Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and
One thing that clearly emerges from the fog of uncertainty,
when it comes to the behavior of sports celebrities, is the frantic public
treatment it gets. Before the latest Isiah Thomas mystery, already elevated
from its unknowable personal details to the yowling "ISIAH O.D." banner in an
NYC tabloid, there was almost a week's worth of poking at Joba Chamberlain
under the microscope.
At least that front-page frenzy stopped short of a "Brainless Man in
Topless Bar" headline. In turning the Yankees pitcher's DUI arrest into a
federal case - not to mention a self-parody of sensationalism - local tabloids
(including this one) lurched away from legitimate public concern into
not-entirely-sober salacious prying.
Chamberlain's dumb deed, of driving (let alone speeding) when allegedly
drunk, was both news and a public service announcement: Don't do this. (The
same of which could be said of Thomas, assuming we think we know what Thomas
did, or why.)
But treating either episode as the October surprise in a heated election
season - in more than one place, Chamberlain's variously reported
confrontations in a Nebraska strip club were described as his "Wild Night" -
was indicative of another form of intoxication.
And not helpful to anybody.
"It's of public interest," sports psychiatrist Allan Lans said of the
Chamberlain incident. "It's not really a public matter, I don't think. This is
what happens when baseball gets out of the headlines and they can't stand it
"What's required is privacy and understanding of what really happened."
During 18 years as the Mets' team psychiatrist, Lans worked closely with
repeatedly has argued for teams to hire medical professionals who establish
ongoing relationships with all players.
Such pre-emptive action would provide the crucial knowledge of
Chamberlain's background, habits and insecurities, and thus the ability to
determine whether he has a real problem or made a single frighteningly
dimwitted move that could have cost lives. (As it cost drunk-driving St. Louis
Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock last year.)
Someone with his training, noted sports psychologist Tom Ferraro, "would
listen for things that could be driving the problem: The pressure of
professional sports - massive pressure, fatigue, tension, anxiety, anger. He
would look at the past: A possible broken home, deprivation, emptiness in
childhood. He would talk about grandiosity, narcissism, entitlement that comes
with being a professional athlete, and the confidence and ignorance of youth."
Whatever issues, if any, might apply to Chamberlain, Ferraro hardly
recommended the advice that Strawberry, himself a recidivist, suggested to
Newsday - that Chamberlain have a heart-to-heart talk with teammate Derek
Jeter. "He should get professional support," Ferraro said. "Not from a
bartender or stripper or a chat with Derek Jeter."
Ferraro, who has worked with athletes, teams and celebrities for more than
20 years at the Williston Park-based Long Island Institute of Psychoanalysis,
has found that the sports culture "absolutely condones alcohol use, and that
adds to this very serious problem. In fact, I'm shocked if I'm treating a
professional athlete who does not have some drug addiction."
Still, as Lans cautioned, "we really don't know" whether Chamberlain has a
past pattern of driving with a blood-alcohol content more than 1 1/2 times the
legal limit, as was recorded at his arrest last weekend. Or whether he is just
another 23-year-old living what is so often portrayed as a regular-guy
lifestyle, even by national politicians. (Joba Six-Pack?)
To Arizona State University journalism professor Tim McGuire, former
president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Chamberlain arrest
needed to be reported. "The reason you and I don't drive drunk anymore, and I
did 30 years ago, is because the media started publicizing the dangers and made
us aware it was stupid," McGuire said.
"But it's about scale. It was a two- or three-paragraph story. It's quite a
leap to go to sensational, salacious big headlines, back Chamberlain into a
strip club and subject him to public embarrassment."
As Lans said, "At this stage, the kid is humiliated. People don't tolerate
humiliation very well. Wars have been fought about humiliation. And, with
athletes, when they feel humiliated, they become even more forceful in their
Maybe they won't sleep well. Maybe that would lead to bad, or uninformed,
decisions. In what McGuire calls "our screaming society," that would guarantee
a major public announcement.