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You're not that different from Allen Iverson and Chris Webber and all the other spoiled, petulant, selfish, cheating millionaire athletes.Given the same set of circumstances as A.I. and C-Webb, you'd have skipped Fan Appreciation Night in Philly, too. You'd make life hell for Billy King and Maurice Cheeks. You'd undermine their authority, disobey their rules and betray their loyalty. Iverson and Webber, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro aren't so hard to understand. They're just like you and me, capable of lapses in integrity, especially when the consequences are slim to none or years away. Instead of asking what a higher power would do, sports fans need to start wearing "What Would You Do?" bracelets if they're really interested in enjoying professional sports and understanding the modern athlete. Seriously, what would you do if you were Allen Iverson and had earned more than $100 million for playing basketball, wearing a certain brand of sneakers and tattooing yourself like Tupac Shakur?
I'm being serious. Suppose you were raised by Annie Iverson, didn't have a relationship with your imprisoned father while you were growing up, was financially supported by hustlas and ballers, lived with well-intentioned basketball coaches and got jailed after a violent brawl in a bowling alley, and important people were forced to overlook and rationalize your youthful missteps because you're the best little man to hit the court since Isiah Thomas.Oh, and suppose after all of that, you were handed millions of dollars at age 21 and men more than twice your age and far more mature and intelligent than you had to bow to your whims and wisdom. And let's not forget the adoring fans who write you, stalk you and tell you you can do no wrong. Come on, after all of that, would you really give a flying flip about Fan Appreciation Night when the Sixers have been eliminated from the playoffs and you're upset that the organization that has given you lifetime financial security is considering trading you after 10 years? You wouldn't care. You wouldn't even know why you should care. "A game? We talkin' 'bout a game. Not a playoff game. A game. We talkin' 'bout a meaningless, regular-season game." It's easy to bash Allen Iverson, question his professionalism and reminisce about the good-old days when pro athletes played because they loved the game. Trust me, Iverson loves the game just as much as Bob Cousy or Elgin Baylor. Iverson's intellectual evolution and maturity have been compromised by money, fame, butt-kissing and a dysfunctional upbringing. He really can't help himself, and he has no incentive that he respects and comprehends to evolve or mature. Not to make excuses for Iverson, but I truly blame NBA owners and commissioner David Stern for Iverson's immature, bad business practices. The league, just like all of the professional sports leagues, has failed to adjust its rules to compensate for what guaranteed contracts and guaranteed millions have done to pro athletes. Cousy and Baylor and all the rest would behave differently now. You have to remember that we're living in an era in which Roger Clemens can sign a one-year, $18 million deal and not necessarily travel with the team to every road game. Clemens loves baseball. He's a tremendous competitor. But he'd long ago lost the desire to sit in the dugout or bullpen 162 times a year when he could be at home with his kids. Maybe Iverson was spending some quality time with his wife and kids before the tipoff of Fan Appreciation Night. Whatever the case, pro sports leagues are halfway houses for young men from dysfunctional upbringings who have been slapped at a tender age with enough money to make them feel bulletproof. A 21-year-old from a rock-solid, two-parent family would struggle with handling instant millions (or even a high, six-figure salary) and the autonomy to do as he pleases. Chris Webber, prime example. His curse is he grew up fantasizing about being a little ghetto child like his boyhood idol Jalen Rose. You know what that's like, wanting to be someone else. We've all felt it. Well, imagine being a lost child and given money and fame long before you've figured out who you are and who you really want to be. You ever met or dated a trust-fund baby? A guy or girl who just floats through their 20s and 30s with little drive, direction or discipline because they've inherited so much money it doesn't really matter what they do. That's what it's like for a lot of young professional athletes today. They come from so little that $3 million or $4 million feels like $200 million. And unlike Clemens, who entered professional sports two decades ago and had to prove himself before becoming a millionaire, today's pro just has to demonstrate potential to be good in order to get paid. I feel terrible for Mo Cheeks and Billy King and all NBA coaches and executives. With no real money tied to winning and losing, it's nearly impossible to control players. All you can do is beg. I know I would be difficult to discipline if I had $100 million in the bank. I'd have trouble getting prepared for meaningless games. And if I thought I could earn $20 million a season (or $1 million) playing baseball if I just used some performance-enhancing drugs, I'd hate to be put in that position. What Would You Do? That's what cracks me up about the media frenzy surrounding Bonds and steroids. People act like they have so much integrity they wouldn't be tempted to do the exact same thing. In my profession, it's not uncommon for writers to fabricate information in hopes of winning some writing award and receiving a $5,000 bonus or promotion. But sportswriters are appalled that baseball players would use drugs to improve their performance and enhance their contract leverage. I don't blame the players at all. I blame the owners and coaches and executives. Players are going to do whatever they believe is necessary for them to compete at the highest level. When I was a college athlete, many of my teammates and opponents used steroids. It never bothered me. What bothered me was the way our strength coach favored the steroid users. If Bonds truly turned to steroids after being bothered by the way the media and baseball favored McGwire and Sosa, can't you understand that reaction? It doesn't justify the action. It should just make you ask yourself: What would you have done? It was easy for me to say no in college. I didn't need the drugs to be competitive, and I didn't view myself as a pro prospect. Also, I didn't have millions of dollars to spend on trainers and doctors to help me better use the drugs. But after college, when a doctor prescribed prednisone, a steroid/anti-inflammatory, to relieve gout pain, I took the medication without questioning the doctor. What Would You Have Done?
Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. His newspaper is celebrating his 10 years as a columnist with the publishing of Jason's first book, "Love Him, Hate Him: 10 Years of Sports, Passion and Kansas City." It's a collection of Jason's most memorable, thought-provoking and funny columns over the past decade. You can purchase the book at TheKansasCityStore.com. Jason can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sound off to Page 2 here.