There’s an interesting Special Report in this week’s Sports Illustrated about Johnny Manziel’s downfall from the heights he had attained as a football player. The report suggests that his problem stems from the fact that he came from a wealthy family and never really had to work for anything. Nor was he denied anything, apparently. The author of the report, Emily Kaplan, suggests that he is the product of entitlement, the sense that so many young people have as a result of being spoiled.

In Johnny Football’s case, this came to a head in his second year with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL when he was put into a game after the starting quarterback was injured and brought the team back to one of their very few wins in what had been an inglorious season. He expected to be named the starting quarterback but when the starter recovered and was restored to the highest post, Johnny Football “lost it.” He has had a history, apparently, of sulking and feeling sorry for himself when he doesn’t get what he wants and he goes on a binge, drinking himself silly. He frequently makes mistakes while drunk and later apologies and expects to be forgiven. After several attempts to help Johnny with his problem, the Browns finally gave up and Manziel’s future as a professional football player is in doubt.

I have written about the entitlement issue before and I have argued that it stems, in part at least, from the “self esteem” movement that has swept the lower grades in our schools and has also been bought into by a great many people in the culture at large where trophies are now given to kids simply for “participation” in various events.  The movement reinforces the tendency that parents have shown to try to give their kids the things they themselves lacked while growing up. Everyone wins. No one loses. This, of course, is bollocks. There are winners and there are losers and all of us are one or the other at some point in our lives. Indeed, we almost certainly learn more from our losses than we do from our wins. In any event, the issue goes deep into our collective psyche.

Christopher Lasch has written extensively about what he calls out social “narcissism,” our self-involvement, which, he insists, stems from the lack of an authority figure in our lives. When the child is told he is terrific and begins to think he can walk on water because he has been told he can be anything he wants to be; when fathers and mothers fail to draw lines and punish their children when those lines are ignored; when everyone is given a trophy and high grades; when these sorts of things start to happen the child becomes disoriented. He doesn’t know where the lines are — if there are any. He starts to do whatever it takes to draw attention to himself in order to see if there are any lines. When he discovers that there are none, or at least none that are clearly drawn, he starts to draw his own. When this behavior is augmented in school by teachers who tell him he can do no wrong, that all his projects are A+, he begins to have a very large idea of himself. This scenario, unfortunately, is becoming more and more common. In Johnny Manziel’s case it is simply writ large and we can see that his sense of what Joseph Butler called “resentment” led him to believe that when he doesn’t get what he wants he should respond by “getting even,” paying back those who have denied him the treasure he thinks he deserves. As Butler noted in this regard:

Although moral evil gives rise to pain which can strengthen this settled resentment, the object of the resentment is not the pain or harm done but instead the design or intention to morally injure, harm, do wrong and injustice. And the goal of resentment is to cause appropriate injury in a wrongdoer. . .

This is the “I’ll show YOU!” syndrome of the spoiled child; it is the first step down a slippery slope toward certain disaster. Ironically, in Manziel’s case the “wrongdoer” turns out to be himself.

One worries about Johnny Manziel. One ought also to worry about those others who are in his shadow and are following the same path downwards. There are many more of them than we might want to admit even though their stories don’t make Sports Illustrated.


7 thoughts on “Resentment

  1. Hugh, this was a train wreck waiting to happen. It was not hard to predict his demise. Many Heisman Trophy winners fail to deliver in the pros when it is entirely a merit based system. Yet, as you point out, he did not have the temperament or perseverance to overcome failure and disappointment. I am reminded of the choice of two top rated QBs that the Colts could pick – Peyton Manning or Ryan Leach. The latter turned out to be a flop, the former just retired as one of the best pro QBs ever. Good post, Keith

  2. Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” and the follow-up volume, “The Minimal Self” are still goods reads even decades after their appearance. Both are provocative and problematic, as would be any attempts to attribute [albeit loose] causality to a notion of “culture”, to define “culture’ in essentially homogenous terms, or to effectively globalize a psychological concept. Problematic, to be sure, but also insightful, thought-provoking, and worth considering.

    Though the psychological concept of narcissism is complex, the original Freudian idea that it is rooted in self-absorption has merit. The sources and forms of this self-absorption are what makes the concept more complicated. Some narcissists seems to have this central personality disorder (the standard term) more or less “baked in” from early childhood; others seem to acquire a pattern of self-absorption from interactions with others over the course of many years. The latter reflect “acquired narcissism,” which is likely far more common.

    Acquired narcissism has several foundations, some of which are social status, wealth, and power — terms familiar to students of the social historian Max Weber. The sense of personal entitlement, of which Professor Curtler speaks, is central to all forms of narcissism. A key factor in acquired narcissism is, of course, parenting. Though status, wealth, and power can all lead, over time, to acquired narcissistic traits, they are not sufficient conditions for this outcome

    A person with a strong sense of values, who has empathy and respect for others is far less likely to exhibit narcissistic traits no matter what the context. Think, for example, of Mr. Warren Buffet, then think of Mr. Donald Trump by way of contrast. Parenting has much to do with outcomes here, and parents who spend most of their time promoting their children rather than ensuring that they learn important life lessons do themselves, their children, and the community at large little good — and potentially considerable harm.

    Parents, teachers, coaches, school administrators, with either the best of intentions, or simple selfishness, or professional laziness, who promote a young person’s “self-esteem” on the basis of phony accomplishments only complicate this problem. The efforts to prevent a child from experiencing comparative failure or competitive success bring forth only self-doubt, resentment, and a false sense of entitlement. Dr. Curtler, once again, is spot on.

    One does not know to what extent a narcissistic disorder has been baked into the character of athletes, or celebrities, or the children of affluence, but studies tend to show that these people are treated consistently in such a way as to promote a sense of self-absorption and personal entitlement. By the same token, children raised by upper-middle-class helicopter parents are more likely to develop a sense of entitlement than are children of the working and poor classes. In the latter’s world, daily life is too consistently cruel to promote the kind of acquired narcissism of which we speak here.

    Famous NFL quarterbacks whose troubles make it into the public awareness are the exception, but the personality traits they exhibit, whether acquired or not, are unfortunately all to common and are not limited to celebrity athletes. Many people have a deep, and self-defeating, sense of entitlement. This begins at home, in classrooms, and wherever else children spend considerable time in the presence of adults.

    Holding people accountable for their behavior must begin early in life, not with ruthless discipline, but with compassion and understanding — and the sure knowledge that life lessons delayed are life lessons denied.

    T’would all be easier if we parents, coaches, and teachers were but wise… before the fact rather than afterwards.

  3. Reading Jerry’s comments reminded me of the high school football coach who fired his team last year as more than a few were picking on other students feeling they were above the rules. He told the parents what he was doing and canceled the season. The players petitioned him to reconsider, After a few days, he developed a contract for them to sign which required them to be better citizens and treat others well, go to class, etc. I wish other coaches had this kind of class.

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