October 5, 2015

The C.C. Sabathia Announcement

The C.C. Sabathia Announcement

One of the most well-liked and well-respected New York team athletes, C.C. Sabathia, announced that, effective immediately, he is checking himself into an alcohol rehabilitation program.  He will miss whatever remains of the Yankees’ run in the playoffs.  In fact, his departure at this time probably fatally weakens the Yankees, because they have no ability to secure a replacement-level pitcher.

Sabbathia is the most high profile player to announce that he is seeking rehabilitation treatment for a substance abuse addiction when his team was still playing during a season or a playoff.  The Detroit Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera went through alcohol rehabilitation a few years ago, but he did so during the off-season.

What is quite remarkable about this story are that Sabathia visited his manager Joe Girardi on Sunday and said simply “I need help,” and that Girardi told the media that, at that moment, “I stopped being his manager” and assumed a different role.  When I think back to the 1950’s, when I first became a sports fan, the notion that a player would confess that he needed help, or that a manager would assume a facilitative role would have been unimaginable.

This announcement is welcome in so many other respects:

  • It recognizes that an individual who has brought joy and entertainment to others, as well as financial rewards to himself and his teammates, to the Yankees and to New York City through his performance excellence will prioritize his personal and family needs, which is the way it should be.
  • It reminds us that athletes are flawed human beings.  They are no worse and no better as a group than the populations from which they come, other than having some exceptional capabilities that enable them to participate in a highly visible sport and form of entertainment. We should respect and admire athletes for who they are, not what we would like them to be.
  • This announcement reminds us that being a highly paid, highly visible athlete is very stressful, more than being a business leader or even an elected official. I once told a baseball executive who believed that my CEO job must have been highly stressful that I could not imagine people publicly criticizing me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year around online, on TV, radio and in print, which comes with being a high profile athlete, manager, executive, or franchise owner.  Members of the public are more passioniate about their local professional teams and their star athletes than about their employers or even their elected officials.
  • The announcement also reminds us that professional sports teams have much more complex management and human relations challenges than they acknowledged a generation ago. We only knew about substance abuse problems on sports teams in past decades when players were arrested and charged with crimes.  The ordinary substance abuse problems that damaged or destroyed the everyday lives of athletes were barely publicized, even if reporters, teammates and opposing players knew of them.
  • Finally, the announcement reminds us that not only do athletes have a life outside of their sport, but that the other life will be the one into they will enter at a relatively young age. Professional athletes will leave a career, depending on the sport and their performance in that sport, sometime between the ages of 30 and 40 (although there are outliers who might last beyond age 40).  Whatever they do after that will be very different from what they did in their prime earning years as an athlete.

Many athletes are poorly prepared for the basic challenge of a changed identity, a need to establish a new career, and a need to redefine relationships with family and friends.  Some have compared it to getting a divorce after being married a long time.  Whatever comparison one would choose, it is a disruptive and stressful event in the life of a professional athlete.

Thoughtful professional athletes start thinking planning for this transition well before the day of reckoning, so that the added burden of facing it is layered on top of trying to manage relationships with managers, coaches, teammates, a professional organization, the media and the public.  It is not easy under the best of circumstances.  It is even worse when an athlete is simultaneously battling an addiction and is confronting the near-term end of a long career, which is the situation in which C.C. Sabathia finds himself.

I commend C.C. Sabathia for taking the step he did and making an emphatic statement that everything he has done and will do in his life outside of his role as a great pitcher at the highest levels of professional baseball is more important.

I hope that his gesture gives others similarly situated the courage to take the same step in their lives.  Recently, I read Bill Pennington’s great biography of Billy Martin, called Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, who was one of the most successful managers of all time, as well as a very good baseball player. However, he had a very clear problem with alcohol addiction, one he appeared never to overcome before his early death in an automobile accident.

Mickey Mantle acknowledged toward the end of his life that he had an alcohol addiction over 42 years, but he never sought help and his career was shorter and less outstanding than it otherwise might have been, and it definitely shortened his life.  Because Mantle’s father had died at age 39, he believed he would die young, and he chose not to take care of himself, a sad observation he made in the last year of his life, when he died at age 64.

We wish C.C. Sabathia well, but, more importantly, I hope that his public announcement causes others who are on the fence about owning up to serious substance abuse problems to seek the help they need.