.
The press covered up personal misbehavior of athletes for years. Domestic violence and drunk driving were not considered suitable matters for public consumption in the same way the public knew nothing of JFK's dalliances. The redefinition of news as heavily consisting of reporting on celebrities changed all this. Every athlete, coach, sportscaster and executive is grist for the "jurisprudence wire."
These incidents are not representative of the world of sports. The average athlete is acutely aware of the financial, branding and legal consequences of this behavior. Do not become disillusioned with contemporary athletes -- they still represent the best qualities of self-discipline, talent and courage, which are examples to us all.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.