Kids are more misguided than ever these days.
Social success is now measured by their number of Facebook friends (guilty as charged), life lessons are taught through weekly episodes of Gossip Girl, and songs worth listening to must include profound messages to “Superman dat hoe” or “lick like a lollipop.”
The cultural direction that we, as a society, are providing these kids is troubling, and the situation and its implications are not much different in sports.
In competitive sports, it’s certainly not difficult to find your fair share of kids with unrealistic goals. They’re the ones that—despite their lack of athleticism—strive to one day elevate like LeBron James, run like Adrian Peterson, or swim like Michael Phe—I mean, a blazed fish.
Most of them won’t ever make it big, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Since grade school, when we could barely decipher the difference between running to first base and running to third, we’ve been told to aim high and dream big.
Our wonderful teachers hadn’t yet corrupted us with visions of fame and fortune. Instead, we were taught to make the most of our lives, work hard, and be proud of whatever we could achieve—even if we fell well short of our goals.
Many of us took those words to heart, especially when it came to sports. Before we could figure out the complex intricacies of multi-variable calculus or memorize the shapes of all 20 amino acids, life simply gave us a variety of balls, hoops, and goals—treasures we had no trouble understanding.
We would take those balls, learn to toss them through hoops or hit them with bats, and, over time, come to learn the profound concepts of determination, comradeship, and success in the face of adversity.
In hindsight, we probably didn’t fully appreciate what we had learned, but that certainly didn’t stop us from playing the game.
From soaking in the joy of running through disgusting mud just for the chance of catching an “imperfectly perfect” spiral.
From gleefully kissing the concrete floor after miraculously hitting a half-court game-winner in a pick-up game with no spectators.
From remembering the feeling of hitting a baseball into grandma’s yard and stepping on every pizza box and every door mat that acted as home plate.
And from loving every moment of it.
As a result, our unashamed proclamations of becoming the next M.J. or Brett Favre almost never came from our bloodthirsty visions of riches and eminence.
Instead, they were a product of a pure and genuine love for not only a game but a microcosm of the life we should all lead.
For, you see, the horrible disease plaguing sports today is not the unrealistic expectations of aspiring athletes. No, it’s the irresponsible pressure our society has placed on kids to meet those expectations, by any and all means, in a sports world growing evermore cynical and competitive.
It’s a world becoming more and more of a potpourri of business transactions, where success, and only success, is acceptable in the grand scheme of things. And while I certainly understand and expect my favorite athletes to achieve success, it shouldn’t be at the expense of morals and values any fifth grader can appreciate.
After all, what kind of message are we sending to aspiring athletes when some of our most talented baseball players, like A-Rod, value success so much that they consciously make a decision to not only cheat through steroids but to lie about it?
How can an innocent boy playing shortstop in middle school not start to believe that, in the “real world,” fear of failure allows “wrong” to trump “right?”
It’s a real world where sports are littered with selfish players, like T.O, who believe that preposterously high contracts are the only appropriate measure of success. A world where supposed role models like Stephen Marbury recently made around $20 million for sitting pretty on his rear, while people get laid off at unprecedented numbers.
Without making tens of millions and causing controversies left and right, these players fear that they’ll end up as a commoner among the masses.
The thought of actually helping the masses—especially in a time of such troubling economic crisis—never really seems to cross their minds.
Sadly, greed galore has replaced the pure and genuine love for the game. Also gone, without a trace of regret, are the lessons of teamwork and honor they once learned as kids.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize that professional sports is a business that needs to produce success and make money in order to survive.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean athletes and owners should so blatantly take advantage of the situation they’re in and disregard the responsibility they have as role models for future generations.
Frankly, our world is cynical enough that the last thing we need is for our childhood joys to be regular displays of greed and corruption. Like so many brilliant people have said before, sports are—in the best sense of the word—an escape from the daily troubles and problems of everyday life.
As kids, that’s why we loved to play sports. We didn’t have to worry about our homework or our chores; we could simply lose ourselves in games that, whether we knew it, taught us so many lessons about the values and morals of life.
To see irresponsible and selfish athletes throw all that away is a problem that overshadows any issues surrounding any free-agent signing, broken record, or shift in the standings.
It’s a problem that reflects all the bigger problems our imperfect society faces today, and more directly, one that creates the obstacles facing young aspiring athletes.
With the recent developments surrounding Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, about which my friend Robert Allred wrote a fantastic article here, our efforts to bring back the humanity, joy, and value of sports are all the more important.
Life is fragile, and the best thing we can do is make sure that its good aspects, like sports, stay that way.
And if we do so, maybe the next generation of kids will all have a copy of Rudy in their room.
This article was first featured in The Harvard Independent.