Is Affluenza Inherent in Endurance Sports?

Ethan Couch is the man from Texas who used Affluenza as a defense when he was prosecuted after driving a Ford F-350 into a crowd, killing 4 and injuring 11 while drunk. He attorney got his probation in the case instead of a prison sentence. He was recently in the news when he and his mother fled the country and were caught in Mexico. If you want to see a case of what money can do in our judicial system, read up on the case.

But I am not here to explain how this case illustrates perfectly why your kids need boundaries and consequences when they screw up. What I want to do is have a discussion on the concept of Affluenza and endurance sports. The definition of Affluenza is generally accepted as:

“The term is used to refer to an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of financial privilege.”

So I would argue that Affluenza as it is defined here does not typically have a place in endurance sports. To start the discussion, I want to establish that because money is a barrier to entry, the endurance sports population is typically from a higher income range than the general population. In the USA Triathlon Membership Survey that was updated in August 2015, the average income of members of the organization is $126,000.00. That’s pretty high when compared to the US median income of $50,502.00. When considering the cost of participating in a triathlon, the purchase of your kit, swim gear, bike gear, and run gear is required. While you may be able to borrow some of the required equipment, I would suggest let’s eliminate that cohort from our discussion. In cycling, purchasing your bike and kit are the minimums. Running has its own list of required equipment, though it is not as extensive or cost prohibitive as triathlon and cycling. Climbing, skiing, hiking, and other endurance activities are not cheap either.

We all have stories of “that guy” or “that girl” who gets their nose bent out of shape at a race or group activity because things do not go their way. You know the type — they have excuses across a wide spectrum to pull from when they are not the first person to the top of a climb or they get shot off the back of the group on the flats. In races I have seen participants go nuclear when an aid station is 0.5 miles off of what was published in the Race Guide because it killed their hydration and nutrition plan. They are the ones who are most likely to chew out an official for a penalty or DQ. You would think they were racing in the Tour de France, Ironman World Championships, or going for the win at the Boston Marathon. But, I don’t think this type of racer comes from a specific type of economic cohort — it is a universal personality trait that spans all income ranges. I think some people are just jerks. As many group rides as I do, I won’t ride with people like this. Luckily, I can’t think of anyone on my race team, Zone Five Racing, who is like this. In my life, I have identified a solution and am happy with the outcomes.

I would suggest that Affluenza impacts endurance sports in another way. I have long been an advocate of people buying the level of equipment they can afford, regardless of ability. In my life, that does translate into me buying bikes that I do not deserve. But, where I think the problem comes in is when people start to look down on athletes who may not have the nicest gear. I see lots of cyclists and triathletes especially discounting people who show up on a $1K roadie. They also will not spend the time to help teach and develop people new to their sport, which hurts the long term growth of triathlon and cycling. We have all been guilty of this. But, I know it has only taken me once or twice to learn my lesson. Typically the teacher is an athlete who may be riding a road bike that costs less than my wheelset. What I am most guilty of is looking at people who fall outside of what I think is a “performance” weight range and discounting their ability to climb or hang with the group. In both cases, I have gotten passed like I am standing still by people in these groups, serving me up a huge piece of humble pie. I love pie, but I do not like eating humble pie.

When we discriminate based on how much someone spends on their gear or even weight, we lose the opportunity to be enriched by someone else. There is room for everyone in endurance sports. The cost of your equipment and your weight are not indicators of how serious you are about your sport. We need to remember that while on some level speed can be bought, heart cannot. When looking at teammates who sign up in my same category for a race, my preference is to race with people who will bury themselves to win over those who toe the line with $10K bikes. Those are the people I prioritize scheduling group rides with. Those are the people who I prefer to hang out with off the bike.

Let’s look at a cyclist like Lance Armstrong. At the top of his game, he had money, he had power, and the adoration of fans throughout the world. He also extensively used performance enhancing drugs to fuel his addiction to being “the best”. I am not switching topics here — I think this is the perfect case study of someone who discriminated against other athletes who would not fall in line with his expectations. He destroyed careers when athletes who knew what was behind the curtain tried to expose him. Lance was so addicted to being the best that his moral center was erased. His elitism transcended all good judgement that he had in an attempt to maintain the machine.

While endurance sports generally do not suffer from Affluenza as it has been defined, we do suffer from elitism. If this article hits a little too close to home, consider realigning the framework you use to assess other athletes. If you find yourself giving excuses instead of high fives and congratulations when you get beat, next time think twice before you open your mouth. When someone else is telling you tales of their awesomeness or a success they had, instead of one upping them, just tell them how great they are and how much progress you have noticed they are making. Be a friend instead of a jerk.

Do you think I am too far out on a limb on this? Do you think differently? Any experience that validate my thoughts? Leave a comment and let’s discuss it…


About the Author

I have been participating in running and triathlons for 10 years and love the feeling that training provides. You may not agree with me, but you know you just can't look away...