Monday, September 20, 2010

Criminal Athletes

Criminal Athletes
Professional sports in the United States are as popular as ever.  Fans rabidly cheer in stadiums across the country, sport bars fill up on game nights, and civilians don jerseys to emulate the stars from their favorite franchise.  Today’s players have reached heroic, godlike status in all of our major cities.  Adults and children alike want nothing more than to be like the athletes they idolize.  With the increasing number of athletes involved in illegal activity each year, however, sports fans are not being provided with the responsible, admirable behavior that should be expected from their role models.  Since many sports fans are young and impressionable, we should all be worried about the moral demonstration that is being provided by the athletes of today.  Action needs to be taken in order to correct the misbehavior of today’s sports icons, and I believe there is a way. 

            Major League Baseball has done an exemplary job in cracking down on the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs (PED’s), such as steroids and HGH (human growth hormone).  For years many of the leagues superstars were on steroids, boosting their performance to unprecedented heights.  Many records were broken, attendance was up and the game had reached a whole new level of competition. Granted these are all good things for the sport, however, the commissioner (Bud Selig) realized the importance of keeping the game’s integrity was greater, which spawned the great witch hunt for juicers (steroid users).  A new era has been born in the MLB, which requires regular and surprise drug testing for all players, as well as an ongoing investigation into who used in the past.  Hall of fame caliber athletes who have tested positive for PED’s are now required to be entered into the hall with an asterisk beside their name so everyone will know which athletes elevated their performance abilities with illegal drugs.  This action is like the scarlet letter of the major leagues, and seems to be working well. 

            The scare tactics used by the MLB work great in addressing the problem of drugs in sports, but do not provide a solution to the many other issues that need to be addressed. With players arrested for rape, illegal fire arms, dog fighting, DUI (one incident involving involuntary man-slaughter with an automobile), and involvement in gang related activities, the NFL has become the most troubled league in North America.  The Cincinnati Bengals alone have had 9 players arrested since 2005.  In the NBA, players have been prosecuted with illegal firearms, while others have been suspended for bringing guns into the locker room and possibly threatening teammates. There’s no easy solution, but the most logical approach involves every athlete’s greatest motivator: money. 

            In all sports today, players are issued high paying contracts, where only a percentage of the money is guaranteed.  For many athletes, the largest amount of pay is earned through incentives, designed to increase the athlete’s on-field performance.  Instead of relying on the player to perform their best, team owners offer their athletes bonuses for outstanding play by using certain milestones as markers of achievement. For example, the Washington Redskins signed defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth in 2009, guaranteeing him $41 million over 7 years, with an additional $60 million to be earned through on field incentives. This model has proven to be effective for getting the most out of today’s players on the field, and has become the common design for contracts used in all sports today. With some restructuring, these contracts could be the answer to reducing criminal activity among professional athletes. 

            The solution lies within the use of performance incentives. On-field performance, however, is no longer the only concern owners have for their players.  Off-field issues have cost teams and players heavy fines, and severe suspensions, which have been handed down from the league commissioner.  These suspensions have proven to be detrimental to the success of many teams.  While on field incentives are necessary to promote performance, it may be time to implement off field incentives as well. Of course, organizations already pay substantial amounts to these players, so I’m not suggesting athletes be paid more. The pay should be the same, only the on field incentives should be decreased to accommodate for off-field performance pay.

One of the first initiatives that should be taken is providing bonuses for players involved in community outreach programs.  Athletes who volunteer time and money to the community are less likely to be involved in unlawful situations.  If the team owners were to issue bonuses for volunteering, the value of the bonus could be measured by the number of hours the player commits to their particular cause or community organization.  If team owners are not willing to sacrifice money towards these commitments, there is also the option of creating mandatory, off-season community service as part of a player’s contract.

The next area that needs to be addressed is an athletes actual criminal activity.  A bonus for keeping out of trouble and for not being affiliated with any concerning behaviors would be nice, but would not make much sense for the men writing the checks.  Granted the number of athletes charged with (or accused of) breaking the law is concerning, the number of those who are not is still greater.  Since the majority doesn’t need to be reminded to behave well, the solution should only affect those that do.  The answer for this problem is not a bonus, but rather, a fine. 

When a player is involved in any type of conduct deemed inappropriate by the ownership, a predetermined fine should be assessed.  This fine should be consistent league wide as a percentage of each player’s salary.  By using the same percentage per player, athletes earning only the league minimum would not be expected to pay as much as Albert Haynesworth, for instance. Should a player be a multiple offender, the percentage of the fine should increase with each incident.  These fines will be team issued, allowing the commissioner of the league to still hand out fines and suspensions where he sees appropriate.

            Of course, as with any system, it’s not perfect.  I’m not sure this is the answer for keeping Tiger Woods from having an affair, or preventing NBA referees from gambling on games.  It is, however, an effort towards correcting the problems in professional sports.  Leagues continue to use the same strategy, addressing problems through the commissioner only, with minimal success.  My proposal could be applied to any league, and with some fine tuning, might be the answer to restoring role model status to the athletes of today.

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