Commentary

Fame, fortune and tragic consequences

If we're to learn from the death of Chris Henry, we need to see beyond the specifics

Originally Published: December 21, 2009
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

He had turned things around.

He was on the right path.

He was doing what he was supposed to do.

He wasn't who everyone thought he was.

These platitudes should be committed to memory by now, because they're what we say when we can't comprehend why someone with such special talent can behave so carelessly.

I am, of course, thinking of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who died Thursday morning from severe head injuries suffered when he apparently fell out of the back of his fiancée's moving pickup truck during what police described as a domestic dispute.

[+] EnlargeChris Henry
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesChris Henry's death should teach a lesson about the professional athlete's life.

I'm not sure how to characterize what happened to Henry other than to say it's a tragedy. The details about the circumstances surrounding his death aren't clear, but by all accounts Henry had matured and was no longer the guy who'd been arrested five times in a 28-month span.

I don't mean to disrespect Henry or the people grieving his loss, but I can say -- with some discomfort -- that the decision to jump onto the back of that truck seems to sadly illustrate how his personal struggles sometimes anchored his progress.

If Henry's death is to mean something, we have to learn from it. And the larger issue here applies not only to Henry but also to a lot of athletes whose publicly played-out problems strongly indicate how unprepared they are for the complicated life of a professional athlete.

There is no manual to help professional athletes navigate the numerous minefields they encounter while trying to enjoy the privilege their livelihoods provide.

The way athletes are worshipped, the way ungodly sums of money are thrown at them (sometimes before they can even legally drink), the way they have to come of age under such intense scrutiny -- it takes an unusually mature person to deal with the problems that are sometimes brought on by athletic success.

Henry spent the majority of his football career struggling to make the appropriate choices. During his first three seasons with the Bengals, he faced criminal charges that ranged from DUI to gun possession, and he was considered the poster boy for why the NFL thought it was necessary to institute a code of conduct.

In a profile in The Cincinnati Enquirer in October, Henry was asked about his rocky past. His answer revealed why the most common addiction among pro athletes sometimes isn't the competition, but the feeling of invincibility.

"I really didn't think I was going to get in trouble," he told the Enquirer. "I was in the NFL; I had money. Thinking like that got me into a lot of trouble."

I am, of course, thinking of Tiger Woods, who was supposedly the model athlete. He went to Stanford. He grew up in a two-parent home. He sold us products we liked. He won 14 majors. He played the U.S. Open on one knee. America saw images of Tiger kissing his wife and child at golf tournaments and mentally slotted him in as Husband of the Year.

But that was Tiger's commercial. As it turns out, he isn't any different from a lot of other athletes. The assumption was that because Woods was raised differently, spent most of his time playing golf with the country-club crowd and played a "gentleman's" game, he wouldn't dare engage in any debauchery. Tiger apparently thought the women he bedded would be so enthralled to be with the world's greatest golfer that they would never disclose their after-12-before-6 freak tales. He was wrong. They blew the whistle quicker than Jeffrey Wigand.

When you're rich, powerful, entitled, constantly in the company of others who fit the same criteria and have access to what might seem like a never-ending procession of willing women, the repercussions of infidelity on a family, career and fortune seem far too distant to have any real impact. From where I sit, it looks as if Tiger suffered from nobody-says-no-to-me-because-I'm-a-billionaire-itis.

Superstar athletes such as Woods live in a culture that shields them from reality, responsibility and consequences. In sports, boys become men physically but not always socially. It doesn't necessarily make them evil, but it can make them a byproduct of the world in which they live.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
Sun Yali/ChinaFotoPress/Getty ImagesSomeone as famous as Michael Phelps should know that he can't behave in public the way other people his age do.

And I am, of course, thinking of Michael Phelps, who in February had to issue an apology after a British tabloid ran a photo of him sucking on a bong.

Phelps, a 14-time gold medalist and the face of his sport, was foolish to believe he could just walk into a random house party and behave in a way that other 24-year-old youngsters do. It cost him a Kellogg's endorsement and a three-month suspension from USA Swimming. And considering that Phelps had a DUI arrest on his record, the bong photo almost certainly wasn't a good look.

Phelps was worth millions by the time he could vote. If I'd had that kind of money at that age, it would have been a miracle if I didn't wind up in a ditch somewhere.

There was a time when athletes were so beloved that the idea of selling a photo of one of them engaging in wrongdoing would be considered blasphemous. But the camera phone has made everyone a reporter for the tabloids, and these days a lot of people are praying they'll catch an athlete in a compromising position so they can get paid.

If it's true that power and money corrupt, the bad behavior we see in sports now is the result of sports' selling its soul a long time ago. The influx of money and the enabling culture in sports have set athletes up to fail. The question isn't so much, What were Chris Henry/Tiger Woods/Michael Phelps thinking? The question is, Given the construct of their lives, how could any of them possibly have been thinking clearly at all?

Of course, I'm not implying that athletes shouldn't be held responsible for their actions. Nor am I giving them a free pass for their behavior. But we need to be real about what most of them face and the lives they lead. And maybe then we'll know what to say when they come up short.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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