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The Culture of Preferential Treatment Among Athletes

March 03, 2015

What Happens to Youth Athletes Who Receive Special Treatment?

We see the reports in the media on a regular basis. Some college or professional sports star is involved in yet another scandal, and it often appears the athlete has received preferential treatment. Perhaps the college or coaches protected him, maybe the media went easy on him, or it seems the police have afforded the player some privileged handling. What gives?

Going back to adolescence, star athletes have typically been offered some type of special benefit in a variety of their relationships. “On one hand athletes are put on a pedestal and protected, but on the other hand they’re being taken advantage and prevented from maturing and gaining a sense of personal responsibility,” says David M. Reiss, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in San Diego and Chief Medical Officer of 1@Equilibirum, a sports psychiatry program.

Reiss sees the same type of thing with celebrities and those in the public eye. There’s a crossover with respect to being protected from responsibility. The better you play or the more well-known you become, you get both exploited and protected.


There are two main results to young athletes receiving preferential treatment. “One is that kids, both male and female, develop a distorted view of what their future is going to be. At times, it’s either overtly or covertly reinforced. For instance, every high school football player thinks they are going to make the NFL,” says Reiss. Of course, a very small percentage will actually go on to the pros, but it’s in the schools’ or coaches’ best interest to have athletes think that way to motivate them.

Reiss also stresses that for most students it will be the end of the line with their sport, either at the high school or the college level, and they often don’t have a good plan B. “They don’t put the effort into classwork or even developing their nonacademic plan B. So you get kids or young adults who really have no sense of where they’re going in life, and even those who do make it to the big leagues, most of them, really are only going to be there for a couple years and don’t have the wherewithal to save enough money and are not set for life.”

Another issue, especially with more physical sports like football, is that those who don’t go on to the pros may have no way of getting help for chronic injuries. Once someone has left high school or college, they have no particular benefits to deal with the consequences of head injuries or other long-term chronic problems.

What’s more, teens who are the “big person on campus” get away with behaviors that other kids can’t get away with, either academically or misdeeds get covered up. They may be protected to some extent, which others resent. It also interferes with developing a sense of responsibility and accountability. They may never have to face responsibility for what they do.  You can end up with young adults who either are protected from maturing or think they’re above it all.


Within friendships and peer groups, athletes are seen as different with both good and bad consequences. They also may be given too much too soon and don’t have a sense that they have to earn anything.

Reiss says many star athletes end up getting away with little things, like being disrespectful, maybe violence or bullying, not necessarily illegal activities. “In terms of relationships, it’s easy to form relationships but not necessarily very healthy relationships and probably to some extent more unhealthy than the typical teenager or young adult because people are idolizing them and letting them get away with stuff and not holding them responsible,” says Reiss. Then there’s the hanger ons–some who share the glory, some who hope to share the glory, some who are plain exploitative and feel they can gain something from their relationship with the athlete whether financial, or emotional benefits.  ‘I’m connected to this person so that makes me a bigger person.’

Reiss says many an athlete wonders who his true friends are.

“One of the things I see with athletes who make the pros but don’t necessarily go on to all-star careers, is they turn up at age 30 with no real plan for their selves, they’ve been beaten up physically, whether from football or hockey, and have the body of a 50-year old but emotionally be functioning like a 16-year old. Throw in chronic pain or head injury and then you get more susceptibility to abusing both prescription medications and illegal drugs.” When you combine that immaturity with prescription and/or illicit drugs, you have a perfect storm that can lead to a disaster.

Worse, athletes with a history of head injury are at higher risk for depression.


While these types of problems will likely continue among some athletes, one way we can help is to be reactive in terms of being called in when athletes do have trouble, says Reiss.  Another way is educating athletes, coaches, parents and team staff about some of the repercussions and stigma of preferential treatment on the athlete. Youth athletes are kids that need an extra dose of reality about the future, lessons in humility and staying grounded when others hold them up for their talent. Setting up programs with athletes and former athletes that can make young players aware of some of the pitfalls is also key.

Peer to peer support, where a player can anonymously talk to someone outside of their team or sport is also a plus. Not necessarily a crisis or suicide-based hotline but an educational, informational contact for athletes struggling with any of these issues. Reiss is currently developing a cell phone app support program for athletes that is not substance abuse-based, but able to help with the various problems that stem from being a star athlete including overcoming insecurities, learning responsibility and accountability, and understanding a sense of earning their own way.

While being an admired athlete does come with a hefty dose of accolades, there’s also much to be cautious about in terms of how youth athletes develop as people.

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Jennifer Nelson

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