Fans Forget to See the Human Side of Professional Athletes

Jordi Rieg (right), junior sport administration major, and his friend Alex Santoni (left), attending a professional soccer game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. Reig said society views professional athletes as sources of entertainment instead of people (Photo courtesy of Jordi Reig).

Former NFL Quarterback Tom Brady is one of the most polarizing athletes in America, according to SB Nation

Fans love him for going from a sixth-round draft pick to a 22-year career where he won seven Super Bowls, according to ESPN. On the reverse side, fans of opposing teams hate him for how good he was. 

Professional athletes are idolized or scrutinized to the extreme.

Fans will idolize professional athletes when they succeed, but will tear them down when they fail. Sports fans and people with experience in the sports industry said society tends to view professional athletes as sources of entertainment as opposed to human beings with lives and families. 

“Fans don’t always recognize the human nature of a professional athlete,” Sport Administration Professor Alicia Jessop said. “They look at them as more of a commodity that is going to help them achieve success in fantasy sports, gaming or their own personal fandom.”  

Multiple sports fans said how society treats athletes is dependent on how the player performs for or against a fan’s favorite team.  

Fans idolize athletes

Stephen McDaniel, a Portland Trail Blazers fan and junior political science and economics major, said he idolizes Damian Lillard, former Trail Blazers Point Guard.

“In my eyes, Damian Lilliard can never do anything wrong,” McDaniel said. “He’s a great person in the community, he’s a leader, he’s the face of the franchise, he’s been my role model.”

Jack Wetzel, junior political science major, said he idolizes many athletes on Philadelphia’s pro sports teams, such as Eagles Quarterback Jalen Hurts.

“I think these people are above anything a lot of times,” Wetzel said. “It’s crazy.”

A Pepp Post survey of 50 people found that 98% believe that fans have a tendency to idolize their favorite athletes.

Religion Professor Stanley Talbert said idolatry is anything that takes away from one’s ultimate concern. The reason professional athletes get idolized is because they often represent heroes and what many people wish they were. 

“They can do things that inspire others,” Talbert said. “For me growing up, looking at professional athletes or seeing Michael Jordan in a real game or in Space Jam doing the impossible, you have this idea that you want to be like Mike [Jordan], or I want to be like Allen Iverson, or even Serena Williams or Venus Williams.”

Talbert said idolizing professional athletes is dangerous because it results in treating professional athletes as more than human. 

“If I idolize a finite being, then my devotion will be toward that person,” Talbert said. “It might not be love for my neighbor, or love for the other or keeping their humanity intact. It’s really hard to keep someone’s humanity at the center if we treat them more than human.”

Fans sometimes let professional athletes affect their well being. The survey found that 54% of respondents said how well their favorite athletes perform has affected their mood. 

“I’ve seen people let professional athletes dictate how their [sports fans] day goes,” said Jordi Reig, junior sport administration major. “If they’re favorite athlete does well they’ll have a great day, but if they don’t, they’ll allow it to ruin their day, so their whole personalities and mood go off of a player’s performance.” 

This idolatry puts a lot of pressure on athletes, as 68% respondents said professional athletes are held to an unrealistic standard.

Junior psychology major Davi Lui said he idolizes Julio Jones, former Falcons wide receiver, but that he couldn’t handle the attention professional athletes get, largely due to the privacy invasion.

“Paparazzi is out here invading their privacy,” Lui said. “Which is pretty crazy.”  

Fans set high expectations

With anywhere from thousands to millions of fans watching professional athletes perform, senior religion major Julie Tingleff said athletes are put under extreme pressure to perform up to fans’ expectations.

“You can’t mess up,” Tingleff said. “You can’t say one wrong thing, you can’t make a mistake, you can’t miss a game.” 

After the Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals, fans heavily scrutinized Ben Simmons, then 76ers point guard, for being the reason the 76ers lost after he had a bad series and missed a wide open dunk in game seven, according to reporting from the NBA and ESPN

McDaniel said this was one moment where fans overreacted to an athlete making a mistake. 

“To be hounding this guy to the point he doesn’t want to play basketball in this city anymore is just too much,” McDaniel said. “If you’re a fan, it’s just a game to you. Imagine how bad Ben Simmons felt after playing poorly. That’s his life, he’s been working his whole life toward it.”

Within the past couple years, many NFL players have spoken about their mental health difficulties, according to the Athletic. Brayden Bowyer, sophomore sport administration major, said the expectations of fans has led to these difficulties. 

“There’s numerous examples of football players wanting to commit suicide or having gambling issues,” Boywer said. “Their emotional state isn’t what it should be after they’re done playing sports.”

One relatively recent change that has increased  fans’ desire for professional athletes to perform is the legalization of sports gambling. Betting on sports first became legal in 2018 and is now legal in 37 states, according to ESPN and Forbes.

Jessop said the legalization of sports gambling has heightened the criticism for professional athletes. 

“We’ve also seen within that time, leagues like the NFL, which once very vehemently defended against sports gambling, lean into the opportunity because of the revenue generating it presents,” Jessop said. “When fans are putting money on the line, if a player’s play affects the outcome, there’s going to be sharper criticism compared to five years ago.”

Additionally, Jessop said social media has created a direct pipeline between fans and athletes where fans can directly voice their frustrations.

“A number of the NFL players I work with have turned off their comments and the abilities for people outside of their circle to engage with them on social media,” Jessop said. “Having this negative feedback flowing through will impact their mental health, mental well being and their performance.”

With such high expectations put on professional athletes, Reig said it’s important to remember that professional athletes deal with the same struggles as ordinary people.

“Athletes are just as human as we are,” Reig said. “They have mental health struggles, regular stress, things that bother them day to day. We only focus on how they’re playing, not how they’re well-being is affected.”

Fans excuse behavior

Multiple sports fans said whether people dislike an athlete or not has less to do with their overall character and more to do with their performance. 

One example of this is how fans named the aforementioned Brady the most hated football player in 36 states in 2021, according to Sports Illustrated. Luke Campell, senior sport administration major, said he remembers hating Brady growing up solely because of his success. 

“I didn’t like the guy for my entire childhood because he was always winning,” Campbell said. “He was so good at his craft and dominant for a long stretch. The unfortunate part about that was we were watching greatness.”

Despite receiving this much hate, Brady has never been accused or convicted of a crime. Meanwhile, there were many players in the NFL at that time who had been accused of crimes, such as sexual assault or domestic violence, according to USA Today

It isn’t uncommon for fans to excuse professional athletes who commit crimes. Wetzel said this tends to happen when the athlete in question plays for their favorite team.

“If it’s your own athlete you’re supporting, you overlook it because they’re helping your team,” Wetzel said. “If it’s not, then you tear them down.” 

The poll found committing a crime was only the second most popular reason as to why fans dislike certain athletes.

Prioritizing athlete’s performance over their character has allowed for some athletes to not face punishment for their actions. Campbell pointed to Cleveland Browns Quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had 24 civil lawsuits filed against him for sexual misconduct, according to CNN.

Campbell said Watson has for the most part got away with his crimes.

“He’s accused of sexual assault by 19 different women and then he clears the charges and signs a $250 million contract with the Browns,” Campbell said.

Multiple people said fans have seemingly moved on from the allegations against former NFL players Michael Vick, who pleaded guilty for involvement in a dog fighting ring, and OJ Simpson, who was accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend, according to reporting from ABC News and History. One jury acquitted Simpson of criminal charges but another found him liable in a civil case. 

“People will say he’s [Simpson] innocent without knowing a lot about the case or digging into the case itself,” Lui said.

Tony Gleason completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.