Men Behaving Badly

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, September 28, 2007

Let's say you're having a bad day. Let's say you work in a paint shop, a bank, a schoolroom, a hospital or a shapeless cubicle lit by a leaky, soul-killing, fluorescent glare. You're tempted every day to scream at the boss, hurl profanities at co-workers or underlings, and then go home and soothe yourself by twisting up a fat one and burying your face in a cloud of opiate smoke. Except you don't. You don't because (1) you might lose your job; (2) you actually feel sort of responsible to other people; and (3) you've learned the hard way that when you calm down, you will be standing sheepishly alone and exposed at the top of Idiot Hill.

If you make your living in sports, on the other hand, you can act this way, or worse, and get away with little more than a shoulder shrug. That's the conclusion to be drawn from the behavior of the various hotheads and shrieking, free-flowing performance artists who populated the sports news this week -- from scream-voiced Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy to cuss-mouthed baseball umpire Mike Winters to the pounding lunatic ranter DeAngelo Hall of the Atlanta Falcons and, last but not least, to the smoke-wreathed, narcoticized Michael Vick. All across television screens and sports pages, athletes and coaches completely lost their rudders in public.

Once the head stopped ringing from their tantrums and tirades, the question that came to mind was, What has happened to the term "professional" in sports? By professional, we mean exercising the basic instrument of self-control in the performance of an agreed-upon obligation. Why is it that spectators and sponsors keep pouring more money into the industry of sports, and yet seem to get less and less professionalism in return? What is that about?

A quick review: Gundy, filled with self-righteousness after a big victory over Texas Tech, used his postgame news conference not to discuss his team but to publicly savage sportswriter Jenni Carlson from the Daily Oklahoman for an opinion piece she wrote on the benching of quarterback Bobby Reid. Carlson's story was no model of restraint either and crossed the line into meanness. But Gundy's response was a lunging personal attack in which he derided Carlson basically because she's not a mother.

Major League Baseball has suspended umpire Winters for the rest of the season for jawing profanely at Padres outfielder Milton Bradley, who then tore an ACL when his manager had to restrain him.

Hall helped seal a third straight loss for the Falcons when he committed three egregious penalties worth 67 yards to the opponent and then, instead of apologizing, screamed at Coach Bobby Petrino. The Falcons have slapped him with a $100,000 fine. Hall's response? He says it's unfair and will fight it.

And then there was another fabulously self-sabotaging act by Vick, who after he pleaded guilty in August to a federal dogfighting charge, swore repentance. So much for his courthouse vow to become a new man: This month, he failed a drug test for marijuana. As Will Leitch of quipped, "You think you know a guy."

None of the above parties show much sign of contrition.

First, let's grant that it's easy to sympathize with any of them. All of us have our own struggles with temperament; only a mannequin hasn't been overmastered at one time or another by emotion. Most of us throw our fits in private and embarrass ourselves only in front of forgiving family or friends, who fortunately don't judge us entirely on that one instance. Everyone knows how it feels to be wronged like Gundy, or frustrated like Hall, in the grip of an outburst like Winter, or so beset by problems that it's tempting to anesthetize, like Vick. Fewer of us know how it feels to embarrass ourselves in front of cameras.

Let's also grant that sports is not your average business. The participants are paid in part to express their emotions; a significant part of their job performance and entertainment value lies in summoning emotions and using them as competitive fuel, and even umpires are part of that show. But they're also paid exorbitantly to subdue those emotions. They're in the business of regulating their moods, habits and idiosyncrasies in the name of the performance.

Any game is about controlled violence, controlled speed, body control, ball control. The idea in a race is go fast without crashing the car. The key issue that's decided on any contested field is, who has more self-control? Another word for it, if you were looking for one, is composure.

Which is why there's something so bothersome about the collective loss of it this week. Something has happened, gotten skewed, when even umpires and coaches, who are supposed to be in command, are throwing nutties in their workplace and aren't ashamed to have done it. There seemed to be a key missing ingredient in the behavior of all of these people, some crucial point missed, central lack of recognition. Maybe it's this: The ultimate price of irrational behavior is that it's self-defeating.

If you were looking for another way to define a professional, it's someone who has a kind of dutifulness, a recognized responsibility to get a job done on behalf of others. One organization that spends a lot of time carefully defining professionalism, because it has such serious consequences in the field, is the Association of American Medical Colleges. Among the components the AAMC identifies in a real pro: someone who subordinates their own interests, self-regulates, appraises themselves critically, looks to correct mistakes, seeks moral development and acknowledges a social contract, some basic obligation to the community.

It's that last part that gets at the real underlying question posed by the events this week. We're obsessed by financial contracts in sports, but we're far from universally in agreement on whether athletes, coaches and umpires are obliged by any kind of social contract. One thing anyone who struggles with temper knows: Losing it is an ultimately selfish act, because on some level, you give yourself permission to act that way, and don't care how it affects anyone else. This week, as an audience, we not only granted certain people permission to lose it, we even congratulated some for it. A majority of those polled approved of what Gundy did.

Do we really want to define professionalism differently in sports? Do some people get more latitude by virtue of what they do for a living, while the rest live up to a different accountability, and sterner consequences? Is the standard different for them than it is for someone in a hard hat, or a medical mask? If that's the case, let's be clear that we're issuing exemptions. And excuses.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company