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Considering the Human Element of Professional Sports

Professional athletes are human beings, too, and the uncertainty of their careers can have a real impact on their personal lives. A fact that many of us have chosen to overlook.

ESPN has an online tool that has become a bit of a cult classic among basketball fans. It is called the NBA Trade Machine, and fans all over social media use it to fantasize about how their favorite team can acquire new talent. It is a fun, albeit pointless, exercise to simulate trades between teams in the NBA. It particularly reaches peak popularity around the NBA trade deadline, a day where trades are happening at a rapid pace. This offseason, we saw the Trade Machine get fired up again but this time for potential Damian Lillard trades. That trade has of course happened in real life, and has resulted in a subsequent trade of Jrue Holiday to the Boston Celtics.

Holiday’s wife, former US women’s soccer national team player Lauren Holiday, took a moment to lament the cold-hearted nature of the business of sports. In an Instagram post, Holiday expresses being blindsided by the trade, which will move their family from Milwaukee to Boston. She mentions the relationships that were cultivated and the challenges of having to reacclimate to a new city after spending the last 3 years in Milwaukee. Lauren Holiday’s message could be taken as the rich complaining (which she acknowledged) but it is truly a very human statement. The Holiday’s have two children, and uprooting their lives to a new city is something that most of us can relate to. This moment in Holiday's life speaks to the brutal reality that the business of sports waits for no one, and that often comes at the expense of the fact that athletes and their families are human beings.

The Uncertainty of the Dream

When an athlete is drafted to a team (particularly in the NBA and NFL), they often say that it is a “dream come true” to hear their name called by the commissioner of a league. Being drafted is the culmination of years of dedication and hard work, to be privileged to play a game that they love at the highest level. Make no mistake, they are compensated well, but that has always come with a price. The physical toll is one that we consider immediately. A former player like Kevin McHale, who competed on a broken foot still has issues walking today. Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki has often lamented playing for as long as he did, citing his chronic ankle issues that he has dealt with in his retirement.

But even before they play a second of professional ball, an athlete is drafted. The better they are, the more likely they are to go to a bad team in a less than desirable market. Consider the arc of Anthony Davis. Davis was a top-rated recruit coming out of high school in Chicago. He played for one of the most prestigious college programs in Kentucky. Davis was considered to be a can’t miss prospect by many leading up to the 2012 NBA Draft. And for all of that excellence, Davis was drafted to the New Orleans Hornets who would later rebrand as the New Orleans Pelicans. A team with no notable history at the time, and likely one of the least desirable destinations in the NBA.

Because of the draft system, players don’t have much of a say over where they go. There are of course a couple of exceptions to the rule. NFL Quarterbacks John Elway and Eli Manning famously were traded away from the teams that drafted them for instance. But typically, players say how happy they are to be embraced by a new city and how eager they are to turn those teams around. It all goes back to the privilege associated with being a professional athlete, that a lot of those preferences go out of the window when you are making the kind of money that the athletes of today make. But when you take a step back, you realize that this situation is incredibly difficult.

An athlete’s entire support system is subject to be at a distance. They could grow up in California and then be drafted to a team on the east coast, removing them from all their friends and family. They are instantly wealthy in a city that they are unfamiliar with, surrounded by people that they are not comfortable with. All of this between the ages of 18-22. It would be overwhelming for any of us, but because they make a lot of money it seems that the mass population is okay with overlooking this aspect of the professional athlete experience. And yet athletes persevere, often becoming staples in the community, until the business of sports rears its head again and their lives are turned around yet again.

You Know It’s a Business

One of the ultimate paradoxes in professional sports is how quickly someone can go from building a family to the cold realities of business. While a player is developing and a part of an organization's plans they are “family” but when that player no longer is a part of the long-term vision it becomes a business. In a certain sense, this is the great lie of professional sports. A player is an integral part of the fabric of a team only when they help the team win. And even then, they are often discarded as depreciating stocks when they can no longer perform.

We have seen this a lot in the NFL, where players reach a certain age and are not considered worth keeping by their organization in favor of a younger player at the same position with a lower cap hit. Modern players seem to have accepted this reality, understanding that professional sports is a business, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that there is potential for a derailing feeling when the player is on the wrong end of a business decision.

To go from the most important person in a franchise to largely irrelevant in the matter of a couple of years is a jarring reality that every high-level athlete must come to terms with. This on top of the mental stressors of an entire fan base considering you the savior is grounds for mental health issues. Where in the past the alpha male strength exterior was put up, today’s athletes have opened up about their struggles with mental health and the challenges that being a professional athlete present.

More often than not, it is the mentality of the fans that help to shape many of these pressures, and the access that is made possible by social media is a part of the problem. It is not uncommon that fans will go on social media and make harassing statements to athletes when they endure their low moments. In those moments it seems easier for us to look at athletes as names and numbers on a box score than as human beings.

The Fan Element

If you get into any discussion with a fan about an athlete that may be at odds with their team, there is a high probability that they will bring up that player's salary. “If I was making that much money I wouldn’t care about any of that”. The thought process by many is that an exorbitant amount of money changes the equation on every level. The same applies to the treatment of athletes online, where we feel entitled to say vulgar and sometimes offensive statements to athletes.

It is ultimately the dehumanization of the athlete. Where fans feel that everything is fair game if it means the difference between a win and a loss for their favorite team. Often lost in the throws of our fandom is the fact that these are people trying to ply their craft, a very human experience that we often discount because the numbers in the loss column are adding up. Athletes opening up about their personal lives and the emotions that they feel is a start, but it ultimately requires a culture shift in fandom to be able to separate the human being from the product on the field or court.

In that sense, Lauren Holiday speaking up about her experience brings tremendous value to our understanding of the person behind the jersey. Where many of us probably have never considered what happens after a trade occurs, it is a glimpse into the uncertain reality of professional athletes and their families. Perhaps more messages like hers will allow us to empathize with the human experience of our favorite players, and in turn have a deeper appreciation for them on multiple levels. It is time for us as fans, to practice more compassion and employ deeper sympathy for our fellow human beings that entertain us on a weekly basis.

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