Athletes Constantly Have to Deal with Joy and Pain

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Last week David Aardsma the Mariners’ closer left the team for several days to spend time with his wife as she prepared to give birth.  Jose Lopez twice left the team for an extended time to go home to Venezuela to be with his bereaved family. Earlier this year the team permitted Milton Bradley to leave the team for two weeks to address his personal struggles with the pressure he put upon himself and the anger and behavior that he displayed when he did not live up to these high expectations.


All three examples remind me of a sea change in modern sports that reflects and encourages a sea change in American culture. Athletes attending to private grief, joy, or demons contribute to a change in the relation between work and personhood. In an older athletic tradition, players not only play through pain, but playing for the team outweighed obligations to family or grief or personal demons. Teams not only denied them the ability or hid the demons but also  mocked players for being weak because they cared for family or could not conquer their demons. Players were expected, as were workers and executives, to play through pain and ignore the rest. The myths of sport and office enshrined people who came to work the day after a relative died and did their job or played through. Today we would say “power through.”

When players like the Mariners take time off to address the joys and pains and terrors of life, they educate the rest of us about how important this is. When Joey Votto speaks of his battle with depression or Josh Hamilton talks about fighting drug demons, they educate the rest of us that we are not alone in our demons and that it is OK to fight them and get  help. 

This is a huge change form the past. Then, families and especially spouses were expected in private life to handle the chores of life like having and raising children, handling and coping with grief and taming the player's demons at home out of public eye. The entire edifice of private life was segregated from work or play. This reinforced the cultural message that work and play mattered first, second and third. Private life took care of itself. A corollary was often that life on the road was shot through with liaisons, violence or extra-curricular activities to compensate for the denial and leaching of personal life by the demands of professional life. The team hid and protected players acting out this way.

Modern American society influenced by feminism and women in the work force slowly chips away at the walls of separation. The ideal image etched into us portrayed the stoic player/worker who struggled with a critically ill child all night then comes to work and never shows the effect of the home struggles.  Child care laws; child leaves; home visitation or bereavement leaves all now exist in many workplaces. Employers often still fight them both in the office and in legislative opposition to attempts to protect and enrich home and personal life. The player’s unions, as unions often do, fought to enshrine this humanity in contracts.

Because sports players embody so many ideals of achievement and success in society, it matters what they do.  When a player leaves a team in contention, not the Mariner's this year, they signal to society and fans that it is ok to express and experience grief. Their attention signals to men and women that grief, joy, and family deserve to be recognized respected and honored in the workplace. 

A sport is a vocation, not just employment. To the extent modern sport makes room for and respects the private as a rich realm that work should recognize and honor and to the extent it gives permission to players to live out that life, modern sports strongly models how society at large should view the relation between life and work.