Athletes are people, first.
A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine approached me about writing an article about the way athletes are treated when they venture outside of sports. It got me thinking about how frequently this occurs—and how people react so differently to athletes than to other people.
My colleague’s idea stemmed from what happened to Le’Veon Bell over this offseason. For those who don’t know, Le’Veon Bell is a once-in-a-generation running back in the NFL.
Prior to the 2018 season, Le’Veon refused to show up for training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He wanted a long-term contract, so he sat out the season until someone would pay him what he believes he is worth.
During the year he sat out, he explored rapping, playing basketball and spending time in Miami vacationing and enjoyed his time off. However, much of the narrative surrounding Bell’s hold out was “stick to sports,” implying that he should not explore other ventures during his time off.
The rest of your TEAM is at camp working and your lazy ass is on twitter. #gettowork
— Mac (@macpsu03) July 26, 2018
This is hardly the first time this has come up. About a year ago, a Fox News analyst told Lebron James—the world’s greatest basketball player—to “shut up and dribble” after making a political statement.
LeBron was told to “shut up and dribble.” Instead he opened a school.
And he tells me he has no regrets about critizing Donald Trump: “For someone to try to divide us by using our platform of sport? Sport has given me everything I could ever ask for – I couldn’t let that happen” pic.twitter.com/wyzuuTd3Eo
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) July 31, 2018
In fact, just this weekend Andrew Luck, the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, retired. When news of his retirement reached fans during a Colts game, he was booed off the field. Why? Because certain fans would rather Luck forgo his mental, physical and emotional health in order to entertain people for 4 hours on Sunday.
Instead of booing, judging or criticizing we need to recognize that these and countless other athletes are people first.
While it may seem, insignificant there are some very important reasons why we need to stop telling athletes to stick to sports.
There Is No Data or Evidence to Support This Notion That Athletes Can Only Succeed in Sports
In social sciences like psychology, we try to make sense of aspects of our lives that are difficult to measure—such as how much empathy a person has. Since we are measuring aspects of human nature that don’t have numerical equivalents, we often search for correlations rather than causes.
That said, there is no research that even correlates—let alone proves—that being an athlete reduces one’s aptitude for other interests. In other words, Lebron’s ability to dribble a basketball has no correlation to his interest, knowledge or ability to talk about politics. Bell’s ability to catch a football has no correlation to his ability to rap.
“There is no research that even correlates—let alone proves—that being an athlete reduces one’s aptitude for other interests.”
Any idea that athletes are not as smart or capable as others is a stereotype is not supported by research.
It Sets a Bad Example for Young Athletes
I have a six-month-old daughter. If she should happen to like sports, I hope that sports become an important part of her personality and her life.
If we encourage children at a young age to explore outside interests, it shows them they are more than just an athlete—which helps with identity development. When we shame athletes for pursuing interests and careers outside of sports, we set them up for difficulties later in life. So far, the only thing undefeated in sports is father time.
“When we shame athletes for pursuing interests and careers outside of sports, we set them up for difficulties later in life.”
So, why shame athletes of any age for pursuing other interests when we know they can’t play sports forever? Instead, let’s encourage athletes to have a well-rounded childhood so they can grow into people who look forward to life after sports—rather than dread it.
It Can Limit People from Reaching Their Full Potential
In psychology, some use the term “self-actualization” to describe one’s ability to recognize or obtain their full potential.
Teaching athletes that they need only focus on sports limits their ability to reach their full potential. Let’s consider the average shelf-life of an NFL player is approximately 3 years. So, it makes absolutely no sense to tell someone to “stick” to something, that on average lasts 3 years.
Rather, we should support their desire to seek potential in other areas of life.
Just Because Someone Is in the Public Eye Doesn’t Mean That We Have Any Say in How They Live Their Life
It’s a harsh pill to swallow for some; but athletes’ decisions to pursue other areas of interest, have no direct impact on us. This thought process falls in line with a psychological concept called attributional bias.
Attributional bias is a faulty thinking process that we use to try and explain someone else’s or our own behaviors. Therefore, saying an athlete should stick to sports because “they get a lot of money to dribble a ball” is our own bias that we are applying to make sense of the situation.
Same with stating that Andrew Luck is being weak because he is retiring to preserve his overall wellbeing. Sure, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for someone to walk away from millions, fame and fortune on the outside. But shaming someone for pursuing another interest or preserving their ability to live a self-actualized life is absurd.
They don’t owe us answers.
There are many people who switch careers based on their priorities and values in life. We may seek to make a difference, rather than just make money. Why are athletes any different?
There is no reason why we shame athletes for pursuing other interests. It usually stems from our personal opinions and biases. While we may not know why we shame athletes, we need to start changing the way we talk about it. We don’t tell accountants to stick to crunching numbers when they are interested in music. We don’t tell teachers to stick to teaching when they want to join a gym.
We need to let athletes live their lives, the way they see fit, without criticism or judgment.