On Best Behaviour

Sportsmen and women are human. They will make mistakes in their lives just as the general public do, the difference being that because of our nation’s obsession with our sports stars and their lives away from the pitch (can’t really call it private anymore), any minor  indiscretion will be seized upon and reported to the world. The British public are generally intelligent enough to realise when a story has been blown out of proportion though, on the whole they will appreciate that everyone makes mistakes and that  public figures should be allowed to do so without being vilified by the press. However when an indiscretion becomes more than minor it should come as no surprise that it will be splashed across the papers and one’s judgement will be called into question.

*The aim of this post is not to discuss the rights of the press or an individual, it is to highlight the carefree attitude some take to their career choice as a professional athlete and the responsibilities that come with it.*

Jonny Wilkinson

Jonny Wilkinson focuses on the matter in hand. Photo: Taneroa

Like it or not, high-profile professional sport now comes with a price. Yes you get to do something which you love and get paid handsomely in return, but if you choose to make the most of this fame then you have to be prepared to tolerate the media intrusion that will inevitably follow. There are of course those who shy away from the spotlight, who simply go about a normal life as you and I would, just with considerably more money than we could ever dream of. This results in journalists and paparazzi ignoring them as they go about their lives, deeming the holiday photos of a happy family to be of far less interest than those of Cristiano Ronaldo lying on a boat surrounded by girls in bikinis. People such as Paul Scholes spring to mind, Jonny Wilkinson is another, these are athletes who at their peak were unquestionably the best in the country at what they do, if not the world. They could have cashed-in on their talents and lived the lives of playboys, instead they shunned the publicity. Both of them still look ill at ease when being interviewed and the fact that their Wikipedia pages struggle to muster even a paragraph for a ‘Personal Life’ section speaks volumes of their modest lifestyles.

In fact it should be noted that this type of athlete is actually the norm. There are thousands of professional footballers, rugby players, cricketers and other sportspeople, the vast majority of whom live event-free lives. They occupy the back pages of the newspapers but never trouble the front, just as their managers and coaches prefer it to be.

Cristiano Ronaldo poses for an Armani underwear poster.

Ronaldo doesn't exactly shun the limelight. Photo: chris.huggins

Then there is the other type of athlete, the one who thinks nothing of going out and getting drunk just days before an important fixture, or thinks the best way to settle a disagreement with a rival fan is to resort to violence. In every walk of life there are a small minority who spoil things for the majority and professional sport is no different. The trials and tribulations of a select few seem to have tarred everyone with the same discoloured brush, particularly when it comes to footballers, and Premier League footballers more specifically. Ask a person in the street for their opinion on top-level footballers and it will invariably be negative. Phrases such as ‘overpaid prima donna’, ‘egotistical playboy’ and ‘lacking morals’ will be trotted out before even a thought is given to those hardworking professionals who make plenty of personal sacrifices and do lots of good work for charities.

You can forgive people for falling back on the media depiction of the irresponsible pro though when you recall some of the incidents to have made the front and back pages in recent years. Gavin Henson, Andrew Flintoff, Joey Barton, Craig Bellamy, Danny Cipriani, just some of the names to have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. Offences have included breaking club’s discipline rules, drinking heavily during a vital training period, stubbing out a cigarette in a teammate’s eye, attacking a teammate with a golf club and going to a night club in preparation for an international fixture. It beggars belief that these supposed professionals would  jeopardise not only their own performance levels, but the performance and health of teammates so willingly. Successful performance in any aspect of life will always require an element of sacrifice, yet these sportsmen seem determined to have their cake and eat it too. They seem cavalier in their attitude towards their job, their reputation, their club’s reputation and the reputation of their sport. Sportspeople may not have asked to be ambassadors for their club or their sport but it comes with the territory. It’s not even as if people are asking them to be saints and live a monastic lifestyle, all it takes is a little common sense; if you’ve got a big game coming up at the weekend then don’t go out to a club in the build up, if you have a disagreement with a teammate then leave it as a disagreement without reaching for the 9-iron, and if you go to a club party then watch where you put your cigarette.

Unfortunately the list of idiotic acts committed by professional athletes doesn’t end there. Below are a select few of the most ridiculous stories you will ever read, if they weren’t true then they’d be funny – unfortunately they’re all true:

Plaxico Burress (NFL wide receiver): Sentenced to two years in prison for shooting himself in the leg with a pistol he had tucked down his trousers in a nightclub.

Andy Powell (Welsh rugby union flanker): Arrested for drunkenly stealing and driving a golf buggy 3.5 miles away from the team hotel towards the M4 motorway following a narrow victory over Scotland.

Ashley Cole (Chelsea and England left-back): Shot a work placement student with his .22 calibre air rifle at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground.

Delonte West (NBA point guard): Having been pulled over for a traffic violation whilst driving a three-wheeled motorcycle police found him to be in possession of a pistol, he was also carrying a pump-action shot-gun in a guitar case on his back. Also reported to have had an affair with Gloria James, mother of teammate LeBron James.

Freddie Flintoff celebrates ENgland winning the 2005 Ashes.

'Freddie' Flintoff chooses a more appropriate time to indulge a little celebration. Photo: Ben Sutherland

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool and England midfielder): Arrested and charged, but later cleared, for assaulting a DJ at a night club for not allowing him control of the sound system.

Michael Vick (NFL quarterback): Served 21 months in prison for his part in an illegal dog fighting ring that operated for five years.

So it seems that if you can think of it, a professional athlete somewhere has done it and put their career in jeopardy as a result. The combination of phenomenally high salaries and lots of spare time to fill could be used to do so much good, and in the majority of cases it is – even if that good is just living a happy life away from the cameras. Unfortunately there are a select few who drag everyone else down around them, of course there will always be the odd few in any population that cannot be controlled but you can’t help but think that with the correct guidance and advice that the vast majority of ill-discipline issues could be eradicated.

One final point; I’m not advocating a world full of Paul Scholes’ and Jonny Wilkinsons, that may tire somewhat, but individuals such as Ian Holloway demonstrate that it is possible to have a character, entertain people and still do a sterling job at the same time.

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The Price of Loyalty

‘Home is where the heart is’, or so the saying goes at least, more and more though home seems to be wherever the biggest pay check is for today’s sporting stars. The idea of a club side being made up of entirely local players is now so outdated that in the Barclays Premier League it would come as a shock to have more than one or two local lads in the squad, let alone the starting 11. It seems there will never be a repeat of Celtic’s European Cup winning ‘Lisbon Lions’, all of whom were born within 30 miles of Glasgow.

Dog on train

A dog may be a man's best friend, but can we expect the same loyalty from our sporting stars? Photo: marc falardeau.

Of course there are still exceptions, true ‘one club men’ are few and far between though. People like Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard and Marcus Trescothick are a dying breed, seemingly being replaced by ‘hired mercenaries’ such as Ashley Cole, Kevin Pietersen and Gavin Henson. Should we criticise these people though? Or are their actions simply symptomatic of the way sport has changed since television money flooded in? Is it realistic to expect an athlete to forsake a greater salary and a higher quality of competition simply to remain at their childhood club? And is this even a problem? Do fans really care about where their players are from anymore? Or is success on the pitch all they worry about?

Sports fans are a fickle bunch and I would suggest that when their team is succesful, they don’t really worry about the origins of their players. Of course they would prefer to have a team of home-grown world beaters but that just isn’t feasible anymore. Even Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy has only half its intake from Catalonia and perhaps the most famous of their alumni to date is Argentinian maestro Lionel Messi. When a team isn’t doing so well, and is made up of foreign imports and players with no connection to the local area then it is very easy for fans to turn on them and voice their displeasure. It is at this point that calls are often heard to ‘blood the youngsters’ as they ‘can’t be any worse’, calls that are rarely heard when that same band of merry men are winning and the youth players daren’t be risked for fear of a dip in form.

So if fans show little loyalty to their players then why should the players show any loyalty in return? Could anyone say for certain that Gary Neville or Steven Gerrard would not have left their boyhood teams if they weren’t so succesful and so handsomely rewarded for their efforts? Indeed Gerrard did have his head turned by Chelsea in the summer of 2004 but decided to stay put and commit his future to Liverpool. A commendable decision but not exactly one that risked his family’s financial security, or his ambitions to play in the Champions league, or his position in the England squad.

Cashley cole

Ashley will forever be known by Arsenal fans as Cashley Cole. Photo: Jason Cartwright.

It is important to distinguish between talented and ambitious young players and those who move simply for the money. Fans will forgive a local young fledgling spreading their wings and flying off to clearer skies, providing they feel that said fledgling has served their apprenticeship, they’ve developed as much as they can at their home club and that they get a bit of money in return for the departing player’s services. What fans will not forgive is a player holding their club to ransom with contract demands that are perceived to be born out of pure greed. The perfect example of such a case is Ashley Cole, who allegedly declined to sign a new £55000 a week contract at Arsenal, apparently disgusted at their ‘derisory’ offer. He was also found guilty of touting his services to Chelsea whilst still under contract with Arsenal and fined £100000 for doing so, later reduced to £75000 after appeal.

The idea of a playing for your childhood club can often be relegated to no more than a dream for those growing up in America. The draft system there gives emerging talent little to no choice over where they will start their professional career, but for a select few the dream does come true. LeBron James is one such player, the high-school basketball sensation that didn’t bother with college and declared for the NBA draft as soon as possible having graduated high school. Hailing from Akron, Ohio, his local team were the Cleveland Cavaliers who fortunately for him had done particularly badly in the 2002-03 season and so had a high chance of getting the no.1 pick in the draft lottery for the 2003 draft. They did, and proceeded to select local hero James, seen by many as the saviour of basketball in Ohio.

Unfortunately he couldn’t quite bring the success that the state so craved, he almost single-handedly dragged the Cavaliers to the playoffs for five consecutive years from 2006-10 but failed to win the NBA championship, falling at the final hurdle in 2007. ‘King’ James was loved throughout Ohio, but when his contract came to an end at the end of the 2010 season he refused to confirm whether or not he would re-sign for his home franchise and so sparked a bidding war for his considerable services. The Miami Heat were the eventual winners, landing James, along with fellow free agent Chris Bosh, and the re-signed Dwyane Wade (all class members of the 2003 draft) to give them a superstar trio hopefully capable of bringing a second NBA championship to South Beach. The rather expensive gamble seems to be paying off as well, Miami currently lead the NBA Playoff Finals 2-1.

LeBron James protects the ball

LeBron James protects the ball in his Cleveland days, he couldn't do the same for his reputation though. Photo: Keith Allison.

James is now despised in Cleveland and widely disliked across the country, this didn’t have to be the case though. James had given seven years of his professional career to his home-state franchise and taken them to the edge a championship. Most people would forgive him leaving for pastures new and a better shot at a title his immense talents (James has two NBA MVPs, and countless other awards to his name at only 26) so richly deserve. It was the manner he did it in though which left a bad taste in America’s mouth, after making it clear that he wasn’t going to automatically re-sign for Cleveland the whole saga dragged on for far too long and finally came to a head with an hour-long special entitled ‘The Decision’, broadcast live on American sports network ESPN. It is reported that he didn’t officially inform Cleveland that he wouldn’t be re-signing for them until just minutes before the show went on air, a move widely criticised by veteran players.

Another similar example is the reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who grew up on the basketball courts of South Chicago. He now plies his trade for the Chicago Bulls having declared for the 2008 NBA draft as a college sophomore (2nd year) and been selected by the Bulls as the 1st overall pick. Rose is four years the junior of James, and is still showing off his wares in his home town but his career path does seem to be taking a similar trajectory to that of the fallen ‘king’. The journey so far; home town hero brought into a struggling side, takes a couple of years to get up to speed with the league but drags his team into the playoffs where they lose in the second round having been named the league MVP, has a familiar ring to it. Chicago do seem to have built a better supporting cast for Rose than Cleveland ever could for James, but only time will tell how many more barren years Rose can take before the lure of a championship ring at another franchise takes his fancy – or if it even will. Rose seems more of a down to earth character than James, he does his talking on the court and leaves it there, he is very thankful to his Mother for raising him, and his three elder brothers for teaching him to play on the tough neighbourhood courts of the windy city. So it remains to be seen whether he will turn his back on Chicago or whether he can become the next ‘Mike’ and deliver a championship to Chicago.

So there is still loyalty around in sport, but present in ever diminishing amounts. Money now talks louder than geographical allegiances ever did and it doesn’t look set to change any time soon. But are we expecting too much from our sporting stars when we the fans can promise very little in return? We’ll be loyal to our clubs, but should a player so much as dare to misplace a pass then we don’t hold back in letting them know how we feel about it. I’d like to know your opinions on whether players are too easily swayed by money nowadays and whether we’ll ever see the likes of that famed Celtic team again, or even get close! Leave a comment below and we’ll see what everybody thinks.

Photo credits: Dog – marc falardeau, Cashley – Jason Cartwright, LeBron – Keith Allison.