Men in power and the long, hard fall

Some men in positions of power never realize, standing on the pedestal, just how close they are to the edge until it’s too late.

It’s a long, hard fall.

Many of the powerful in athletics -- and in politics, for that matter-- have recently strayed from ethics and morals and crashed over and over. The roll call: Tiger Woods and his infidelity, Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback, who has been burned by multiple accusations of improper sexual behavior, and Rick Pitino, the Lousiville basketball coach, who was confronted by the public eye after an extramarital affair.

Plaxico Burress of the New York Giants had his career ruined in a bizarre episode of carrying a gun into a bar ... and then shooting himself. Bobby Gonzalez, the Seton Hall basketball coach, is accused of shoplifting a $1,400 designer bag. Steve Phillips, the former general manager of the New York Mets and ESPN baseball analyst, had his affair exposed and was fired.

Politicians are hardly immune. John Edwards, the former presidential candidate, had an affair while his wife was battling cancer. Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, snuck around South America with another woman.

Misbehavior can also knock down the men who help rule college athletics. Damon Evans, the former Georgia athletics director, set policy for UGA concerning alcohol for athletes and then broke that policy. He resigned following a public shaming for the DUI charge.

How do some of these people, who can be very smart in their professional roles, have such lapses in judgment when everything seems to be going right?

“The same things that got them to the top,” said Joel Weinberger, professor of psychology at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University, “are the same things that are destroying them.”

Weinberger said being self-centered (narcissism), wanting to have a profound impact on the world, a willingness to take risks and a false sense of self, make up the formula that can knock men off their pedestal.

“These guys are on stage all the time playing a role that’s a false self, that’s a guy you have to worry about,” Weinberger said. “Can you imagine how much stress he [Evans] must have been under to act a certain role all the time and not be able to let his hair down? It’s a terrible way to live.”

Dr. Wendy Jacobson, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Emory and a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, said some men deserve our scorn. Others, meanwhile, make a mistake and pay for it in harsh ways.

“Some of these people are basically moral and still can slip up and some are immoral to the core,” Jacobson said. “You can’t know which it is. This one [Evans] looks absolutely terrible and I am not trying to make excuses for his behavior [but] it is possible, even in his drunken state, that he was able to put it together very quickly how devastating this was.

“He spoke respectfully, which is what I took from the police report. The way he phrased things, it seemed he was not trying to take advantage of his power. He was asking the police officer, ‘Will you yield? Will you handle this some other way with me so it does not totally bring me down?' It could be complete pathological narcissism and entitlement, but it could be a more reasonable, ‘I get the picture, Oh, my God, what have I done? I can’t believe I’ve done this.'”

Evans, it turns out, had every reason to panic. There is a public scorn will linger for some time.

Jacobson does not believe that society carries some blame when powerful men crash. Talented young athletes, who have a sense of entitlement and steer off course, are shaped before their talent emerges and they are put on the pedestal.

“These things are based in people’s character and how they develop long before their special talent starts to manifest,” she said. “Society, of course, will play into it, but I don’t think society is to blame. It is an extra challenge to manage one’s talent.

“Look at Bjorn Borg. Every time he threw a tantrum on the court, his mother took his racquet away from him for two weeks and said, ‘Don’t misbehave.' I very much doubt John McEnroe’s parents did that.”

Drew Westen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Emory, said the public floggings of men like Roethlisberger and Woods make it seem as if athletes are particularly capable of behaving badly. That’s not necessarily true, he said.

“When 50 to 60 percent of marriages have one or more infidelities, it is really hard to know [to] what extent this is any different from the general population, other than the large-scale humiliation and the personal suffering of a family when it becomes public suffering,” he said.

Westen said it is not surprising to him that men in power get in trouble. They have found glory and may consider themselves bulletproof.

“There is a feeling of invincibility that men in power tend to get,” Westen said. “The kind of person that seeks a position of power is already the kind of person who has the predisposition to be in a position where they are revered and admired and you have very high status. Whether that is exactly what gives people the sense of entitlement and sense of invincibility is hard to know.”

The reaction to Evans’ behavior was swift condemnation, but psychiatrists can understand the fall.

“It’s sad when someone’s career, for the moment, is destroyed by one act,” Westen said. “We all have our vulnerabilities. A person with that much power, he is confronted with opportunities constantly. It takes a lot of effort not to respond to those temptations.”

So how do powerful men avoid the trapdoor?

“You can exercise power by biting off someone’s ear like Mike Tyson or you can exercise power like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi and change the world,” Weinberger said. “To be a successful CEO, politician, athlete, you have to adapt to where you take moderate risks because you can’t get anywhere if you don’t take a risk. The most successful entrepreneurs take a moderate, calculated risk. If you shoot for the moon, you are gambling. You can be a powerful person if you have your risk under control.”