Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols: How Star Athletes Pursue Self-Destructive Paths and Jeopardize Their Careers

Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols: How Star Athletes Pursue Self-Destructive Paths and Jeopardize Their Careers

by Stanley H. Teitelbaum
On the court and on the field, they are the world’s winners, exhibiting a natural grace and prowess their adoring fans can only dream about. Yet so often, when off the field, our sports heroes lose: their perspective, their balance, their place. In a work as timely as the latest fracas on the basketball court or the most recent drug-induced scandal in the


On the court and on the field, they are the world’s winners, exhibiting a natural grace and prowess their adoring fans can only dream about. Yet so often, when off the field, our sports heroes lose: their perspective, their balance, their place. In a work as timely as the latest fracas on the basketball court or the most recent drug-induced scandal in the dugout, Stanley H. Teitelbaum looks into the circumstances behind so many star athletes’ precipitous fall from grace. Why, he asks, do these sports heroes who seem to have it all also seem, increasingly, to have a superhuman proclivity for self-destruction? In his psychotherapy practice, Teitelbaum has worked extensively with professional athletes and sports agents—work he draws on here for insight into the psyche of sports figures as well as the off-the-field challenges they face. Considering both historical and current cases, he shows how, in many instances, the very factors that elevate athletes to superstardom can contribute to their downfall: the adulation of fans and obsessive attention of the media and the distorted self-image and personal demons that often accompany a headlong drive to succeed. An evenhanded and honest look at athletes who have faltered, Teitelbaum’s work helps us see past our sports stars’ exalted image into what that image—and its frailty—says about our society and ourselves.

Editorial Reviews

Max Kellerman
"Stanley Teitelbaum's volume, Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols, is a thoroughly researched book full of entertaining stories about the underbelly of sports."

-Max Kellerman, TV & Radio Personality

Kirkus Reviews
A psychotherapist explores the by-products of fame that encourage athletes' destructive behavior. Like all humans, gifted sports players have inner demons; what interests Teitelbaum are the special circumstances that prompt athletes' loss of perspective and poise. First, he takes a look at why they have been granted wealth and adulation. One cause, Teitelbaum suggests, is the fans' need for heroes: We are moved and inspired by greatness, and we enhance our self-image by imagining an association with sports stars. They give us a sense of involvement, connection and purposefulness, a romantic yet observable feeling that life can be fantastic. Not to be forgotten, the media's fawning over athletes taps into a celebrity culture that makes a lot of money for a number of people, from team owners and sportscasters to the sportswear and endorsement industries, never mind the players. Yet Teitelbaum writes persuasively that sports stars have much to answer for, giving hundreds of examples of gambling, substance abuse, sexual assault and even murder. These are the products, he argues, of terminal adolescence, a distorted sense of entitlement, an attitude of omnipotence and invulnerability allowing athletes to reside outside the rules that govern daily life. This attitude in part reflects the violence and moral erosion of society at large, but it also stems from immaturity characterized by a lack of empathy and self-control. Teitelbaum is well aware that emotional frailty often underlies athletes' physical prowess: Many come from upbringings marred by domestic violence on the one hand and overindulgence on the other, he notes, though there are also many well-adjusted sports stars. When is the frontoffice going to come out of denial? the author asks. "The leagues," he says, "need to do a better job of policing themselves and withstanding the pressure to be lenient towards those superstars who cross the line."An even-handed, practical argument that athletes must be guided by decency and held accountable for their actions-and that fans need to get a life, or at least a dose of reality.

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Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols

By Stanley H. Teitelbaum

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

The Need for Heroes

He understood that we would give him anything-if he would always be the hero we required. Richard Ben Cramer, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life

Sports stars become heroes when they are admired for their athletic accomplishments. We yearn to feel connected to them, want to be like them, and enhance our self-esteem by imagining an association with them and basking in the glow of their success. When our heroes perform well, we feel like winners. When they falter, on or off the playing field, we distance ourselves from them. We are disappointed, resentful, and angry, not wanting to associate with losers. The greater our investment in a hero's accomplishments and the more we define ourselves through his achievements, the more we resent it when he lets us down.

Our need for heroes stems from early childhood. Our first heroes are our parents, whom we view as all-knowing and all-powerful as they protect us and shepherd us through early life. Gradually, especially after we recognize that even our parents are flawed, they are replaced by outside heroes, often from the world of sports. Children embrace sports heroes with a passion. This attachment provides a sense of specialness and an optimism that we can grow up and also be successful. As writer Peggy Noonan poignantly observes, "The young are moved by greatness. They areinspired by it. Children need heroes. They need them to lift life, to support a future you can be hungry for. They need them because heroes, just by being, communicate the romantic and yet realistic idea that you can turn your life into something great."

It is normal for children to sometimes live through their heroes and draw sustenance from the imagined connection. When I was twelve I faced an emergency appendectomy. As I was wheeled into the operating room, feeling overwhelmed and frightened, I thought about my baseball hero, Pete Reiser. I idolized the way he hit (I copied his batting stance), his base-stealing skills, and the way he made outstanding catches even while sometimes crashing into the outfield wall. Although he had had several concussions, he always bounced back to lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to further victories. Thinking about Pete Reiser's overcoming physical adversity comforted me during my surgery, and the prospect of going to a game to see him hastened my recovery. This inner connection with my hero during this stressful period was a pivotal event in my youth.

James T. Farrell describes a similar experience in My Baseball Diary. In a moving chapter titled "Death of an Idol," Farrell recounts his reaction to the death of baseball star Eddie Collins. Recalling his deep attachment to Collins when he was a boy, Farrell notes, "It was as though he played ball for me. In my imagination, I lived in his career. He became my model ... and in 1920, when the Black Sox scandal was exposed, I was proud that he was not one of the eight White Sox players accused of having thrown the 1919World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

Thus hero-worship of sports stars seems useful in providing a sense of involvement, connection, and purposefulness. But it can be damaging if we are unprepared to realize that many of our heroes are also flawed and vulnerable. Hero hunger exists not only in the inner connection fans establish with sports stars but also in their pursuit of contact with them in real life. Sports celebrities are ubiquitously hounded for autographs, and athletes are sometimes insensitive to the intense value that adoring young fans give to such encounters. In his biography of Pete Rose, Michael Sokolove describes one such example: "His humor could also be cruel. When he was managing the Reds, a boy of about twelve approached him in the lobby of a Pittsburgh hotel. He was clutching an old Wheaties box with Rose's picture on it, which he wanted him to autograph. Rose waved him away. "No thanks," he said, "I already ate breakfast."

At about the same age, a friend and I chanced to see Dixie Walker, another Dodgers star, on the street outside Ebbets Field. I mustered my courage, pulled a pencil and a crumpled piece of paper from my pocket, and timidly asked for his autograph. Walker scowled at me and indignantly shouted in his southern drawl, "I'm not gonna sign that junkie old piece of paper!" I was devastated as he turned and walked away.

Any direct contact with a sports hero can be exhilarating, and some young fans cherish the contact even when they are mistreated. In The Baseball Hall of Shame 3, Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo deplore one such incident. An eleven-year-old boy approached his favorite Dodgers pitcher, Ron Perranoski, in the bull pen and asked for his autograph: "The reliever turned around and viewed the bright-eyed boy with annoyance. Can't sign during the game, he said. 'League Rules.' Then in one motion Perranoski reached in his warm up jacket, pulled out a water pistol, and squirted Scott in the face. The pitcher quickly stuck the gun back in his pocket, folded his arms, and resumed watching the game."

In recalling this incident as an adult, this fan described the power of hero hunger to override abuse. He noted, "Like any kid, I was just thankful for the contact with a major leaguer-no matter what. I told Perranoski, 'thank you,' and then I wiped my face and walked away."

The issue of star athletes' acknowledging the powerful influence that comes with being a role model is a controversial one. Adoring kids are prone to scrutinize their heroes' actions on and off the field and to imitate them in their own ways of being in the world.

Charles Barkley's famous statement "I'm not a role model" created substantial media attention. Barkley was refuting the assumption that the athlete's job includes exemplary behavior in his personal life. He did not want to be burdened with this pressure or responsibility, and he proclaimed that that place in children's life belongs to their parents. In a similar disavowal, Shaquille O'Neal has stated, "I don't like the word role model. Role means playing a part ... [look to us] to be a real model. Don't be like us, be better than us.... If you see us make a mistake, don't make the same mistake."

Many sports stars share Barkley's position; they do not want to invest in cultivating an image of humaneness and high- mindedness. They want to be recognized only for their performance in the playing arena. While Barkley may be technically correct, his view misses the point that being a role model simply comes with the territory, in that kids will identify with their heroes and imitate their actions. Though Barkley and others want to avoid that mantle, like it or not hero-hungry fans will drape them in it.

The availability of star-crazed women for sexual encounters makes many athletes prone to sexual promiscuity. What message does it send to kids, who yearn to imitate their idols, when Wilt Chamberlain reveals in his autobiography that he had sex with twenty thousand women, or when Steve Garvey is accused of multiple paternity incidents? Does it tarnish the image of the hero in the worshipers' eyes, or does it foster a desire to become a world-class stud? The hero's value system and ways of conducting himself have a profound effect on his devoted followers. The "bad boy" image portrayed by Allen Iverson or Dennis Rodman may create an example that glorifies nonconformity and arrogance.

In contrast, numerous sports icons are extremely mindful of their status as role models, and they accept the responsibility that comes with this position. Their commitment to compassion, concern, and integrity enhances their image in admirable ways. Professional football greats like Boomer Esiason, Kurt Warner, and Doug Flutie have candidly discussed with the media the challenges of dealing with their handicapped children. Watching these heroes be compassionate, loving, and sensitive in highly stressful real life circumstances makes us want to cultivate these qualities in ourselves. Harry Carson, another football legend, has been outspoken about the dangerous long-term effects of athletes' head injuries. His addressing such a cause wins him even deeper admiration among his longtime admirers. Sandy Koufax gained enormous prominence in 1965 when he declined to pitch in the opening game of the World Series because it conflicted with his observance of Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday. Koufax thus put his allegiance to his Jewish identity ahead of his loyalty to the Los Angeles Dodgers. His action augmented his status as a principled role model. In 2001 Shawn Green, a present-day Jewish Dodgers superstar, captured the essence of being a modern role model. Green also declined to play in a crucial late-season game in order to observe Yom Kippur. He made his decision "partly as a representative of the Jewish community, and as far as my being a role model in sports for Jewish kids, to basically say that baseball or anything isn't bigger than your religion and your roots."

As adults, many fans continue to identify with sports heroes. They gain a sense of well-being when they feel connected to a successful star, a sense of being a winner rather than a loser. We tend to anoint our heroes as gods because we need the feeling of specialness that we derive from the sense of affiliation with an outstanding athlete. In his illuminating book Why Men Watch Football, Bob Andelman points out that spectators' involvement with football fills certain needs of the male psyche. Among them are the need to select and admire a hero, to identify with a winner, and to connect with a part of ourselves that takes us back to the more carefree days of boyhood. Andelman posits that "in watching the game many men are meeting one or more deep-seated psychological needs. Such as the need to associate with a winner, the need to have something go right in his life ... the need to be validated, to feel the satisfaction of victory." Watching football, according to Andelman's research, can provide an escape from the pressures of work and family responsibility, counteract despair, and supply a measure of hope. This view is elaborated by psychologist Thomas Tutko, who maintains, "Heroes provide hope. They provide identity. They provide an opportunity to be a step above and beyond where you are right now."

Idolizing sports heroes is an aspect of "celebrity worship syndrome," a term coined by psychologists James Houran and Lynn McCutcheon to describe an excessive fascination with the lives of the rich and the famous. These researchers contend that nearly one-third of Americans have an unhealthy interest in the lives of celebrities, which in extreme form can become an addiction.

The opportunity to reminisce and extend the connection to our own days of athletic glory is also a factor in our involvement as sports spectators. Bruce Ogilvie, a renowned sports psychologist, has noted, "I think that very high on the list of reasons men watch football is to recapture and relive their early adolescent years and, through their identification and emotional participation, vicariously live out again this period in their life. For most of the men who have played football or been athletic, these sorts of vicarious satisfactions have very, very positive rewards/ effects."

Andelman concludes that "contemporary men are desperately searching for heroes in their lives. We're wanting for role models at a time when the ranks of positive male role models are fairly thin. So many athletes undeserving of our loyalty have been glorified by the press and glorified by Madison Ave.... Men search for an identification with a winner, a male figure who is effective, virile, and capable, one who knows how to get things done. Having a sports hero meets a need."

The need for heroes frequently merges with a powerful emotional investment in the fortunes of a sports franchise. The hero becomes a more concentrated extension and embodiment of the cherished team. People often feel connected through their shared allegiance to the home team, especially when the local team is succeeding. Being able to chant "We're number one!" after a championship makes fans feel united and special. Many people's self-image is bolstered or depleted depending on how well their team does. The emotional investment in the fortunes of the team becomes entwined with their self-regard, and they develop a love affair with the team. When the success of the franchise becomes strongly linked with an aspect of self-image, the meaning of winning and losing may be blown out of proportion. When the team does poorly, their opinion of themselves may be correspondingly negative, and feelings of personal inferiority, inadequacy, and failure may emerge. Psychologist Robert Cialdini has noted that "winning and losing teams influence the morale of a region, a city or a college campus. A substantial segment of the community may actually have clinical features of depression when their team loses. People become 'blue' for several days, disoriented and non-productive, whereas if they win, they are pumped up and active." Cialdini refers to this as "basking in reflected glory." In many cities an atmosphere of depression and failure prevails after the loss of a significant game. The fans were counting on their team to deliver a victory-to make their day-and instead they feel personally let down. A classic example is the way the fortunes of the Green Bay Packers, a small-town team, affect the emotional well-being of the people of Wisconsin. The governor, Jim Doyle, asserted that "the Packers are more than just a state team; they determine the state's mood. They throw this state into a depression if they lose. Productivity is affected. It's been like that forever."

Reflecting on fans' commitment to hometown franchises, columnist Russell Baker has stated, "The home team is composed of players who year after year fight for the honor of the bleak, decaying city ... the home team may, in fact, be one of the few things that help you to continue tolerating this pretty awful hometown."

Thus, we need our heroes. We need them to be masterful, special, and worthy. We need to perceive them as wonderful, using a prism that magnifies their greatness. Fans who rise and fall with the feats of their heroes will be overly invested in not being disappointed. Even though we grow up and move on and the intense interest in sports that once consumed us wanes, a part of us nostalgically hangs on to childhood memories of a time when we were carefree, innocent, and perhaps passionately involved with our sports heroes. The intensity with which many of us cling to boyhood idols is eloquently described by Farrell: "But there is more than the lost desire for glory in boyhood memories of baseball. There is the remembrance of fun, of physical release, of days spent playing in the sun when nothing else but a base hit, a run scored, a fly ball caught mattered.... And I suspect that I was not singular in the way in which I looked upon baseball and dreamed of it. It was no mere game. It was an extension of my inner feelings and hopes. My favorite players were like my ambassadors to the world.... We never lose our boyhood. It hangs in our minds."

We often see our sports heroes as supermen, and many will ultimately reveal wings made of wax as their talents wane and they tumble from the heights where we have placed them. But our heroes are human, with human imperfections, and they cannot always handle stardom.


Excerpted from Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols by Stanley H. Teitelbaum Copyright © 2005 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Stanley H. Teitelbaum is a practicing psychotherapist. He is faculty and senior supervisor at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health and the Training Institute for Mental Health, both in New York, and the Contemporary Center for Advanced Psychoanalytic Studies in New Jersey.

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