Is Narcissism Simply Part of Being a Great Athlete, a “Star?”

This is the question inferred and answered in Greg Jayne’s commentary, Narcissism runs in sports stars, in The Columbian April 1st, 2012. And from Greg’s perspective, at least from what I gathered in his piece, it is a resounding YES.

He mentions Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, and Barry Bonds in relation to Mayo Clinic’s definition of narcissistic personality disorders which he quotes as follows:

“Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard [for] other people’s feelings.”

He also states that “to be great, particularly in an individual sport and in an age of saturation media coverage, an extreme level of self-centeredness is a prerequisite.”

As I continued through Greg’s piece, I got the distinct impression he was painting with an extremely wide brush, too wide of a brush. That all great athletes/stars have narcissistic personality disorder type tendencies in order to reach their level of ability. And many might have trouble arguing anything different using Tiger Woods as their frame of reference.

However, Greg’s article caused great pause for me. Not the kind of pause where one thinks, “yes, that’s right,” but more the type where you think that something doesn’t quite fit. Personally, I just couldn’t accept such a black and white view of the elite athletic world.

Sure there are those that get lost in their fame and fortune, lose perspective, believe themselves to be superior beings, but certainly not all. And, at least to me, it decidedly is not a prerequisite―having a narcissistic personality disorder―to becoming a great athlete.

In fact, let’s take a look at some of the quoted information from Greg’s piece to help understand why I believe it to be a mistake to infer that all great athletes are narcissistic.

The Mayo Clinic quote Greg uses states that those with narcissistic personality disorders “have little regard for other people’s feelings.” Basically, that they have no empathy for anyone.

When I think of athletes like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, NHL hockey great Wayne Gretzkey, and even boxing great Muhammad Ali, I don’t think of people who had narcissistic personality disorders. Contrary to Mr. Jayne’s interpretation, wasn’t the reason Ali became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War was because he did not believe in killing?

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on Muhammad Ali, but there has to be some sense of empathy for people based on his antiwar stance. And keep in mind that, as a celebrity, it is unlikely he would have been required to go to battle, being given much safer alternatives if he had served. In addition, from what I understand, all the bravado he demonstrated throughout his fighting career was more for show than anything else.  My impression of him was that of a caring person.

That does not mean that he did not have high expectations of himself, strive to be the very best that he could be, or believe wholeheartedly in his ability to accomplish what he wanted. I believe the same could be said about Drew Brees and Wayne Gretzky.

That brings me to Greg’s quote, “to be great, particularly in an individual sport and in an age of saturation media coverage, an extreme level of self-centeredness is a prerequisite.” Maybe an extreme level of self-confidence as a prerequisite, but “self-centeredness,” not so sure about that.

Let me finish by saying that there may very well be top level athletes/stars that do have narcissistic personality disorders. That some may exhibit the belief that they are above others and/or that they care little for people other than themselves, but that is not something one should apply to all sports stars across the board. Nor should it be applied comprehensively to exceptionally successful people in any profession.


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