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Contract or No Contact? Cost of Playing; Professional Athletes and the Public Eye (By Katie Balint)

Professional athletes are comparable to mythic creatures, doing things your average Joe could only dream of doing without ending up bed bound for weeks of recovery afterwards. Making it as a professional athlete comes at a price however and it pays to spend a minute in their shoes. You find a sport you love and develop this desire to not stop until you’re at the very top. You spend countless hours training causing you to miss out on family/life events, sacrificing schooling, and having to alter your lifestyle completely to fit in all the training elements needed. You change your diet. No more of your favorite ice cream every night or constantly eating cheesecake. Your hard work pays off and one day you get the call, “your skills are unmatched and you would make a great fit to our organization on the quest for a ring/trophy/cup(you get the picture).” Of course, you say yes. This is your biggest dream and what you have been devoting your life to. You are now a professional athlete among the elite. You compete against the best of the best. You compete in the largest arenas possible that you’ve been dreaming about since you were little. Thousands of eyes are on you watching you in the craft you have perfected. Life is perfect. Until you realize these eyes don’t shut off when the buzzer goes off and the game ends. In fact those eyes seem to intensify outside the arena. You go out to eat and your food gets cold from fans wanting your autograph and pictures to boost their social media. How do you say no and then receive harsh criticism on how you were so rude? You walk into your favorite store to get some new clothes; a new social media outlet posts an article about “why would they ever wear that or be associated with that brand?” You and your family are going to a park and your small children get bombarded by the bodies of those thousands of eyes that were glued to you during your performance trying to get pictures of not only you but your kids now too. You go to a bar with some old friends to catch up and reminisce about old times. You wake up the next day to headline news about how you drink too much. The public agrees you clearly need to go to rehab and are setting a bad example for those tiny eyes that look up to you.

You came for the sport, to play the game, to win. You become the greatest target for the public to critique. Society today has placed an immense pressure on these elite professional athletes to be more than just an athlete. They become a public figure. They are judged by the performance both on the field and off the field. The signing of their names on that contract with the big fancy pen is an agreement for them to continue into their profession, for them to do their job. Written in invisible ink, the signing away a layer of their privacy, can unfortunately often times cannot be found. Generally speaking, we as a society, day by day continue to blur the line from pure curiosity and admiration of those living in extraordinary conditions into an obsession. The same can be said for the line that separates public figure and professional athlete. The world of sports reporting has shifted from game stats being published to the latest scandals that happened in athletes’ lives, whether true or fabricated. Headlines are made to grab the attention of the readers and “*insert player’s name* scores run in with police* unfortunately grabs more attention than “*insert team name* scores game winning point in last minute to clench a new sport record*.” The publicity surrounding professional athletes can create a bind, do they sign the contract to pursue their passion or do they not sign the contract and have no contact with the issues surrounding their invasion of privacy?

While there is no exact outlet to blame, society, media, fans, etc., the fact of the matter is that “public figure” and “professional athlete” are becoming synonymous in today’s society and providing professional athletes with an unprecedented level of stardom. There are many questions that we as social workers and mental health advocates need to address. How does this merging of terms influence athletes and their mental health thus possibly impacting their on-field performance? Do professional athletes need to accept this way of being a public figure as a cost for playing their sport at the highest level? What supports do we have in place to help athletes in the transition from athlete to professional athlete? What about their families? Can we work to create a mutually beneficial field for athletes to promote themselves and their organizations to their fans but not have to give their home lives up to the cause? Whether athletes welcome their newfound fame and want to share their lives, on and off the field, there need to be systems and advocates in place for the safety of these very players that we love to admire. Mental health is a major component of being in the spotlight and we need outlets for athletes, and their families, to obtain assistance.

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