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For the love of the game

On the desire for athletes to give everything for the team

On March 11, defenceman Rich Peverley of the National Hockey League (NHL)’s Dallas Stars suddenly collapsed while sitting on the bench after a shift. Peverley had been previously diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and had reportedly been adjusting his medication. When he collapsed, the entire Dallas team knew what had gone wrong, and medical professionals quickly attended to Peverley. These doctors performed CPR and defibrillation, allowing Peverley to regain consciousness. Upon waking, he reportedly asked how much time was left in the period, and if he could get back in the game.

For some of the corners of the internet that I detest, this was a sign of Peverley’s status as a hockey player – that he had such grit and determination that nothing would stop him from playing. Various memes emerged comparing Peverley to players in other sports, lionizing Peverley in contrast to other ‘soft’ athletes. Hockey especially has this desire to show its toughness – whether it is as simple as losing a couple of  teeth and continuing to play, or as extreme as Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand playing through game six of the Stanley Cup Finals last year with an assortment of injuries that eventually resulted in a collapsed lung. Barry Petchesky, writing on Deadspin, described this desire to show hockey’s toughness (as a quality of the entire sport) as part of a fan inferiority complex – especially because most of the comparisons use LeBron James, star player for the Miami Heat of the National Basketball Association (NBA), and perhaps the most famous athlete in North America right now. It’s a desire to show that their athletes are the best because of their overwhelming toughness.

Of course, the viewpoint that makes the most sense to me, at least, is that this commitment to play through anything is ridiculous, and just plain dangerous. The level of competitiveness that leads someone to wake up after being defibrillated and ask to keep playing is not admirable; it’s scary. But the celebration of devotion such as Peverley’s feeds into the burgeoning trend of a near- fetish for athletes to be hyper-competitive and ‘gritty,’ and to love what they do unconditionally.

‘Gritty’ or ‘hard-working’ are meaningless terms that have come to mean far too much, signifying a player (especially in hockey) who just works harder than anyone else. It’s an intangible descriptor that usually refers to anyone who doesn’t have a ton of skill. Synonyms for this include ‘high motor’ and ‘energy guy,’ or whatever bland platitude you desire. Either way, it allows for coaches, the media, and fans to celebrate the seeming passion of a player. With that comes the expectation that every athlete should give everything they have to the game, and that they should love every second of it.

There’s a sort of enmity that comes with much of the support for professional athletes, and it increases the more that they’re paid. Never mind that it’s the owners and organizations themselves that decide how much a player should be paid – if someone is paid so exorbitantly, then they should always be working hard. The “love what you do, do what you love” ethos in work has probably annoyed any college graduate entering the job market. For a professional athlete, it’s expected that you love every aspect of your job and that you give every ounce of effort. Since they play a ‘game’ for a living – something that is the envy of people who grew up playing said games – any sign that they don’t think it’s the best thing to do on Earth is met with scorn.

This, of course, ignores the fact that athletes play physically demanding and damaging sports with long-term effects and the fact that they live under constant scrutiny by the media. It’s not hard to see how you wouldn’t love that, and there have been many athletes who claim they hated what they were doing while still being very good at it. Andre Agassi, the famed tennis player, despised tennis throughout his career, and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, a soccer player in the English Premier League (one of the best – if not the best – soccer league in the world) admitted he had no special passion for the game. Like any other job, it’s a way to make a living, love or no love for it.

Rashard Mendenhall, a former running back for the National Football League’s (NFL) Arizona Cardinals, announced his retirement last week at the age of 26. In an explanation for his early retirement, published in the Huffington Post, Mendenhall somewhat falls into hard work clichés, bemoaning the loss of appreciation for hard-working guys as people now focus on scoring and touchdown dances. He ascribes this grit to the old guard of athletes who really cared about the game, rather than being a celebrity. This idealization of hard work as some throwback to a better age, a nostalgia for when it was all about the game, is ingrained in some of the players themselves, showing its reach. Mendenhall’s column, on the other hand, also displayed why someone might be disillusioned with their job in professional athletics, as he says that he “no longer wish[es] to put [his] body at risk for the sake of entertainment,” and that he would live “without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city.” Representing your team in an extremely public sphere means self-limitation of speech and action, and the game itself, especially football, usually leads to long-term post-career injury.

Of course, since grittiness and hard work themselves are almost entirely intangible concepts, deciding who is and who is not working hard enough becomes a rather subjective exercise. As Ryan Lambert on Yahoo! Sports pointed out in a piece on Peverley, ‘grit’ in hockey is almost always assigned to white, North American players, indicating that the issue is at least a bit racialized. Media members with a grudge can start pointing out players who don’t work hard enough for them – usually those players who make the most money – and, cherry-picking certain plays, can make their case that someone is loafing it out there. Once a player is marked as not loving the game, it’s hard to ever come back and prove otherwise (again, because the phrase itself is mostly entirely subjective).

The desire for hard-working, for-the-love-of-the-game players may be well-intentioned, but it has gone to extreme levels where someone can receive praise for doing incredibly dumb things and putting their well-being at risk. How much is enough for us now? Sure, there’s something admirable about it, if you don’t think about it for more than two seconds, but remember that these athletes are people too, people who might hate their job just as much as you.