Is there a Ricky Williams effect?

ricky williams.jpg

Ricky Williams is an All-Star running back for the Miami Dolphins who abruptly quit professional football just weeks before the present season began. (His team is now in a 0-5 free fall.) Ricky Williams was making $3.5 million dollars a season when he left the game. Esquire magazine caught up with him recently. They found him living in a $7-a-day campsite in Brisbane, Australia.

I was talking to the daughter of a friend of mine, “Sandra” we’ll call her. Sandra is a second year college student with formidable intellectual gifts and a superb pre-college education. She told me she was planning to work in a clothing store this summer because she feels, as she put it, “like I have been in a harness since I will 12.” After the rigors of her college prep, minimum wage at a clothing store looked like a vacation.

Usually, two data points is everything this anthropologist needs to leap to a conclusion. (That’s what I’m going to call my autobiography: Leaping to Conclusions.) But in this case, more data was forthcoming. 60 Minutes did a piece a couple of weeks ago on people in their 20s. It claimed that all of these people had been as children programmed to within an inch of their lives, and some of them have been pushed really hard.

“Hmm,” I thought, “just like Ricky and Sandra.” So that’s the question. If it’s true that young adults have been programmed and pushed, should they be regarded as “contents under pressure?” Can we expect some of them to bail out suddenly and without apparent cause. Sometimes this will be a declaration that they can’t take the pressure anymore. Sometimes, it will be an act of personal protest.

As Daniel Bell pointed out, there are two conflicting individualisms at work in American culture: economic and expressive. People are quite happy to take up the challenges of economic individualism but when they believe that this challenge preempts the challenge of expressive individualism, they begin to act strangely. They just walk. They say to themselves things like, ‘this [football or college] can’t be everything, can it? What about me?”

Ricky Williams is an odd fellow, to be sure, but what if he’s also a harbinger?


Bell, Daniel. 1976. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

9 thoughts on “Is there a Ricky Williams effect?

  1. Liz

    I have been thinking about this since my daughter entered high school. How do I make sure that she has the time and brainspace to grow, not just cram?

    Her middle school was anti-pressure, pro-learning (very interesting place by the way haveing to do with the intersection of web$$$$, progressive education, the sense of the toxicity of this culture to kids)

    I think there are at least two kid-cultures going on

    (1) the upper middle class plus, of cram-schools, gotta do at least 5 APs or you are stupid, your SATs define your personal worth, only the Ivies are worth going to, perfectable children, travelling athletic teams starting in 4th grade, school-based soccer is for losers, year-round special sports camps…

    (2) the culture defined by don’t work to hard in school, listen to hip hop, stay up with the popular tv shows,

    ….well my defining elements for #2 are smaller because that’s the culture I don’t know personally.

    Kids who come out of culture #1 are overcooked, I think…I like your figure of “contents under pressure”

    Oh, and let’s not forget the college culture of party till you pass out. What is going on with that? How is it different that previous campus cultures?

  2. Charu

    had a lot of random thoughts as I read this… I live in India and went to high school and college a decade ago in India. And I remember, the pressure on me was so much during school years… and I know it is this way for most kids today…
    and this kind of pressure comes from doing what one is EXPECTED to do as opposed to what one has CHOSEN to? when football becomes not sport but survival, then the temptation to drop out?

    and in a collectivist / conformist society like India, is the pressure greater than an individualistic society like the US? I really don’t know…
    but I guess this kind of pressure never really gives out… it only changes as one grows older? but it becomes tougher and tougher to “drop out” then!

  3. Jackson Houser

    John Stuart Mill; W.A.Mozart. Two more data points? Or have I missed the real point of the post?

  4. Jason Ligon

    Egad, I wasn’t expecting to see Daniel Bell cited approvingly here, but then again, I’m a relatively new visitor to the corner of anthropology and economics.

    My $.02 is that it is children in the wealthiest society in history who feel like they can take a hiatus from economic productivity to persue ‘me time’. It is a sign of operating in a healthy wealthy environment. Note that Ricky only made this decision after making some millions of dollars, while I suspect that Sandra has a reasonable expectation of being supported by her parents should push come to shove.

    Be afraid if we start seeing the 30 or 40 something with a ton of bills make the same decisions.

  5. Brian Hawkins

    I recently sat on a panel that took questions from rising college juniors about applying to, getting into, and suceeding in graduate programs in biomedical sciences. The group was a “high-achieving” one, students that had already shown some apptitude for reasearch by working in labs as undergrads.

    I’d say about half of the questions were of the format “if I do X for a year or two (where X is any non-science-related activity, such as backpacking around Europe, joining the Peace Corps, or just ‘taking a year off’) will it hurt my chances of admission to or success in grad school?”

    In spite of the fact that every one of the panelists acknowledged that it was less than ideal, the same question kept coming up. It seemed to me that what most of these kids wanted to know about grad school was how long they could put it off.

    I can’t help but wonder how many of them feel they are being pushed along a career path that they really don’t want.

  6. 'burb mom

    “Been in a harness since twelve”? Try looking at the kids I see in my town going to music, gymnastics, and organized playgroups before they even walk! Whenever there is any “down time” they stand in front of their parent wondering what to do next. They have no idea how to entertain themselves.
    Nothing gives me more pleasure than watching my two year old make his own little wooden train set, and follow the trains around it with his cheek on the floor so that it’s eye level. I think that’s even more important than the structured activities for today’s kids (and a heck of alot cheaper).
    They’ve tried everything before first grade. It worrisome to see these kids who can do everything but have no imagination.
    Ricky Williams is the wave of the future.

  7. Kari

    I concur with the point of your post, but neither data point is convincing. Ricky Williams thought he was set for life; he thought the challenges of economic individualism were behind him. Now that the NFL says he has to return $8.6 million to the Dolphins, Williams says he misses football and wants to return. And “Sandra” is not exactly opting out of society — she’s working a summer job, and not necessarily sacrificing much in exchange for some down time. Good for her, if she can afford it.

    That said, I do see friends and colleagues who apparently program their children’s lives down to the minute, usually with the intention of giving their kids every opportunity to succeed. But as a previous poster noted, I wonder whether the result is just as likely to be adults who need to be hyperprogrammed in order to function.

  8. Prentiss Riddle

    Is there any reason to think that any of this is new? From Thoreau through the dropout culture of the beats, hippies, punks and slackers there is a long tradition of walking away from the narrow world of work and “success”.

    Or any reason to think of it as particularly American? Hinduism and Buddhism, at least, have a centuries-old tradition of renouncing the world, and modern secular dropout culture spread to any society where people can afford it (in Germany, a “success”-oriented culture if ever there was one, they call a dropout an Aussteiger and they have millions of them).

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