I’ve never quite understood why some professional athletes seem to go out of their way at times to antagonize fans, when being reasonable wouldn’t take much effort.
A Case in Point
Boston Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett entered this season already with a target on his back. Red Sox nation had watched in horror last season, as the team fell apart in the final month, losing 20-of-27 games to miss the playoffs. The Boston Globe later wrote a story titled “Inside the Collapse”.
Here are the first two paragraphs of that article.
With their team in peril and their manager losing his authority, three Red Sox pitchers last month were uniquely positioned to prevent the greatest September collapse in major league history. All the Sox needed was Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey to apply the skills and commitment that previously made them World Series champions.
Instead, Boston’s three elite starters went soft, their pitching as anemic as their work ethic. The indifference of Beckett, Lester, and Lackey in a time of crisis can be seen in what team sources say became their habit of drinking beer, eating fast-food fried chicken, and playing video games in the clubhouse during games while their teammates tried to salvage a once-promising season.
The Boston Globe
The reaction to the Boston Globe article was predictable.
Red Sox fans ripped the pitchers named and held them largely responsible for the team’s failure.
The clubhouse behavior may not have been any factor in the team’s poor play, but it didn’t matter.
It was all about perception. Fans saw under-performing players behaving in a way that made it appear they didn’t care about winning.
Now, fast-forward to May, 2012.
The Red Sox were off to a poor start. Josh Beckett was 2-3 with a 4.45 ERA. On April 29th, he threw 126-pitches in a 4-1 loss to the White Sox. On May 2nd, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine announced that Beckett would miss his next start with a stiff lat muscle (the large back muscle that reaches up to the shoulder. When stiff, it can cause shoulder and back pain.)
It was later reported that the day after that announcement, Beckett played golf with a Red Sox teammate.
So, when Josh Beckett took the mound Thursday night against Cleveland, he heard boos that only grew louder as he gave-up two home runs and three doubles in 2.1 innings before exiting the game trailing 7-1.
Naturally, after the game, Beckett was asked about the golf story.
Here is how Gordon Edes reported the media Q&A with Beckett on ESPNBoston.com
Question (paraphrased): Did the golf business have any impact on how you pitched?
Question: Anything to say about the golf business?
Answer: No. I spend my off days the way I want to spend them.
Question: Any regrets?
Answer: My off day is my off day.
Question: Given that you were skipped a start with what was described as a tight lat muscle, do people have the right to question why you were golfing?
Answer: Not on my off day.
Question: Do you understand the perception that leaves when the team is playing as poorly as it is?
Answer: We get 18 off days a year. I think we deserve a little time to ourselves.
The questions asked were legitimate, even if Josh Beckett didn’t think so.
It was perfectly understandable that fans would want to know why Beckett would risk tweaking the back muscle playing golf, when he was missing a scheduled start, ostensibly to avoid injury to it.
If Beckett felt the criticism of his decision was unwarranted, he was given the chance to explain it.
Instead, he chose a path most would view as negative.
Josh Beckett has never been a media-friendly guy. That’s certainly his right.
But how does appearing defiant help him?
What is the upside of coming across as dismissive and uncaring?
Too many professional athletes don’t get it. They think fans resent their high salaries, and that fan criticism largely is the result of envy.
Most fans don’t resent the big money paid to athletes. What they do resent is seeing athletes act as if they don’t appreciate it. Fans get frustrated watching athletes who don’t hustle or seem to care, or those who appear more interested in personal stats than team success.
Fans believe that, given the chance, they would care and would play hard every day.
Here is what I would say to the athletes who are jaded and have decided they don’t care about the fans.
Those of us who haven’t played a professional sport can’t fully understand the sacrifices that you make to stay on the field and play your sport.
We don’t know, firsthand, the pressures of playing through nagging injuries that often go unreported to the media, for competitive reasons.
Sometimes you are unjustly criticized by fans (and the media) who don’t know all the facts. And, the knowledge that such criticism is part of being a pro athlete doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to accept.
Personally, I don’t believe in booing players for poor play, only for poor effort. But, most fans obviously don’t agree with me.
When you go into a slump, you will get booed.
That said, as a professional athlete, you have a huge, built-in advantage.
Fans want to like you!
Fans want you to be successful. They want to identify with the players they cheer for.
This isn’t heavy-lifting. It doesn’t require a lot of effort.
Just don’t make it hard for them to cheer for you!
Be civil. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t act like a jerk.
Play hard and respect the game.
It’s all about “Effort and Attitude” – two things in life over which we have complete control.
When athletes show by their actions and their words that they care —- when they are accountable for mistakes they’ve made in a game —- they earn the respect of fans.
I’m not for a minute, suggesting that it is easy to face the media just minutes after a tough loss.
Sometimes the questions asked are unfair and sometimes they clearly are over the line.
But, part of being a professional is how you conduct yourself in such situations. Responding with grace and humility is a win-win.
As someone involved with young people and character education, I can tell you that kids are watching. You’re words and actions mean a lot to them.
So, help yourself and all those who look up to you.
Do your best to take the high road by showing respect for the game and its fans.
Founder & Executive Director
Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.