The journey from payday to punch line can be cruel and swift. In the case of New York Giants defensive lineman Jason Pierre-Paul, the flash of a firework fuse has changed the face of a franchise into Internet meme fodder.
Within minutes of the New York Daily News’ publication of exclusive pictures of the indiscernible mush that remains of Pierre-Paul’s right hand, the jokes, judgments, and declarations of disbelief infiltrated inboxes, Twitter feeds, and text messages:
"Why does his hand look like a ginger root?"
"At least he’ll always be in the three-point stance from now on."
"Somebody get him Gerald Green’s number, STAT!"
"JPP permanently throwing up the ‘bang bang whatever gang’ sign."
"If I had $14 million on the line, you wouldn’t catch me near a firecracker, a motorcycle, a nightclub ... I wouldn’t even use Q-Tips for a year."
"And just like that, we have the newest open-and-shut case for the FML Hall of Fame. Clearest first-ballot case since Aaron Hernandez."
Welcome to the "F--- My Life Hall of Fame," an imaginary tomb of infamy and dishonor for athletes who piss away potential earnings and legacies alike, often in spectacular fashion. It is principally reserved for those whose falls from grace are so distinct, disastrous, and dimwitted that we can recite their mind-boggling misdeeds in dystopian homage.
There are four distinct wings in the #FML Hall:
- The first houses the Aaron Hernandezes, Rae Carruths, and Lawrence Phillipses of the sports world—those undone by a sociopathic bent.
- Next is where you can find the Roy Tarpleys, Ryan Leafs, Josh Hamiltons and Josh Gordons, who crumbled during or after their careers under the weight of substance abuse.
- The third includes the Titus Youngs, Suzy Favor-Hamiltons, and Delonte Wests, undermined, at least in part, by mental illness.
- Finally, there is the mope-ish miscellany of athletes who sank their careers thanks to head-scratching, exasperating, “what the hell”-level decisions, which includes Marlo Stanfield wannabe Sam Hurd, Jay "I rode a motorcycle" Williams (not to be confused with Jayson "I shot a limo driver" Williams) and Plaxico Burress.
Pierre-Paul, of course, is being measured for a bust in the fourth wing. Wing 4 is full of behavior that seems inexplicable precisely because the actions are often so silly and trivial when contrasted with murder or addiction. After all, when your contract forbids it, and your livelihood depends on your health, why the hell would you get on a motorcycle or hold a firework or own unregistered assault weapons or try to become a drug kingpin?
It is easy and simplistic to critique these decisions harshly and lament the stupidity and shortsightedness of a professional athlete, though, much in the same way we reflexively whine about the salaries for those who “play a game for a living,” as if the pickup-ball average Schmoes play at the gym is representative of what NBA players do. Our collective dismissal of the exceptional skill, toil, and market worth of professional athletes is a confession of our own jealousy and underlying frustration at our lots in life. Our admiration for, and envy of, those among us who appear superhuman puts athletes in a very unenviable position.
This doesn't make Pierre-Paul stupid; he’s just what he has trained to be. He made a mess, because making a mess is what he does best, what makes him who he is. To pursue a career in a field with a miniscule chance of success, an astronomical risk of severe and lasting injury, with elusive contracts and an average earning window of three years and change, takes a special breed of recklessness and defiance of conventional wisdom. To engage in any extreme physical activity that accelerates the deterioration of the joints (and, as we continue to learn, the brain) indicates a relatively unique willingness to make a mess of things.
To be, as Pierre-Paul was, an agent of disruption in an already chaotic game demands brashness and a disregard for consequences. He, with at least $14.8 million on the line, picked up a firework for the same reason Jay Williams got on his Yamaha or Monta Ellis mounted a moped in Mississippi: their vocations, their coaches, and their fans have conditioned them to do so. If Pierre-Paul didn’t believe he was superhuman, exempt from the consequences that go hand-in-hand with risky behavior, he wouldn’t have been in line for a huge contract in the first place.
It’s strange, the ever-shifting standards to which we hold our favorite athletes. We expect and encourage them to be singularly focused maniacs on the job, but we castigate them when that mentality bleeds into their personal lives. What makes them heroic in one context is exactly what earns our scorn and jeering in another. We satisfy our own bloodlust through these humans we view as brutes and gladiators, only to demand that as soon as the games are done and the lights are off, they use their brains better. It’s paradoxical and hypocritical.
In speaking with a diverse range of sports fans and psychologists, I found that regardless of the varying opinions on why athletes behave recklessly in their personal lives, almost everyone agreed the behavior was predictable and rooted in a dual sense of invincibility and entitlement that has been nurtured by years of training and experience.
One long-time fan noted our culture’s role in shaping professional athletes into poor decision-makers:
“First off, there’s a lack of supervision. A lot of the #FML Hall of Famers are barely removed from being teenagers. Many of them were admitted to universities they weren’t qualified to attend. They were given all kinds of fringe benefits that only naïve people can’t guess at. They’ve been enabled every step of the way because their success makes other people a lot of money. No one gives them advice or oversight beyond their duties on the field. No one cares enough about them to offer that kind of supervision. 100,000 of us will show up on a Saturday to watch 19- and 20-year-old college ‘students’ play a game, then we’ll turn around and chastise them for feeling a sense of entitlement. It’s absurd.”
Acclaimed novelist Marjorie Celona laughed at the question of whether impulsive and reckless behavior should be expected from professional athletes. “I remember when I was in school, I didn’t even want to participate in gym class. I knew early on I didn’t like pain. It was really that simple. Why would I actively seek out pain? On one extreme end of the spectrum, you have someone like me ... so imagine the other extreme end, which is exactly where you find people like Jason Pierre-Paul.”
Celona is quick to point out this sort of behavior isn’t limited to sports. “Think about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Or the horror stories that come out of the finance sector. These are people who believe they have control of circumstance, while normal people know full well we can easily be victims of circumstance. In great athletes' minds—in their day-to-day lives, even—rules don’t apply to them. These are self-selecting populations. People who aren’t reckless don’t participate in high-risk activities, regardless of the potential financial reward. What you do reflects who you are.”
Celona also highlighted an illuminating 2001 study, “Boys Will Be Boys: Gender, Overconfidence and Common Stock Investment," which presented analysis of investment behavior and risk-taking at brokerage firms. Recklessness was a rule, and trading frequency was 45% higher among males. This high-risk, low-yield tendency is a #FML Hall of Fame hallmark. One of the authors of the study, Brad Barber, gave this summation during an interview: “In general, overconfident investors are going to be interpreting what’s going on around them and feeling they are able make decisions that they’re really not equipped to make.”
Even now, Pierre-Paul, like the bulk of the overconfident and hypersuccessful among us, has an inflated sense of his capabilities and a duller sense of his actual limitations. His case, as well as the sheer number of #FML Hall of Fame inductees, raises the obvious question of whether the aggression, drive, and disregard for personal safety required to excel at sports' elite levels inspires dangerous (and maybe criminal) behavior. The NFL has long touted statistics that place player arrest rates between two and four percent, which is lower than the societal standard. It could be that our culture emphasizes sports to such an obscene extent that reports of dangerous and criminal misconduct are amplified, and the noise of it exceeds the reality.
The government doesn’t sort crime data by vocation, so there’s no way to definitively prove entitlement, a sense of invincibility, and an ignoring of consequences is a prerequisite for—or a result of—playing football (or working in finance), but it seems safe to opine that professional athletes, like the members of the financial and social elite, are fortified by a warped sense of entitlement built brick by brick over the years, until it becomes an impenetrable fortress of delusion and illogic.
When asked for his reflections, Asheville, N.C.-based psychotherapist Jonathan Railey was measured. “It takes a special kind of psychology to want to hold a firecracker (even Roman candles) in one's hand, light the fuse, and let the physics unfold.
“Of course, all my friends and I did this when we were middle-school age, but neuroscience confirms that our brains were still developing and our collective ability to make sound judgments [was] therefore lacking. For an adult, I think the impetus is a little more complicated and varied. It could be that holding a lit cherry bomb, driving a motorcycle at breakneck speeds, doing blow all night long, and basically acting above the laws of cause and effect [are] also, in some sense, expression[s] of a death drive. From research that's out there, we know that, at a certain income level, money does not increase happiness. The special problems and pressures that come with fame, as well as wealth acquisition and maintenance, actually can and often do create more turmoil for people.
"Certain people position themselves, either through risky behavior, voyeurism, or even occupational choices—like neurosurgeons, firefighters, ambulance drivers, football—to get close to death so that they might, in some way, achieve mastery over it. Their dread of death is so intense that they put themselves within its proximity to prove their superiority to it. This is also known to existentialists as the 'myth of specialness,' which I would imagine is pretty common among the talented, rich and famous.”
In this light, Pierre-Paul’s story isn’t a cautionary tale any more than Len Bias’s or Lance Armstrong’s was; on the contrary, it’s just the same eternal song springing forth from a new crooner’s throat. And for our part as fans, our shock and admonishment of Pierre-Paul rings hollow when we immediately turn right around and cheer on the next batch of athletes to entertain us with their minimal regard for self-preservation, impulsive play, and reckless gambling between the lines.
Maybe, in that regard, we are the Hall's induction committee.