Micah Rice: Resist judging athletes

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 
photoMicah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548 or micah.rice@columbian.com.

It has not been the best week for athletes in the news.

The 211-game suspension of Alex Rodriguez; the fallout of Riley Cooper's racial outburst; even Johnny Football allegedly being paid for putting his Johnny Hancock on his namesake.

The headlines paint an unflattering picture. 

"Never try to defend the indefensible," is one of the best rules I've learned during my career. So this column is not trying to excuse or trivialize those cases.

But it's also indefensible to argue that athletes in general are self-entitled, violent and spoiled.

I sought a different perspective on pro athletes from someone who sees them at their most vulnerable.

Jeff Iorg has been the team chaplain for the San Francisco Giants for nine years. He doesn't travel with the team, so Iorg was in Vancouver last week to umpire a Little League tournament while the Giants were on a road trip.

photoJeff Iorg, San Francisco Giants chaplain, shows his two World Series rings.

Iorg has helped Christians and non-Christians deal with stress, sudden wealth, death and demotion to the minors.

"Players are human," Iorg said. "Everything that a 22- to 35-year-old man is going through in normal life, these guys are going through, just with the added pressures of doing it in public and with a very demanding travel schedule."

Crime data say athletes actually avoid trouble better than the average Joe. FBI statistics show one out of 23 Americans was arrested in 2010. The NFL, viewed as the most violent testosterone-driven of the pro sports leagues, saw one in 45 players arrested that same year. 

"We talk a lot ... with players about how over time, character wins out," Iorg said. "And when you do things that are self destructive with alcohol, drugs, sex, spending, in the short run you may feel invincible, but in the long run it will take you down. A lot of players respond well to that."

Sports fans react so emotionally to athlete misbehavior because we feel let down. We grow up idolizing athletes, and then feel betrayed that we've invested part of ourselves in someone who didn't meet the ideal we projected on them.

We assume they live a charmed life. Iorg doesn't see it that way. He sees a few dozen young men facing normal human challenges in abnormal surroundings.

"I was the chaplain the year we lost 92 games, and I was the chaplain the year we won the World Series," Iorg said. "The players will tell you, there are so many things God is working on besides the win."

More on baseball chaplains

photoWorld Series rings given by the San Francisco Giants to chaplain Jeff Iorg in 2012 and 2010.

(/The Columbian)

Buy this photo

Iorg works for the organization Baseball Chapel. It's responsible for providing chaplain services to all levels of professional baseball.

In addition to Sunday services, chaplains oversee weddings and funerals. They also provide support, advice and counseling about a variety of matters.

Major League Baseball chaplains don't travel with the teams. The home team's chaplain holds Sunday services for home teams, visiting teams and umpires.

The San Francisco Giants recognized Iorg's role with the team by awarding him World Series rings after their triumphs in 2012 and 2010.

Learn more about the organization at www.baseballchapel.org.

Micah Rice is The Columbian's Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, micah.rice@columbian.com or on Twitter @col_mrice. Read his blog, Tailgate Talk, at http://blogs.columbian.com/tailgate-talk.