Fame's dark shadows

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

The elite athlete has held a privileged place in society since Mongol hordes went horse racing and Genghis Khan batted heads of losers around the polo fields of the Steppes.

We're a bit more sedate these days. We don't mind our heroes bleeding a bit -- which might explain the Ultimate Fighting craze -- but it's considered inconsiderate of them to have the temerity to actually die.

More than we care to know do. Die, that is. Emotionally. Even physically. It's just that by the time it happens the bright lights have often gone dark, the money's gone with some scam artist, the wife is long gone or the bottle is empty.

"People don't have a clue. All they see are the mansions, the cars, the arenas, the wife with the diamonds and pretty clothes, their perfect little kids," says Diana McNab, a psychologist and a contributing editor of Pro Sports Wives Magazine.

While all of the spoils of sport are reality for elite athletes, so is the price they pay for fame, including divorce, broken bodies, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and financial ruin.

"If the public understood that 78% of athletes two years out of the game are either bankrupt, divorced or unemployed, they would have a much graver understanding of how difficult this lifestyle is," says Bob LaMonte, an educator and member of the board at New York University. He has also been a player agent for 31 years and currently represents 40 NFL or U.S. college football coaches.

While the million-dollar contracts make headlines, what is often unseen is that the average pro career is done within 2 1/2 to four years, depending on the sport.

Often the athletes themselves don't know the pitfalls of celebrity.

"I think the biggest problem in pro sports is this new sense of entitlement and narcissism that comes with it. Where society, right from parents to coaches and fans treat them as if they are better than everyone else because of what they do," says McNab, who was married to former NHL player Peter McNab for 23 years and is just recently divorced from six-time world champion all-round cowboy Larry Mahan.

"Everything is out of proportion: the salaries, the status, the kudos and the fan clubs. It's so out of perspective that athletes almost have dual personalities. One is the sports personality where there are no limitations, there are double standards, they do what they want, they're invincible, they're entitled. That's where the value system breaks down.

"Do a lot of them cheat on their wives? Yes. Is there drink, drugs, rock and roll? Yes. Are there indiscretions on the road? Yes. Do they pick up gambling addictions? Yes."

According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, about 100 athletes a year -- that's two per week -- are accused of rape or violence toward women. And, that doesn't even include incidents such as Sean Avery slagging former girlfriends.

The spoils of war

"It wouldn't surprise me. It goes back to that Top Gun culture where sports is like a war. None of the rules in normal society apply any more. Elite athletes learn that Top Gun mentality that says all that counts is winning," says Angela Schneider, a former Canadian Olympic rower, now professor of kinesiology and dean of ethics in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Western Ontario, in London. "You have the puck bunnies; you have the groupies in baseball and in some cases it's like the old gladiatorial days ... some players start to regard women as the spoils of war."

Elite athletes are usually risk takers who won't accept limits to what they can achieve. Now, add to the mix an athlete's need for stimulation. All are great attributes on the athletic field but not always good in society.

"It is ironic that so many champions, who made it to the top through determination, focus and discipline, could display such poor judgment off the playing field," writes Pauline Wallin, PhD, a psychologist and author of Taming Your Inner Brat. "The need for stimulation, combined with miscalculating risk, is what compromises the judgment of people who drive recklessly, use drugs, get into physical fights, engage in adultery and commit acts of violence. To that extent, sports stars have to work harder than the rest of us to stay out of trouble."

So Plaxico Burris takes a gun to town. Or Michael Vick takes his dog for a walk. "It's problematic for us because they're publicly acknowledged to be privileged wherever they are. We get upset because it's an abuse of their privilege," says Paul Dennis, player development coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs. "As fans, we have expectations of athletes. When they deviate from that, everybody gets upset."

There are 1,600 players in the NFL and sometimes it seems they're all out on parole. But don't blame the game, McNab says.

"A bad guy is a bad guy. I was counselling rodeo guys. One young girl said, 'Well my guy is pretty mean. When he's down, he takes it out on me. He's kind of a bad guy.' Another said, 'Mine doesn't. I've got a good guy.' And that's just how it is. It's a crap shoot. There are good guys and bad guys and it just depends on how they were raised and what they saw. The bad guys, you still love them, but they kill your soul."

She and Peter McNab parted amicably. In fact, if a girl were to get mixed up with anyone in pro sports, McNab says a hockey player wouldn't be a bad choice.

"It's origin. If he grew up in the ghetto and they did all kinds of bloodthirsty games, he brought that to the NFL. The sport didn't create that. That's why hockey players from Canada seem like such nice guys when you're counselling them. They usually come from small towns, pretty conservative, from tight families. They're not into mischief, but the NBA, baseball, football players you're getting a lot of kids from dense urban populations where they've seen a lot of stuff go down. So they bring guns into the league. They bring violence into the league. They bring their drug dealers into the league."

Franchise owners and the leagues don't do enough to counsel players of the dangers, either. Says McNab, "Management basically says: 'Screw it, for the amount of money I'm giving you, figure out your own life."

Too many never do. Or they feel the pressure to stay on top.

"I don't think the public understands the pressure these guys are under on a day-to-day basis. Their careers could turn in a heartbeat, whether they piss the wrong person off or blow out a knee, pick your poison. People underestimate the amount of time and effort it took to get to that level," says Duncan Fletcher, director of the Professional Athlete Transitional Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

"One of my favourite stories is the number of athletes who tell me that people come up to them and say, 'Aw, we would've made it but a scout didn't see me play, or I hurt my knee.' People think it was one twist of fate that kept them out of the pro level. It's not that simple. These people have put their whole lives into the game. Sacrificed almost everything."

Those sacrifices include education. The institute has hooked up with the NHL players' association and in the past six years more than 300 current and former players have attended Quinnipiac to help them find alternative careers.

The quest for fame and money can drive athletes to sacrifice body and soul. Science may say steroids kill. They can also help you win. So Marion Jones went from the darling of U.S. track to a tearful confession and a jail cell. Track and field guru Charlie Francis once noted that Ben Johnson might've been vilified and stripped of his gold medal for steroid use but that if he had stayed clean it would've been like lining up at the start line three yards behind the rest of the field.

Sadly, Francis has been proven right. American Dennis Mitchell, who accepted the bronze medal when Johnson was stripped, was subsequently banned from track for drug abuse. Silver medallist Linford Christie, who also tested positive in Seoul but successfully argued that he had taken the substance inadvertently while drinking ginseng tea, was caught by the steroid police years later. Carl Lewis was the Teflon champion for years. He was cleared of wrongdoing when he claimed he innocently had taken a cold medicine containing banned stimulants even though three separate substances, including the contentious ephedrine, had been found in his samples.

Sometimes the glamour is lost amidst a pile of dirty syringes and nasty headlines. Sometimes the athlete is to blame himself. Sometimes it is the media, which have become a beastly, untameable, multi-headed Hydra.

"Pro athletes pay an extraordinary price for their fame. The media proliferation has put players under greater scrutiny than ever before," LaMonte says. "It used to be only newspapers and mostly they'd just write about the games and what happened on the field. Now there are TV stations, all-day sports radio, the younger generation does all their reading on the Internet and you've got bloggers. So to keep up, newspapers now do any story ... sports writers have had to become ambulance chasers."

As the media have become more intrusive, athletes have become more gun-shy.

The public? It hasn't changed much from the days when the lions were the ones getting cheered at the Roman Coliseum. "People love reading about people who make a lot of money and get screwed up," LaMonte says. "It makes them feel better."

If the booze, drugs, divorce or media doesn't get you, chances are some scam artist will, as several members of the Toronto Argonauts -- including Pinball Clemons -- discovered recently. There isn't a major-league dressing room that doesn't have someone who got talked into investing in a failed restaurant or bar that couldn't miss.

"They have a bull's-eye on their back. They're high profile. They're perceived to have bags of money. So they've always got to be on guard for getting smoked and there have been some guys recently who've taken it on the chin," Fletcher says.

While many of the traps are avoidable, one isn't. All athletes have one common enemy they can do little about: Injury.

"They're always one check or one tackle away from everything coming to an end," Dennis says.

Retired NHL goaltender Glenn Healy spent 14 seasons dodging that bullet. It's a tough life in that you don't know how long it lasts.

"You could get 20 years, but it could also be 20 games, or 20 minutes or 20 seconds," he says.

Pressure

Despite the uncertainty, the lack of control over your destiny, the pressure to perform great things, and despite the pain, Healy wouldn't trade his dalliance with the stars for anything. "It's like the marines: The few and the proud. There aren't that many people who get to play in the NHL. Maybe 5,000, and of that maybe 2,500 are alive."

The life of a pro athlete comes with glitz, glamour and -- for a while -- money. More importantly, it should come with awareness, direction and purpose. The tragedy of sport is that it too often doesn't.

"You can't paint (the lifestyle) as terrible but there is a significant price you pay. I don't think that side of the story has ever been communicated," Fletcher says.

"If you're a 15-year-old kid thinking about turning pro you better really know how you're going to go about your future life. If you really knew what the life of the average pro athlete was all about, you might even think twice about it."

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sudden death

Unexpected death in athletes has always intrigued the public. A study quoted by the NFL players' association shows its members have a life expectancy of less than 60 years, and StrengthPlanet.com reveals that the average elite athlete will die by the age of 67, considerably lower then the 76 year life expectancy of the average North American. Here are just a few examples of athletes that have died prematurely.

John Kordic

Age: 27 Sport: NHL, Quebec Nordiques

Cause of death: Heart failure, cocaine

Lyle Alzado

Age: 43 Sport: NFL, retired

Cause of death: Brain tumor, steroid history

Keith Magnuson

Age: 56 Sport: NHL, retired

Cause of death: Car crash

Reggie White

Age: 43 Sport: NFL, retired

Cause of death: Heart failure

Ken Caminiti

Age: 41 Sport: Major League Baseball, retired

Cause of death: Drug overdose, steroid history

Len Bias

Age: 22 Sport: NBA, Boston Celtics

Cause of death: Heart failure, cocaine

Mike Webster

Age: 50 Sport: NFL, retired

Cause of death: Heart failure, dementia

Pelle Lindbergh

Age: 26 Sport: NHL, Philadelphia Flyers

Cause of death: Car crash, alcohol

Walter Payton

Age: 45 Sport: NFL, retired

Cause of death: Liver disease

Steve Chiasson

Age: 32 Sport: NHL, Carolina Hurricanes

Cause of death: Car crash, alcohol

Chris Benoit

Age: 40 Sport: Professional wrestling, WWE

Cause of death: Suicide, steroid history

Brian Spencer

Age: 38 Sport: NHL, retired

Cause of death: Murder, substance abuse

Tim Horton

Age: 44 Sport: NHL, Buffalo Sabres

Cause of death: Car crash, alcohol

Dan Snyder

Age: 25 Sport: NHL, Atlanta Thrashers

Cause of death: Car crash, speeding

Owen Hart

Age: 34 Sport: Professional wrestling, WWF

Cause of death: Wrestling stunt accident

Korey Stringer

Age: 27 Sport: NFL, Minnesota Vikings

Cause of death: Heat stroke


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