For the pro athlete, it’s just a job
Within hours of creating one its most glorious moments, the pro sports world exposed one of its dirty little secrets.
Hours after the New York Giants’ dramatic Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday, the losing team threw a loud party where two key players, tight end Rob Gronkowski and tackle Matt Light, stripped off their shirts and joyfully danced onstage.
The video went viral, and plenty of people got sick. Many Patriots fans couldn’t understand it. A least one notable former Patriot couldn’t accept it.
“There’s no reason for that to happen … it’s not right,” said former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison on ESPN Chicago Radio 1000. “When we lost the Super Bowl, I was so devastated the last thing I ever wanted to do was party.”
Some of them do get devastated, but not most of them, thus the dirty little secret.
The players don’t care as much as you do.
Here, let me write it again for that Patriots die-hard who still hasn’t slept, for that Lakers lover who is suffering from a stress disorder, for any professional sports fan who has literally cried in his beer while assuming his heroes are doing the same.
The players don’t care as much as you do.
In my 30 years of covering professional sports, I’ve found barely a handful of players who care as much about winning as the most fervent of fans. We’re spoiled around here because we’ve watched Kobe Bryant hate on losing for the last 16 years, but Bryant is the exception.
Professional athletes care about their salaries. They care about their security. They care about their health. They care about the same things we care about in our jobs. They like winning and dislike losing but are generally unaffected by the daily successes or failures of their company, and really, what right do we have to demand otherwise?
Certainly, pro athletes with integrity instinctively give their best effort, are at least momentarily devastated upon suffering a tough loss, and are jubilant after a big win. But on a daily basis, the average pro athlete views the average game as another day at the office.
I’ve always felt the Happiest Place on Earth was not Disneyland, but the hallway outside NBA locker rooms after a playoff elimination game. The players on the winning team are happy to keep playing, and the players on the losing team are happy to be going on vacation. The losers loudly joke with the winners, exchange phone numbers with them, brag about their upcoming trip to Mexico, then put their children on their shoulders and skip into summer.
Sometimes they don’t even wait until the elimination loss for the Mexico part. In the 1998 playoffs, when the Lakers were in the process of being swept by the Utah Jazz, guard Nick Van Exel infamously led the team in a post-practice chant that went, “One, two, three …Cancun!”
Although Van Exel said he was joking, Shaquille O’Neal ripped him and the club sent him packing, because everybody in pro sports is programmed to talk about living or dying with the team, but their actions speak louder than their words.
I’ve always felt that the greatest example of pro football unity does not take place in a fourth-quarter huddle, but in postgame handshakes. Have you seen how these combatants suddenly join forces on the field after the final gun, hugging, laughing together, hanging out like best friends, a dozen impromptu reunions? Remember how, on the field after a supposedly tough three-point loss last season, Dallas’ Tashard Choice actually asked Philadelphia’s Michael Vick for his autograph?
“Fans are very much identified with their teams, often more than athletes, and they take losses much harder,” said Marc Shatz, a Beverly Hills clinical psychologist who deals with both. “Players have the security of their contracts, they have every narcissistic need met, they think this will last forever, so individual losses have much more meaning to fans.”
Four years ago, fans were surprised when injured Jeremy Shockey spent the Super Bowl partying in a luxury box instead of sweating with his New York Giants teammates on the sidelines. Last season, fans were shocked when Derek Anderson, quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals, was laughing and joking on the sidelines late in a bad loss.
Another place that player priorities are not a secret is in Las Vegas, where, in pro sports wagering, the folks who make the betting lines completely discount athlete emotion.
“Last week we got questions about whether we account for Tom Brady wanting revenge on the Giants, but you can’t let that influence the math,” said Jay Rood, race and sports betting director for MGM/Mirage’s Nevada sports books. “These guys, it’s just their jobs. The average Joe looks at it like more than a job, but that’s all it is.”
Rood said he approaches college sports differently because it’s still kids who don’t yet have careers and still really care first about winning for the team. After all, they don’t call it the, “good ol’ NFL try,” do they?
“In college, the athletes play for fleeting moments,” Rood said. “But in the pros, if you don’t have the motivation to give your best performance for your next contract or paycheck, I don’t know where that motivation comes from.”
It’s a tough truth to swallow, but it’s real, and perhaps we should remember it the next time we see a pro athlete relaxing after a tough loss like we might relax after a bad day at work.
Win one for the Gipper? The Gipper never played in the NFL.
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