Junior Seau is the latest casualty of a professional sports culture that lives by the credo, win at any cost and by whatever means. We have heard reports of athletes being paid bonuses to injure others players so that they can not play. Sports used to stress the importance of sportsmanship, character, and being a team-player. Today it is all about winning. Athletes are either winners or losers who define themselves by their athletic prowess. Playing sports is not merely what they do for a living, but has become their identity. When they no longer are able to perform, they lose more than their income, they lose their sense of self: who are they if not a player?
Junior Seau suffered from a brain injury that made playing football no longer possible. Brain trauma can affect both cognitive functioning such the ability to make good judgments, physical ability to perform certain tasks, as well as mood and the ability to handle stress.
In addition, there is the psychological component of seeing oneself as less competent. And if one defines oneself by one’s competence, one’s ability to perform, one can experience depression. Depression, especially when combined with a diminished capacity to process feelings, increased stress, and/or impaired judgment, can and often does lead to suicide.
The culture of professional sports has been adopted by the world of business. Business people continually use sports metaphors in describing their competitive spirit. They also tend to define themselves by their work and their successes. They, too, have adopted a “win at any cost” culture. We often here about the unethical practices they have used in order to make a deal, take over a company, or increase their earnings. And when they lose their income, their status, their prestige, and are no longer able to perform, they, too, become depressed and think of suicide.
The culture of sports as well as the culture of business illustrates what happens when people define themselves from the outside in. That is, they define themselves by what they do for a living, by their titles, money, or possessions. When this happens people will do almost anything to maintain them; they are no long just things and titles, but rather these things and titles have become their very identity; they are defined by their things and titles. And without them they do not know who they are. It is as though without their titles, money, possessions, and what they do for a living, they cease to exist…a terrifying thought.
Hence, when, for example, a ball player no longer can play ball he may feel that profound sense of loss. A similar sense of loss can occur when a business person can no longer claim to be “master of the universe”, when an actor looses his or her celebrity status, or when a doctor or lawyer can no longer practice. The more one has identified with these external activities, the more one is at risk for depression when one no longer can maintain them.
On the other hand, if one defines oneself from the inside out, from core values and character, one’s identity and sense of self will endure with or without titles, status, performance, possessions, celebrity, and wealth. Sports and business cultures ought to be stressing the importance of playing the game with integrity indicating that how one plays the game matters more than winning or losing. The emphasis should be placed more upon character, sportsmanship, internal discipline, humility, and other values that define a human being. By placing the emphasis on endorsements, sponsorships, titles, celebrity, and winning at any cost, coaches are putting our athletes in jeopardy or losing their sense of self when the day comes that they are no longer going to score that touchdown.
[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica - Los Angeles. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a friend on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating "like" on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]