Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols: How Star Athletes Pursue Self-Destructive Paths and Jeopardize their Careers (Book Review)

Author:  Teitelbaum, Stanley
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Reviewed By: Andrea S. Corn, PsyD, Vol. 26 (3), 78-79

When my friend Bill MacGillivray asked me if I would review the book, Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols: How Star Athletes Pursue Self-Destructive Paths and Jeopardize their Careers, he knew the odds were in his favor I would say “yes.” What Bill didn’t know was that back in November 2004, the author Stanley H. Teitelbaum and I had our comments regarding the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl printed in New York Times editorial sports page. For anyone unfamiliar with this event, I described it as a sports moment when “the once-secure yet unseen boundary between expressed and actual aggression separating player and fan collapsed.” That day, Ron Artest’s conceit, disrespect, and defiance of the NBA cost him millions of dollars. Long before our paths crossed in print, Dr. Teitelbaum must have been passionate about this topic, researching the sports archives to investigate the many athletes who were blessed with extraordinary physical gifts yet wound up like Artest sabotaging their glamourous careers.

Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols is a well-documented book that reveals a disturbing, unflattering, and at times unnerving account of self-absorbed, flamboyant sport stars, who like fireworks, are thrilling to watch before exploding before our eyes. In this day and age, it is easy to see how their egos are cradled and primed for grandiosity: the constant hero-worshipping by adoring fans, the endless stream of media attention, and the extraordinary salaries that allow these sports stars to live unimaginably pampered and privileged lives.

It is important to note this book, however psychoanalytically informed, was written for the general public. This fact alone made it a challenge to review as there are few if any details pertaining to early childhood histories, the etiology of intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts, character formation, defensive structures, unconscious fantasies, etc. Even with this important caveat in mind, for those of you who are sports fans, you will appreciate his contribution. With clarity and purpose, Dr. Teitelbaum weaves together nearly a century of historical sports facts illustrating how narcissistic pathology has damaged or destroyed many professional careers.

The book begins by exploring developmental factors, highlighting why heroes are important in children’s lives, including the role athletes play in developing these idealized identifications. The following chapter had the most appeal for me as Dr. Teitelbaum delved into the psyche of the elite athlete. The Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus was presented as a cautionary tale to warn mortals what happens when arrogance, feelings of entitlement, and invincibility overshadow reason and logic. What appears to be most striking between these gifted athletes and patients who present with similar characterological problems is their limitless need for public recognition. US Senator Bill Bradley, a former professional athlete himself, summed it up best:

Self definition again comes from external sources, not from within. While their physical skills last, professional athletes are celebrities—fondled and excused, praised and believed. Only toward the end of their careers do the stars realize that their sense of identity is insufficient.

Subsequent chapters go into great length outlining the myriad ways admired sports stars and coaches rose to prominence before grandiose actions and incredible hubris accelerated their fall (e.g., Bobby Knight, Chris Webber, and Randy Moss). Other athletes suffered humiliating personal misfortunes because of undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems (e.g., Ty Cobb and Jimmy Piersall). A significant portion of the book is devoted to gambling scandals that permeated collegiate and professional sports. In fact, the extensive documentation spanning many decades is the strength of this novel. One of the most infamous athlete’s linked to gambling is Pete Rose. His spectacular on-field accomplishments are unlikely to ever receive recognition in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Instead, fans will remember the shame and dishonor he brought upon himself for his unbridled greed.

From this point forward the tenor of the book shifts and grows darker and more disturbing. The reader is rapidly immersed in stories of athletes whose reputations were shattered and relationships ruined through the inability to regulate aggressive or sexual urges outside the boundaries of their sport. Nancy McWilliams (1994) in Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, describes narcissistic object relations and self-perceptions: “narcissistic people send confusing messages to their friends and families. Their need for others is deep, but their love for them is shallow.” (p. 175).

This insight crystallizes the mixed messages prevalent in their disturbed relationships. Rage reactions are disguised as caring, and hostility is used to intimidate and control partners. Well known sports names, such as Warren Moon, Scottie Pippin, and Riddick Bowe, have all been linked with domestic violence charges against their wives and/or girlfriends. Other relational incidents delineated are egregious and unforgivable: abusing pregnant women (e.g., Vance Johnson, Irving Spikes), rape (e.g., Mike Tyson), and murder (e.g., Rae Carruth). Other famous careers have been wrecked by self-destructiveness in the form of excessive drug, alcohol, or substance abuse (e.g., Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Steve Howe, Lawrence Taylor, Len Bias, etc.). The recent rise of illegal performance enhancing drugs and the League’s ineffectual way of responding to the substance abuse and steroids crisis are also discussed.

Dr. Teitelbaum’s motivation may be in part to raise the sports fan’s awareness. (Yet, it is quite likely some sports fans may be reluctant to embrace his views due to their idealized attachments or arrested development in their relationship with sports figures). He observes:

Since we are paying their huge salaries through inflated ticket prices,we have the right to expect king size accomplishment. When some of them stumble, we do not own our part in creating an atmosphere in which they must fulfill our unrealistic dreams. We feel disappointed, disillusioned, and unforgiving, and we are disinclined to consider our contribution to the stress that can lead a hero astray. Thus, we are apt to underestimate the burden of stardom—of constantly living up to the performance standards of fans who feed off their success. (p. 8)

However, this statement about society’s insatiable need for heroes struck me as if Dr. Teitebaum momentarily merged with the average sports fan to justify the athlete’s lack of accountability. This kind of attitude contributes to their difficulty admitting their wrongdoings or showing remorse for their blatant denials (i.e., Pete Rose and Barry Bonds). Then again, how many narcissistic personality disordered individuals are willing to acknowledge their personal shortcomings or imperfections? This leads me back to thinking about players such as the likes of Ron Artest back in 2004, who initially displayed a cocky and self-righteous attitude acting as if the NBA ban should not have been imposed on him.

An epilogue has been added on the last few pages of the book which is an addendum, but on closer inspection resembles a police blotter as it chronologues all the wrongful acts committed by athletes in 2003 and 2004. Dr. Teitelbaum believes today’s athletes are getting wiser as they realize their self-destructive behavior undermines the game’s integrity as much as it hurts themselves. I am not quite ready to jump on this bandwagon, having observed the recent Congressional hearing when retired superstars (i.e., Mark McGuire, Rafael Palemero) and were too ashamed under oath to admit they sacrificed their bodies to illegal and damaging substances in order to gain a clear advantage on their opponents. In fact, it is disconcerting that these scandals in the sports world (whether the upsurge of illegal substances, steroid use, or drug-related crimes) have become less outrageous and shocking. Perhaps because so many incidents have been paraded across the sports headlines and cable programs, fans have become desensitized to those sports stars that relentlessly pursue everlasting acclaim.

After reading about so many tragic tales, I started wondering if division members have ever considered treating elite athletes in their private practices. As a member of Division of Exercise and Sport Psychology (47) and the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology (AAASP), I know there is a dearth of psychoanalytically oriented practitioners. Since Dr. Teitelbaum is a Division 39 member, I am nominating him to pave the way through his connections and recognition from his book and recommend Division 39 members who are interested to serve as sport psychology consultants. Having been involved in youth and adolescent sport psychology for many years, I would like to ask the division to consider this venue as another means for conducting outreach services. With all the professional, collegiate, high school, and organized youth sports leagues across the nation, there is an abundance of potential patients who could benefit from being treated by psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists. If the division ever decides to add sports psychology to their long list of therapeutic outreach activities, count me in!

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