Why Do Athletes Press The Sabotage Button?

If you’ve heard me speaking on stage, in a media interview or on my radio show, you’ve heard me talk about pressing the sabotage button (when I was playing ball with the Steelers and the Bears). My sabotage button of choice involved drugs, alcohol and women. But the sabotage button can show up in many forms with athletes. Let’s examine a few of them, and explore why the sports world still has its fair share of people who didn’t learn from others’ failures.

Substance Abuse

This is an obvious sabotage button, but the definition of “substance” is expanding at an alarming rate. A few years ago, a player was suspended for the final four games of the season after testing positive for Adderall without having a waiver to use it (it’s ADD medicine that is widely abused by people with lots to do…and by Hollywood folk who want to keep their figures slim, and not sleep through award show after-parties). The player said he took the prescription pill to help out with his kids at Thanksgiving. Listen, I’m not judging. I snorted cocaine for much less respectable reasons. I just submit that there’s something else going on when balancing every day tasks (even with the rigors of an NFL career) is so much of a struggle that a prescription is needed to do it. And I’m not picking on that player. He just happens to bee one who made headlines about it.

What is occupying so much of our time that the getting through drudgery of life requires chemical? We can only speculate about what that is for that player (and the millions of other folk), but for me, it was a combination of ignorance, a desire to disconnect from responsibility and plain, old-fashioned dependency. I wasn’t an every day abuser of drugs and alcohol, but I drank and drugged frequently enough that I became dependent on the false sense of escape I felt when I did them. I say false because I wasn’t really escaping anything. I was delaying the inevitable: a very public and humiliating crash.

A good bit of my leadership development consulting service to NCAA and NFL athletes is focused on educating them about the hell of the addiction sabotage button. I look forward to the day I am only functioning in a proactive – rather than a reactive – role on that subject.



This is the reason underneath the reason why I pressed the sabotage button. I was totally freaked out at the thought that the Pittsburgh Steelers were counting on me to turn things around for the organization. It wasn’t just being the seventh pick in the first round of the NFL draft. It was the tremendous pressure of knowing the Rooney’s – and Coach Noll – had the kind of confidence in my abilities that they were willing to invest millions in me before I ever saw my first Terrible Towel.

It started out as excitement, but that excitement quickly turned to fear before I knew what had hit me. And it didn’t help that I had already started a cocaine habit in college. I argued with myself that it was “recreational.” Whatever. No drug or alcohol abuse is recreational because the nature of abuse is destruction. Like a python, the predator called cocaine didn’t devour me right away. It slowly squeezed the life out of me. So, while I was busy being blessed by the Steelers and starting a new chapter of my career, the python was tightening its grip on me when I was idle. The pressure of delivering a return on the Steelers’ investment in me became too heavy a weight to bear, and I feared what would happen if I failed. The irony of course is, I did everything possible to guarantee failure. But it all started with the fear of others’ expectations. That fear took over, and the avalanche fell.


In my humble opinion, this is exactly what we’re seeing unfold before our eyes with countless professional, soon-to-be-professional and amateur athletes. They may look happy-go-lucky, but there’s more going on under the surface than anyone realizes.


Family. Homies. Girlfriends. Baby-Mama’s. “Cousins” coming out of the woodwork. These are just a few (but the most demanding of them) distractions that can really derail athletes' careers. Now, some distractions like reckless partying, foolish spending habits, DUIs, paternity cases and racking up domestic abuse charges are avoidable. They’re not terminal illnesses. As my wife says, these things are "avoidable pain." She's writing a book about it. But those others – the unavoidable intangibles – can go a long way in destroying a career.

Just ask Allen Iverson.


I know of an NFL player (who will remain nameless) whose career quickly hit the skids because of his inability to say “no.” Having an entourage rivaling MC Hammer’s is a formula for chaos, confusion and a surefire way to have your employer finish last on your priority list. And I’m living proof that when my employer was my last priority, the acronym NFL definitely meant “Not For Long” for me.

I was a passive person when I was playing ball. I hated telling people “no,” so I never did. The result? I was well-liked…until I couldn’t say “yes” anymore. I know how tempting it is to be a people-pleaser but, trust me, it never ends well.

My NCAA and NFL Life Skills Consulting programs deal a lot with helping athletes learn how to manage the “Circle of Trust.” This crucial process of elimination (and let’s be honest, that’s what it is) has to begin at the college level for athletes. Trying to whittle the circle down after going pro is not only more difficult, but more risky (that’s how tell-all books by disgruntled former friends and jilted family members happen).


I’ve learned over the years that the word pride has one definition, and it’s not what you think it is. Most people categorize pride in a positive context: the athlete who plays through pain does it because he has a lot of “pride” in what he does and why he does it.

I hate to burst that romanticized bubble, but it just ain’t so, folks. Athletes play hurt either because they’ve been trained to do it since Little League, or they think the team won’t survive without them, or there’s a contractual incentive for them to do so.

But pride does have everything to do with why some athletes play hurt, and why athletes press the sabotage button. Now, I’m not speaking of the conventional definition of pride; I’m speaking of God’s definition. According to Him, pride is a contemptible focus on self. It’s what got Lucifer’s name changed to Satan and got him permanently booted out of The Creator’s favor (not a good look, by the way). It’s what got me suspended for a year, benched behind Barry Foster and foolishly asking Bill Cowher to trade me. I’m not gonna get all preachy, but I’m just saying…that’s what pride is. It really is what comes before a fall.

Reject that truth at your own risk.

For that very reason, my wife and I have completely eliminated the words pride and proud out of our vocabularies. We say the word pleased instead. A very wise man named Andrew Wommack says self-centeredness (pride) is the source of all grief. Think about that for a second. Focus on self equals grief.

How many athletes have we seen (including yours truly) who couldn’t get out of their own way? And why couldn’t they get out of their own way? Because focus on self – pride – dominated their every waking thought. Whether pride takes the form of arrogance, shyness (yep, athletes who claim to be shy are full of pride…self-focus is self-focus. It doesn’t matter what it looks like), showboating, mudslinging, womanizing or whatever…it’s all pride. And it’s a method of sabotage that has – and will continue to – ruin careers if left unchecked.