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.