What is the Real Job of a Professional Sportsperson?

handcuffs isolated on black background with clipping pathI’ve spent a lot of the past couple of years yelling at ESPN… and Fox Sports… and Deadspin. As a sponsorship consultant, I try to stay across at least the bigger stories in global sports, but the continuous flow of player scandals has made that the bloody most depressing part of my job.

Across sports and around the world, the arrests and drugs and cheating and domestic violence seems to be reaching ridiculous proportions. The National Rugby League, here in Australia, seems to reel from one instance of player bad behaviour to another. And don’t get me started on the NFL, which seems to have absolutely no interest in doing anything meaningful to rub out domestic violence in its ranks. I grew up in Minnesota. Last year, I disposed of my Adrian Peterson jersey in the dog poo bin at the park, as I couldn’t think of a more fitting end to it.

As frustrating as it is to see teams and leagues and governing bodies not enforcing morals clauses, or appropriately penalising athletes that bring disrepute, it is just as frustrating that these problem players seem to have no idea what their job really is. Here’s the thing:

When a professional sportsperson signs a contract, they are not being paid to play a sport.
They are being paid to be a marketing commodity, only part of which is playing the sport.

If the player doesn’t understand that, s/he’s an idiot, and their management has done them a great disservice by not preparing them for the reality of professional sport. And if they simply don’t want to behave in a manner befitting a marketing commodity, they are welcome to get a job in a call centre or driving a bus or one of any number of jobs that don’t require a 24-hour a day commitment. Finally, to the fans who claim these players are just people and they never asked to be role models? Spare me. They gave up the right to be “just people” and “not role models” when they signed the contract.

I’ve worked with hundreds of professional athletes over my career, and most of them are professional, a delight to work with, and they totally understand that their job is far more than their athletic prowess. But for some teams and leagues and sports, it really is getting to the point where the bad apples are starting to ruin the whole barrel.

New recruits should be heavily educated about the realities of being a professional sportsperson before they sign the contract. And for for any current players, the punishment for bad behaviour should always fit the crime.

As for sponsors, use the muscle that your very significant sponsorship gives you to demand accountability. In any scandal, you should be taking the side of the fans, and if they’re up in arms, you should be amplifying their concerns. That’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do for your brand.

© Kim Skildum-Reid. All rights reserved. For republishing information see Blog and White Paper Reprints.

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