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Money, expectations and our macho culture can’t help but lead to issues for many athletes: a delicate balance that doesn’t always work out

When Ron MacLean spoke the other night on Hockey Night in Canada and tried to, albeit somewhat awkwardly, compare the efforts of hard-working hockey players at playoff time with those of the courageous responders during 9-11, it brought a predictably negative response.

The long-time host was trying to say something very positive about the players while also paying homage to the real heroes of that tragic day more than a decade ago.  Upon reflection, he may have chosen his words a bit differently, but his heart was no doubt in the right place.

That said, I think a lot of us have struggled for a long time with how we think about sports and sports figures, and this notion of athletes as not only “heroes” but “warriors”.  It’s a difficult thing.  People often want, perhaps even need what we perceive as heroes -- maybe as a kind of psychological pick-me-up.  It might be that we are struggling with something in our own lives.  Perhaps the human heart just needs to hear, see and touch nice, uplifting stories every once in a while. And that’s OK.

So, maybe because the work that real heroes do—whether it’s working in hospitals for peanuts compared with what athletes make, fighting on the battlefields of war, doing painstaking research on medical cures, volunteering to help those in need, working in food banks, helping kids who need direction and a host of other truly important things—is wonderful but not something we can easily observe and “cheer” about or have a “rooting interest” in, we sometimes gravitate toward sports instead to occupy our time.  It has drama, excitement, highs and lows and of course “winners and losers”.   It could be a particular sport, it could be a certain team, or a player that we admire from afar because of their effort, talent or simply the way they play the game.  Maybe, from a cursory observation, they also seem like “good people” and sometimes on very little evidence we determine we like them and will “cheer” for them.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  It’s quite understandable and something many of us do.

While it’s not easy to do, though, I’m also trying today to put myself in the shoes of the athletes that we react so positively—and also often harshly—to. 

It must be confusing for many of them, especially the so-called “star” performers.  From an early age they get all kinds of attention, not just from parents but youth coaches, the school system, sometimes even the media.  As they grow and mature, if their skills keep up and they “work hard”, they have a shot at doing something they love to do and getting their education paid for, or even being drafted at a very young age to play at a professional level.

Over time they are given things for free and also showered with accolades, preferential treatment and plenty of attention.  Quite often they are put on a pedestal.  They may become role models of a sort.

“All” we ask in return is that they entertain us….and be what we couldn’t be, perhaps—skilled, aggressive, tough and successful in sports.  To be the kind of athlete that plays through pain, through injuries that would keep a “normal” person not only in bed, but in hospital.  To be a "man” and to fight through adversity on and off the field of play.

In a sport like hockey, we have built up generations of fans who love their game the so-called “old-fashioned” way.  Hard-nosed.  Rugged.  Violent.  We want skill, for sure, and speed.  We love creativity, great plays.  Hey, that’s why we have “Plays of the night” on every sports channel nowadays.

But at the end of the day, we also have this...let’s call it a “code”.  Players evidently have their “codes”, whether spoken or un-spoken.  It seems we do as fans, as well.  We want and expect, especially male athletes, to do the impossible.  To play mistake-free hockey.  To always see the open guy.  To shoot when we tell them to shoot, pass when they should pass. To score on a breakaway—and to stop the guy on the breakaway.

When they, God forbid, make a particularly notable “gaffe”, or at least what we—as fans who have never been in their shoes—perceive on our couch as a big mistake, we talk about it for years to come.  (The Oilers defenseman who “scored on his own net” in the playoffs…Steve Smith, was it?  Or in baseball, Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series when Mookie Wilson’s funky ground ball got past him.  Smith was a fine hockey player.  Buckner was a tremendous baseball player.  But one isolated moment, and it’s like the rest of their careers meant nothing.  All we could focus on was the “mistake”, shown on highlight reels for years to come…)

So now we come to 2012.  In hockey, we talk a lot now about “head shots”.   Heck, people have been hit in the head—“legally”—in hockey for as long as I can remember.  And I’m not just talking about Scott Stevens and some of his memorable moments of then “legal” violence.  There was extreme violence in the sport long before I started watching, back in the ‘1930s and ‘40s.  I remember the legendary Foster Hewitt telling an interviewer in the late 1970s (at the height of the awful  “Broad Street Bullies” era) that the game was actually much rougher decades before.

In any event, we now place these demands and expectations on players but send them out onto the field of play with a mixed message. Deep down, we want them to “hammer” the opposition, to “beat them up” in fights.  (When was the last time the majority of fans - or any - walked out of a building during hockey fights? Or turned off their television?)  As a trade-off, we pay them millions and millions of dollars in many cases to, again, “entertain” us.  But what we are asking is for them to indeed be sporting “warriors”.  To get so pumped out that they would do virtually anything to “win”. (Should we be surprised there are bounties in sports?)  Yet, we expect them to think, function  and make decisions rationally in a split second under duress, play after play, night after night- the way they might if they were in a more calm and traditional line of work.  We expect them to bleed, play with intense pain, take massive hits, get run into the boards and yes, fight, if necessary.  (And wink, wink, take as many injections as necessary to get back out there…)

Make no mistake, we are paying them because every time we buy a game ticket, or buy merchandize, a program, NHL Center Ice or a pack of hockey cards we add to the sport's revenue stream. We are contributing to their income when we buy daily newspapers or watch the TV networks that own the teams (and that take in massive advertising money) that we follow. We evidently crave the entertainment, again for all kinds of “good” reasons but also because it fills some kind of gnawing void in us, perhaps.

So we pay athletes as though they are heroes, but we also expect them to deliver through performance—on and off the ice.  When they say things that we don’t like to hear, or like Tiger Woods, behave in a way that we seem to find somehow surprising and  “unacceptable”, we criticize them and punish them by writing about them in a harsh and negative manner.

But the way more serious “trade-off” for many of these athletes, as they transition into life “after” athletics, is dealing with their newfound retirement “reality”.  It’s not just the concussions and the associated—and awful—after-effects, and in many cases (see the countless examples now of former NFL players) the dementia, as difficult as that is to experience.  It’s not having a treasured place in people’s minds any more.  It’s the “didn’t you used to be so and so?” syndrome.  It’s suddenly losing the connection with your sport, your teammates, your way of life.  It’s missing the structure and support in your life.

Where does this lead?  For some (thankfully, not all, but too many…) it leads to depression and a range of issues that I’m not qualified to talk about with any authority.  But I think it’s fair to simply say that it cannot be easy—though their lives may well have seemed “easy” to us when they were big-time “entertainers”.

I’m not one hundred per cent sure what my point was today.  I guess I’m trying to say, in my own awkward way, that while hockey—and sport—is and can be a wonderful career, and a great outlet for us as “fans”, we (fans—and maybe athletes and sport administrators as well?) kind of want it both ways.  We want sport to be a like NASCAR race every night but want everyone to be able to walk away from the games—and their careers—somehow unscathed.  That certainly applies in hockey but also in sports like football (and of course, boxing and MMA as well).  We want to micro-analyze whether a guy should be suspended, like Raffi Torres, for 25 game because he has made some questionable hits in the past (hits that were celebrated when Gary Roberts, as  Leaf, left his feet to crush a Senator a decade ago), but a superstar, like Ovechkin, does much the same thing and gets nothing as a punishment.

So we want ultra-tough, hockey players.  Junior players who hit like Torres are “tough", exactly the kind of players we want on the Leafs.  But then we turn on them and say, “that’s not acceptable”—when the difference in how we judge their behavior on ice is sometimes a question of a) a player turning their body or head a couple of inches and making a hit suddenly “illegal” and b) our ever-changing frame of reference regarding what is, and is not, “OK”.

We lost three former NHL’ers last summer.  We just lost long-time NFL’er Junior Seau. And every day we see stories about athletes, their struggles, their physical disabilities, NFL Hall-of-Famers living in poverty, not able to take care of themselves or pay medical bills.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  We don’t see the thousands of instances of loneliness and despair that don’t receive media attention.

But every night we, indirectly perhaps, push them out on to the field of “battle” (in sporting terms), expect them to be tough, to yes, be our “heroes”, to play smart and hard, and not make mistakes.  Oh, we’ll pay them very well.  But we’ll also expect an awful lot in return.

Believe me, I don’t pretend to have an answer, because I’m not even sure what my question is.  But I’m looking at this picture and it’s kind of grainy.  And I know that I’m part of it and don’t quite know if I should try to get out of the picture.

Imagine how the athletes themselves feel…


  1. Another phenomenal post. It's hard for me to post articles when you keep raising the bar! (Sorta kidding). In all seriousness it was a great read. Loved it.

  2. That's really kind of you to say, Killer Sundin. Thank you.