In 2014 we witnessed a number of issues and concerns in sports, specifically issues surrounding domestic violence and criminal activity of current and former players. Athletes today have made it easy for the media and sports journalists to claim the athletic sector has a domestic violence problem. The NFL has had this issue for many years, but social media and the like were not as aggressive in showing the issues of the NFL or athletes from other sectors of sports. Domestic violence in sports is an issue, not the problem.
The difference between an issue and a problem is quite simple. When you have an issue, you generally can readily come up with the solution. Often, you even know how you would solve an issue before it even presents itself. A problem, on the other hand, is not something that you can solve without forethought and even a certain amount of guesswork.¹ Sports administration on the collegiate and professional level are implementing policies to address issues, but they are not investigating solutions to the problem.
As an example, an athlete exhibiting poor choices away from the field/court [an issue] has a simple solution dictated by policy: suspend the player, fine the player, or get rid of the player. The assistance needed when the athlete makes a poor choice in the first place [the problem] is rarely, if ever, addressed through such policy.
The NFL has addressed the issue of domestic violence with policy; however, it would be more productive for management and more beneficial for athletes and society to address the problem through policy and education. The problem is bigger than domestic violence for the NFL and other sporting leagues. The problem is the lack of holistic education engulfed in personal development specifically catering to the personal, social, and professional needs of the athlete.
Quite often when athletes become the subject of criminal or morally corrupt behavior, we try and look at the national average and compare them to their peers. While this may be a good starting point or indicator that athletes do not commit crime more than the national average in their comparison group, it’s not fair, simply because the average Joe is not making millions of dollars, has not been catered to from an early age, and is not in the spotlight 24/7. The elements that assist in athletes’ behavior are so complex and deep-rooted that it is very difficult to judge them based on the statistics of the national average. As an example, the average 22-25 year old African American male is not earning the type of money an African American male professional football or basketball player is earning.
At the collegiate level, comparing student athletes to non-student athletes is another way the media and athletic personnel minimize behavioral issues. College athletes are treated much different from their peers, because their peers and faculty on campus understand the value of having a successful athletic program. According to Professor John Cunningham, who teaches communication studies to around three-quarters of Baylor’s football players, “In the last five years, since we changed football coaches and started winning, the admissions at the university have soared.
“The football team has a direct effect on the number of students that we brought into Baylor this year, and that helps everybody at the university. More students mean more tuition dollars coming in, which means more faculty and staff being hired.” ²– Professor John Cunningham
However, the more popular and successful the program, the higher possibility out-of-sport behavioral issues can occur.
According to Aleem Maqbool of BBC News, away from the football field, many students on the Baylor University campus said their football players were made to feel that they were the university’s most valuable asset. One student reported, “People kind of treat them like celebrities in college, so they think they’re higher than everybody else, like ‘we can do whatever we want.’”² This type of thinking on the collegiate level has a direct connection to the attitude and behavior we have witnessed with the professional athlete.
College and professional sports is a business, and athletes are the driving force behind the revenue generated, like it or not. Up until recently, professional teams have not suffered financially when an athlete displayed unwelcome behavior. However, sponsors and fans are starting to wake up to the lack of personal development afforded to the athlete. The NFL’s mishandling of the domestic violence issues has had a small financial impact on the league. However, for athletes involved in criminal or immoral behavior, the financial impact has been huge. Sports agencies and agents must realize their clients [athletes] need more from them than multi-million dollar contract negotiations. Why negotiate a multi-million dollar contract only to have it terminated because of poor choices away from the sporting environment?
Collegiate officials are also starting to see the need to take a closer look at athlete behavior and, in the case of the University of North Carolina, an even closer look at the athletic personnel responsible for assisting student athletes.
I fear the attention of the athlete’s overall needs has been minimized and classified as a need for policy surrounding issues such as domestic violence, bystander training, or a workshop on dining etiquette. Although this type of training would be useful, I caution that these topics are only a small stem of the root of personal development. Professional leagues and the college sector need to introduce proactive policy regarding the personal development of the athlete.
The time has come for us to stop making excuses, reverting to the national average or a comparison to students on campus, and address the real problem. Only then can we successfully deal with the issues.