Professional athletes are an oxymoron when it comes to play and how it is defined. They may have started playing the sport for the fun of it, but for them the game has transformed into something paradoxical, where they love the game, but ‘play’ it for work. They work year-round perfecting their craft, get paid, and feel the pressure of the fans, all making the sport much more than a game.
We learned from Huizinga the idea of the magic circle, and all the areas of action where it applies in real life. For these athletes, the field of play, whether it is the football field, baseball diamond or soccer pitch, is their magic circle. They live in this magic circle, and get paid and pushed to perform within its bounds. But when the game stops, they still thrive because of that magic circle. In some senses, they live by the rules of the game, and not by the rules of real life.
We see too often athletes with this mindset, and have witnessed the consequences of it. When TMZ posted the security footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his finance, it was just one more example of professional athletes living by the rules of the game, and not by that of society. The statistics of crimes committed by professional athletes is overwhelming. According to the sports blog Deadspin.com, NFL players face arrests for violent crimes 34% more than the general US population. 81% more players face DUI charges than the US average, coupled with the staggering 324% difference when it comes to weapons charges.
Professional athletes are polarized like none other, pressured and scrutinized by the media uniquely, all while playing the game they grew up with. When you live with the sport, it’s easy to understand why some live by it as well. For many, the magic circle doesn’t end when they step off the field; it merely expands.
Professional athletes are often showered with attention and love as soon as they show their ability to perform at the elite level. For several star athletes, this time can come at a young age. Many are then reared with the idea that they can do anything as long as they impress with their athletics, such as attending a prestigious college they normally wouldn’t be able to attend. They thrive within their respective magic circle, and feel untouchable doing it. At this point, the sport becomes their livelihood, growing into a beast that consumes them mentally. When the game ends, the crowd doesn’t disappear, it follows them, mostly through the media. So in some senses, the game never stops for them.
When Ray Rice proceeded with his act of domestic violence, it wasn’t because the game didn’t end (throwing punches is illegal in the NFL), it is because the magic circle didn’t. He was shaped as a person and lives in his mental magic circle everyday. He felt, like many of the others, that he was untouchable. When we polarize and focus on athletes like we do, it is understandable how these athletes become rewired into something else. Unless we change ourselves, we won’t be able to stop these kinds of problems.