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Odom and the Humanization of Sports

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Is a pro athlete ever allowed to fail, or are their salaries too extreme for them to deserve any sympathy? It's a question I asked myself this week after the Mavericks cut ties with Lamar Odom, the reigning Sixth Man of the year who turned in an Adam Dunn-esque season in Dallas. Odom simply didn't play well, and now people are asking what it means about Lamar Odom. Is he spacey, sensitive, overly-emotional, melodramatic? Was he so despondent about being dealt from the Lakers that it ultimately ruined his game? Did he not even try?

Who knows. But in retrospect, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that he did struggle. Few athletes have been through as much as Lamar Odom. This man was orphaned at the age of 12 when his mother lost her life to colon cancer. He lost his son to sudden infant death syndrome in 2006. And in this most recent offseason, one day after attending the funeral of his cousin, he was in the passenger seat of an automobile accident that killed a 15-year-old kid.

We have a tendency in this country to treat athletes as soulless automatons whose only purpose in life should be to play well. The only time an athlete can miss a game without controversy is if it's serious. Strep throat, arthritis, a cold, the flu? Stuff like that doesn't count. We want our athletes toughing it out, bleeding for their money. It's why the consensus among NBA analysts diagnosing Odom tended to be: "Get over it." Not "We understand he's been through a lot" or "This is a difficult period for him." Just play.

In an ironic, sad way, Odom's poor play is something of a breathe of fresh air, if only because it might make us realize that athletes aren't quite the one-dimensional robots we think they are. They don't live in a hyperbolic freezing chamber every time they leave an arena. They have personal lives that matter, just like us. And if Tiger Woods can be reduced to a screaming, tempter-tantrum-throwing shell of himself from the weight of his baggage, imagine what the same might have done to Odom.

It's dangerous psychoanalyzing someone, I'll admit. But Odom flat-out stated how despondent he was last August, even before the Lakers tried to deal him to the Hornets. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Odom said, "I think the effects of seeing [my cousin] die and then watching this kid die, it beat me down. I consider myself a little weak. I thought I was breaking down mentally. I'm doing a lot of reflecting. ... I may need to see a psychologist."

A few months later, the Lakers dealt him. And while the deal to New Orleans didn't ultimately go through, it may have been the final straw for someone already grieving the loss of life, for someone who in that same interview with the Times said, "I've been burying people for a long time." He then asked to be traded and was shipped to Dallas, but is it really such a surprise that his work suffered? How many people out there could sustain their father abandoning them, their mother dying, being orphaned, losing their son, losing many relatives, watching a kid get killed one day after a funeral, and THEN being told by management that they no longer wanted them, without letting it affect their performance?

This is a minority opinion to be sure. Most people will look at Odom with contempt because, after all, he's the star of a tv show. He's got a hot wife. He's filthy stickin' rich. He has no excuse not to be happy. Unfortunately, this is the perspective we get in sports, where the apex of an athlete's life is to perform to their maximum and amuse us, the fans. In reality, not many of us would have done much better than Odom did. He played awful and his decorum could have been better. But compared to losing your kid as an infant, who cares. He's earned the right to sit at home with a paycheck and not play basketball. It isn't "a joke" as Charles Barkley described it on radio the other day. He's earned it.