Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Entitled Athlete

Turns out I wasn't the only one who thought that David Brooks got it wrong.

The blogosphere has been full of commentary about Brooks' commentary regarding Jeremy Lin. Most take the position that Brooks didn't know what the heck he was talking about when attempting to make the point that it's difficult for an athlete to be religious and succeed at the highest level.

A sports story that unfolded this past week has legitimized Brooks' thought that preparation for, and success at, the highest level of professional sports tends to result in selfishness rather than the selflessness that many religions demand.

Brooks did meander about in his recent column, concluding that religious athletes in general, and Jeremy Lin in particular, struggle in balancing the self-sacrifice that the Judeo-Christian ethic (although Brooks more broadly concludes "the religious ethos") demands with the will to excel in sports, and the fame and attention that come with that success. In response, I argued that sports can, especially at the amateur level, teach us the same things that that our religions require of us: to work for the common good; to subsume ones' personal achievements to the benefit of the team; that the repetition of practice moves us a little closer to unattainable perfection.

Ryan Braun, however, did his best this past week to prove that often arrogance, self-importance, and a sense of entitlement often go hand-in-hand with athletic success. 

Braun is the baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers who tested positive for steroids (at 20 times the normal level, mind you, when four times is enough to warrant a finding of doping) during last season's playoffs. An arbitration hearing was held on his appeal from the 50 game suspension that he was dealt in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement between the teams and the Players' Union. Braun won his appeal, apparently on the technicality that the protocol for the MLB drug testing procedure had not been followed.  According to ESPN:

In his appeal, Braun didn't argue evidence of tampering and didn't dispute the science, but argued protocol had not been followed.  Multiple sources confirmed to ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn that Braun questioned the chain of custody and collection procedure.

So, essentially, good lawyering and a technicality got Braun off. As a lawyer who has heard a "not guilty" verdict on behalf of his client, I appreciate the arbitrator's decision for exactly what it was -- a finding for Braun because MLB did not follow its protocol. That decision, however, was not a proclamation of innocence.

But Braun couldn't let it go at that. Instead, the day after the arbitration decision was handed down, he held a press conference at which he announced the decision as one of vindication. "I will continue to take the high road," Braun said. "We won because the truth was on my side. I was a victim of a process that completely broke down and failed as it was applied to me in this case. Today's about making sure this never happens to anyone else who plays this game." He also took a swipe at the man whose job it was to collect, store, and ship Braun's sample by saying that "we spoke to biochemists and scientists, and asked them how difficult it would be for someone to taint the sample.  They said, if they were motivated, it would be extremely easy."

Mr. Not Guilty Proclaims his Innocence.

So much for the high road.

What Braun didn't say, of course, is that there was no evidence that his sample had been tampered with. Or that his lawyers had argued that it had been. Or the complete lack of ability of the "motivated" villain to tamper with the sample of a specific player, since the samples are identified only by a number, not name, and are sealed in the player's presence. Or why MLB, especially since its Commissioner is the former owner of the club for whom Braun toils and whose statue sits outside of Miller Park where he plays 81 times a season, would condone, let alone instigate, the tampering.

Braun's throwing of the sample collector under the bus resulted in the collector coming forward to defend himself. Yes, Ryan, he has a name, and a reputation to protect. In doing so, Dino Laurenzi, Jr. made it even more clear than it already had been that while Braun had succeeded in beating the rap, the evidence against him was indisputable.

In choosing to incorrectly proclaim his vindication when it didn't occur, Braun perhaps didn't act much differently than others would have given the opportunity. That he chose to justify his false innocence by singling out someone who by all appearances was just doing his job, who had no explained or even conjectured bias against Braun, is a completely selfish act that certainly fits Brooks' profile of the modern professional athlete. None of Braun's actions, from the time that he gave the sample up through his lawyer's response to Laurenzi's statement, have been intended to benefit anyone but Braun.

Braun, of course, is not alone when it comes to boorish behavior by athletes. In fact, just this past week Tiger Woods, the poster-child for self-absorbed athletes everywhere, engaged in yet another attempt to intimidate a reporter who asked a question that Woods did not believe required a response.

There is no doubt that athletics can teach us values consistent with those of our religions. But there is also no doubt that the single-mindedness necessary to achieve at the highest level of sports, the unshakable belief in oneself that he or she can make it to the top, and the fawning attention from parents, coaches, hangers-on, fans and often the media that accompanies that success can also create self-centered individuals who, other than their value as entertainers, have nothing to offer to society as a whole.

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