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Life and Stuff: Oden and Andrews

A few musings based on recent news events in the world of sports as they relate to life's bigger picture...

It was revealed yesterday that among his other training steps Greg Oden saw a sports psychologist.  I'd like to bring a little personal perspective to that news. 

At 40 years old now I'd venture to say I'm one of the more stable, thoughtful, balanced, and nearly-unshakeable people you'll find.  But there were two periods in my life when I needed a hand.  After my second year of college and again briefly in grad school I saw counselors.  The first time was for issues deeper than Greg probably covered.  I was suffering from depression, the cumulative effect of (to that point) a lifetime of unresolved hurts brought to bear in a bubble suddenly burst.  I was trapped in a box I couldn't get out of myself.  The second time I saw a counselor was for a tune-up after a sad event that brought back memories of the first journey.  It was not nearly as severe, but I knew enough to know I needed someone to talk to in order to make sure it stayed that way.

As I said, these are likely far more pressing issues than Greg addressed during whatever visits took place in his adjustment period.  I'm not trying to imply that our experiences were common.  However there is some commonality in the reasoning and benefit of seeing such a professional. 

Sometimes in life you just get stuck.  Friends can't help, bosses can't help, family might be far away or non-existent or just unable to help as well.  The issues might be minor but when you just can't see how to resolve them or cope with them they weigh on you.  Eventually that weight becomes a burden, slowing you down.  A psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor can be a huge asset in that kind of situation. 

Usually there's nothing mystical that happens during the visits.  There's no magic wand to wave.  There are seldom easy answers.  Even if such answers exist a good professional won't usually give them to you.  Walking your own journey and gaining the confidence that comes with it is part of the process.  (Insert the give a man a fish/teach a man to fish truism here.)  A competent professional usually asks a few questions, listens for a long time to the answers, and then helps reflect back what they hear so you can hear it too.  For that space of time they have no other focus but you, no other goal but your well-being, and no other agenda but to help you be whatever person you want to be.  Nobody else in your existence--not even a spouse, parent, or best friend--can function in that same capacity.  That's exactly why those professionals are helpful, refreshing, and often irreplaceable.

At this point in my life and career I am now one of the guys that people come to see when they're struggling.  Having been through it a little I understand how hard it is to take that step and what stigmas are attached to it.  I also understand deeply how foolish and wrong those stigmas are.  I can honestly tell you that I have not had one person come before me asking for help that hasn't been a smart, perceptive, amazing human being.  I don't work with people who have truly crippling mental illnesses but I do work with people who have undergone truly crippling circumstances.  And I can tell you that I often worry more about people--even normal-seeming people--who don't have the courage and awareness to take that step and get a hand when they need it than I ever have about anybody who has walked into my office.  Asking for a boost or some clarification when you need them is a sign of competence, health, and maturity.  Failing to do so is often the reverse.

A couple of specific thoughts come to mind about Greg's situation.  First, read again those sentences about the benefits of talking to a professional:  listens more than talks, takes time to reflect with you, no other agenda but your well-being and helping you be whatever person you want to be.  Now imagine the world of professional sports.  You should be able to feel palpably the absence of those qualities.  Other than perhaps the team chaplain (with whom you probably don't interact that much) you can't find a single person who comes close to evidencing them. 

Coaches may be father figures, but they're telling you what to do, not asking.  Every team official, no matter how friendly and accommodating, has an agenda for you.  Their livelihoods depend on fulfilling that agenda.  Even if you grow close they can't completely shake it.  Ticket sellers depend on you to sell tickets.  Concession people depend on you to move hot dogs.  Your teammates?  You may be close but it's a conditional closeness.  A certain percentage of them would love to take your job.  The rest of them might love you but if you're not playing well and helping the team they'll see the need to dump you as well.  And let's not even talk about the fans on the street, the women who are attracted to you, the agents and investment specialists and realtors and salesmen.  There's just no mercy.

Can you imagine that maybe, just maybe, a guy could get rattled by this, especially when he's twenty years old and his once-blossoming career has gotten derailed before it starts?   Don't you think that in the midst of it having one agenda-free pair of ears there just for you might be a valuable, if not necessary, thing?  Whether you're maintaining or recovering your confidence, I'm hard-pressed to see how you'd do it without the help of at least one other person in the world.  That's what the psychologist is:  that one other person.

Even if that's reading too much into the situation (and it may be) I know this second point isn't.  Greg went to a sports psychologist, meaning the process had a sports connection.  This is a mental game as much as a physical one.  If you're not mentally sharp, assured, and convinced of your place and your purpose in this league it will eat you up without pity.  Because of his place, talent, and size Greg Oden is lined up for endless months of physical brutality, taunting, and pressure.  He must be as mentally and emotionally fit to handle it as he is physically fit.  In that sense I don't view his visit to a sports psychologist any differently than I view him seeing Bobby Medina for a weightlifting plan or one of the assistant coaches for training on his footwork.  That's not a sign of weakness, that's his job.  If there's some way he could be better prepared he better take advantage of it.  If you need bigger biceps, talk to a trainer.  If you need a confidence adjustment, talk to the psychologist.  We praise the first.  Why would we startle at the second?

The other issue I've been musing on is one I've avoided for a week or more.  I have been hesitant to mention the Erin Andrews situation because I know full well that as soon as I utter the words half of the folks reading me will have their curiosity piqued and dig further into it.  I hate being a party to that, as it's the opposite of what we should be doing.  But now the story has hit Yahoo and The View and there's nobody even remotely interested in sports who doesn't know that somebody video-taped Erin in her hotel room and then published the images on the internet.  (I understand they've been taken down, so don't bother looking.  And if they still exist somewhere please don't talk about it here or even reference it.  Your comment will be deleted.)

I'm not going to go deeply into how reprehensible of a deed/crime this was.  That should be obvious to most, I hope.  If not, just consider the layers of grossness, degradation, and what almost amounts to hate here.  It's one thing to look yourself.  I suppose we all have an inner fourteen-year-old that fantasizes about such things.  I'm not saying it's right at all--in fact taking fantasy into reality in this case is way over the line of wrongness--but it's a certain level of wrong.  That level goes higher when you video tape.  But the level of disrespect, dishonor, and cruelty evidenced in taking that tape public is beyond comprehension to me.  To so reduce another human being--the meaning of their body, life, and personhood...those of a person innocent in the process at that--for your own advancement is simply not fathomable.  This goes beyond the realm of the musings that most humans have ("Erin Andrews is good looking!  I wonder what it would be like to see...") into the realm of horror.

The point here is not to cast aspersions on a single person, however deserved those are.  Rather the bigger lesson here to me is that we all have to be cautious in this environment.  Make whatever arguments you want about how television trades on physical attraction or how Erin Andrews profits from that trade.  That's undoubtedly true.  But that does not excuse or justify this.  A serious line was crossed here.  That line was crossed because somebody had a twisted view of humanity and sexuality and power and male-female relations.  But that line was also crossed because we all blur it.

The take-home point here is that the flirting we do with themes of sexuality in sports is not a neutral prospect.  Every time some TV executive plays on the theme to sell commercial time he or she contributes.  Every time you or I make stupid comments about other human beings or their sexuality or about them deserving what they get because they have the temerity to step in front of us we contribute.  I'm not just talking some line of theoretical, radical feminism here.  Whoever made that video tape did so because they were warped.  But the point that keeps running through my head is this: they put it online because they thought we'd be interested.  And they thought we'd be interested because we create and contribute to a culture that expresses exactly that.  If they thought we'd all turn away and identify it for what it is they'd never have done it in the first place.

I don't expect the culture to reverse itself.  I doubt I'm even telling you anything you don't already know.  But I do want to point out that the "frat boy" stereotype of sports is not harmless.  I also want to point out that there are plenty of us deeply involved in sports and the coverage thereof who would just as soon do without it.  We are all affected by, and maybe drawn to, sexuality in sports.  But not all of us are willing to put aside our basic sense of fairness and humanity to become a slave to it.  Some of us need to stand up and say that out of respect, not just for Erin Andrews but for people in general, we don't want to see those stolen images and moments.  Some of us need to say that even though we might enjoy watching people we consider attractive as sportscasters, other things are far more important and bring far more pleasure in that context.  Some of us need to say that even if we occasionally have thoughts that exceed innocent pleasure, those are better kept to ourselves and not used as things to bond by...that the sport itself is enough to bring us together without having to reduce others in order to cement our communal experience.

Some things in life can only be given, never taken.  If people are going to dance at games, let them dance.  Enjoy it if you like, but let it stop there.  Don't take more than has been given.  If your local sideline reporter looks gorgeous to you, appreciate it.  But let it stop there.  Don't take more than has been given.  It's not fair to make people pay the price--either the person in question or the people within your sphere of influence--for you trying to take something that was never intended to be given and will never be given in that venue. 

What was taken from Erin Andrews was not really Erin Andrews.  I'm sure it looks like Erin Andrews.  I'm sure to her it even feels like Erin Andrews.  I'm not trying to minimize the violation she's probably experiencing today by saying this.  But at the end of the day you can't really see Erin Andrews or any person by taking that route.  You cannot see those moments as they were meant to be shared.  They cannot be as they were meant to be if they were stolen.  When you attempt to reduce someone to an object, a shell, then a shell is all you get.  The real, vital, living human being slides beyond your vision, as does the meaningful experience.  What you're left with doesn't make you feel any better, nor do the results help any of us.  We sell our souls for emptiness this way.

And it's not pretty.

--Dave (