Whether they are acting as role models for children who watch them on television, being asked to sign autographs or getting constant social media attention, it is clear that professional athletes are at the forefront of our society. For better or for worse, it seems that every accomplishment is noted, and some athletes take on larger-than-life personas.
Almost any professional athlete is under a tremendous amount of pressure because of how lucrative the field can be if he or she reaches the top. After all, one high school phenom turned basketball superstar, LeBron James, has a net worth of $72 million, including $53 million in endorsements, according to Forbes.
It is actually pretty common for schools and teams to scout some sports talent from an early age. Kids as young as even 13 who stand out in their sport sometimes receive national attention and are prematurely hailed as superstars.
However, there are many not-so-positive stories that get told when mentioning these talented athletes. For every LeBron James, there is a Lenny Cooke. There were such high expectations for the former high school superstar from Brooklyn that since the beginning of high school he garnered attention in the industry. He was even considered better than James at one point, but his career never materialized because he was not drafted. Across all of the major sports, there are examples of young athletes with all the hype in the world who do not end up having successful careers. This begs the question: Why place such unbelievably high expectations on these young men and women?
When analyzing athletes with incredibly high expectations, I cannot help but think of one distressing example. On Wednesday, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was finally on record admitting to his extensive past of taking performance-enhancing drugs over many years.
As a fan of the Yankees, I have a very hard time rooting for a blatant cheater and robber. However, I cannot help but think that this is just a prime example of unrealistic expectations that are placed on athletes and the desire for them to fulfill them. A-Rod felt the need to fill his expectation of being the most transcendent figure of his generation in baseball by taking illegal substances and repeatedly lying to try to get himself to the top.
Similarly, in order to adequately fill his role as an inspirational cycling champion and hero, Lance Armstrong used drugs, cheated, lied and betrayed those close to him to accomplish his goal. It disgusts me to see that we have created a world where if an athlete is afraid of not living up to expectations, which are often so unreasonably high, that he or she feels the pressure to elevate to the top while potentially throwing others under the bus along the way.
In order for cases like these to become less prevalent, I think some major societal changes need to occur in regards to how athletes are treated. It begins with not placing so much of a burden on an athlete so early on, since, in many cases, an athlete will stretch themselves too thin by focusing too hard on one sport while closing doors in other areas. The sport should not be the be-all-end-all. I believe that to fix the problems often associated with these “next best things” in each sport, there should be effort from both sides.
The athletes should strive for a healthy and well-balanced life and not just superstardom. A great way of doing this is for star athletes to apply themselves in the classroom just as much as they do on the field in hopes of being involved in a strong sports program at a college with rigorous academics.
Meanwhile, sports media and others who evaluate athletes should make more educated predictions and not just make quick judgements with limited information. Misguided expectations can put these young men and women down the wrong path, so it is important for media to avoid this.
As someone who is directly involved in sports media at Lehigh, I believe accomplishments should always be noted for athletes, but a line needs to be drawn. To generate more interesting stories, hyperboles tend to be used, and these advanced young athletes are the victims of these media-created hyperboles. They suddenly become someone who will have a Hall of Fame career and are compared to legends. People are getting excited about what could be, while the media is not discussing some much more likely scenarios. Granted, using such exaggerations to introduce new promising talent will receive a lot of attention, but it is not likely to be accurate and can get into the heads of the athletes in a very bad way.
On a positive note, huge pressure can really bring out the competitive nature in athletes in a good way and get them to perform their very best. On the other hand, it can bring about some truly destructive behaviors and can often lead to some very poor decisions.
As a society, we need to be careful about how much pressure we put on emerging athletes.