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The Casual Cruelty of the Sports Term ‘Bust’

November 26th, 2017 · 1 Comment · Sports Journalism

It was a paragraph of the sort every sports journalist has written once, twice, a thousand times in describing athletes who turn out to be not as successful as others believed they would be.

It went like this, on the New York Times website:

The Minnesota Twins picked first at the 1999 Rule 5 draft … The Marlins, who picked second, wanted a pitcher named Jared Camp. The Twins wanted a pitcher named Johan Santana. So the Twins took Camp, the Marlins took Santana, and then the teams swapped those players … Camp never pitched in the majors and was out of pro ball within three years. Santana won two Cy Young Awards for the Twins

Our focus is meant to be on the Johan Santanas of the world but increasingly I find myself pondering the fate of the other guy, in constructions such as this one, and wonder about what becomes a lifetime of being held up as a cautionary tale. A failure.

A bust.

In the case above, the word “bust” does not appear. But it may as well have. “Camp never pitched in the majors and was out of pro ball in three years.”

When we write paragraphs like that, a lot of baggage is carried in the text. A sense of physical (and even moral) failure. Camp was not tough enough, he was not skilled enough, he did not work hard enough. Something was wrong with him and it went unseen.

There was something lacking and even a bit larcenous in there. He fooled the Florida Marlins who somehow overlooked the mark of Cain that Camp no doubt carried, and then everyone associated with the Marlins parked it in the vault of the club history in the “what could have been” file.

It is hard. Very hard. Harsh.

How difficult must it be for athletes who dominated their contemporaries for years … until they did not and were cast aside? In a year or two, going from “valued property” to “useless failure”?

If they are lucky, that failure remains largely a personal matter relegated to a corner of the mind where “realistic dreams not coming true” are parked. Friends and relatives know, of course, but they are polite enough not to bring it up every time the ex-player’s name is mentioned.

The aspiring player never forgets, of course. “In A ball I struck out that Hall of Fame guy.” Before … before the injury, the personal crisis, the general manager who buried the kid.

However, a subset of athletes find their way into a recurring narrative of “we could have had a star; we got this bum, instead”.

How often does the bust in the story want to shout at the world, “Hey, I am sitting right here! I can hear you! I didn’t get to where people thought I should go. And neither do 99.99 percent of the people in the world.”

We have a morbid fascination with busts. That is, it is not enough to get a future star for some loser … now we readily rank the biggest busts of all time. We prize and rank failure and we disregard mitigating circumstances.

The NFL and NBA drafts loom large in this. These are sports where the draft of unsigned players is particularly important and therefore remembered and regurgitated. And sports writers have long since gone from celebrating the “great” pick or trade … to pairing it with the guy who was, on the other hand, an enormous/infamous/total bust.

I believe few, if any players deserve this. But we can say with some assurance that Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith and JaMarcus Russell, and Adam Morrison and Darko Milicic and Hasheem Thabeet, could do a google search of their name and nearly every day turn up a fresh example of their being described as “busts”.

I struggle to put it into personal context. How could the rest of us handle this constant and knee-jerk derogation that we tattoo on the athlete?

We get one nasty letter about something we wrote, and we are crushed. Our day is ruined. The sports figure who came up short, who wasn’t what we thought he was … he lives it forever. Into middle age, into old age, into the grave.

I believe the sports-writing profession needs to be more careful about this. Certainly when it applies to any level of competition lower than the professional ranks. And even then, do we really need to kick Ryan Leaf again?

It had to hurt plenty to come up short. It can’t possibly help when athletes are reminded of it … for the rest of their lives.


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