We’re five episodes through Ballers and one of the most interesting things about the show so far is how little football is actually shown. It gives us a good idea about what the show’s creators want to focus on: what happens off the field.
For my recap of Episode 5, I want to write a letter to current professional athletes.
Dear athlete: Now that you’re a pro, you’re in the limelight. That comes with bigger consequences for your actions. In some cases, you’ll get away with things you shouldn’t get away with. In other cases, there will be a target on your back that will feel unfairly placed. I’m certainly not going to apologize for any athlete’s bad behavior, but this week’s episode does a realistic job of painting a picture regarding consequences for NFL players.
Life is about cause and effect. So is pro football. In today’s NFL, there seems to be a very large emphasis on effect. We hear a lot about the four game suspension for PEDs, the six games suspension for domestic violence, or a full season suspension for substance abuse. Those headlines fill the major sports news outlets. Despite the constant reminders of what can happen, the disregard for why something happens feels almost redundant at this point.
In last night’s episode, Vernon Littlefield, the NFL star waiting to ink a big new contract, has found himself in a very troubling situation. After the corporate yacht party event hosted by the financial firm, pictures surfaced showing Vernon doing drugs and hanging out with naked women. Lots of naked women. Lots of drugs. Pictures that could completely destroy Vernon’s chances at a big contract deal with the Dallas Cowboys. The rest of the episode covers Spencer and Joe trying to put out the fire.
In between the strip clubs and the infidelity (are you starting to get a feel for this week’s theme?), there lies a very important message for professional athletes. You are famous. You have money. The spotlight is on you. You aren’t above the law.
With this fame comes attention — and, sure, there are people out there who will take advantage of your status. But there’s also a very easy solution to these problems. If you do not put yourself in these situations, then these consequences cannot occur. With fame comes responsibility.
Look, I also understand that sometimes it is not that easy, and often it is not fair. Vernon was having a good time. He wasn’t hurting anybody and his choices did not really affect anyone around him at the time. But when you are a star defensive tackle in the NFL, it’s bigger than just one person. You must look down the road. How will this appear and how could this possibly come back to bite me? Those are questions that need to be addressed in every situation.
And you know what? Athletes screw up a lot and it’s on them. But sometimes it isn’t fair. I’ll give you a real-life example. When I was playing football at the University of Miami, we were struck with scandal when a rogue booster went to the press to try to ruin the program. There were several outlandish allegations, but when the dust cleared, only a few minor allegations could be proven. Essentially, this rogue booster paid for dinners, boat rides, drinks at nightclubs, and bowling alley parties for college athletes. In the previous sentence, if I were to change “college athletes” with “college students,” there would probably not be a three-year investigation, which there was, into whether a booster acted unethically. In the grand scheme of things, nothing that happened at Miami when I was there was illicit or even immoral. There was no domestic violence, drugs, sexual assault, or academic misconduct involved whatsoever — not that those things don’t happen elsewhere — yet the media came down hard on Miami, going as far as asking for the death penalty for the program.
However, at the source of all this cause and effect talk is the role of the athlete to know better. It is the athlete’s responsibility to know when to walk away from a fight with a girlfriend. It is the athlete’s responsibility to recognize if consent has been given. It is the athlete’s responsibility to recognize that smoking weed two weeks before the NFL Combine is a bad idea. Despite the constant barrage of headlines, it appears the number of these instances is not decreasing.
When I was playing my mantra was, “Effort is between you and you.” No one else can work hard for you. If you do not work hard, you will not be successful. I believe the same mantra can be applied to many of the off-the-field circumstances we’re talking about here. Whether a target is on your back is irrelevant. At the end of the day it is up to you and only you to make the right decisions. The prescription is as simple as that. The solution is a little trickier. Who do you surround yourself with? How do you deal with an influx of millions of dollars at a young age? How do you grow as a person when everyone around you worships you or is afraid to call you out on bad decisions? Do you feel like you’re above the law or do you take responsibility for your actions?
Will things change in the real world NFL? That’s anybody’s guess. But I hope Ballers continues shed light on the causes of these off-the-field effects. Otherwise tomorrow we’ll all just be reading a new headline — and wonder how it could happen again.