One of the most cliched lines used by people who are not hardcore sports fans is, "It's [the sport] just a game." No, sports are not just games.
Pro sports certainly aren't just games. They're businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Their minimum player salaries are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Plus, if a coach or player doesn't get it right the first time, he's gone.
That's not just a game. That's life or death.
College sports aren't simply games, either. While they're not purely businesses built around sports, they are not innocent games, by any means.
Coaches get into unbelievably intense recruiting battles over the best young players. Sometimes these bouts get so involved that the coaches start giving athletes thousands of dollars in cash and paid expenses. All this just to ensure he has the team with the best chance to win a national championship.
No, college sports are definitely not just games.
"What about high school sports?" you may be asking. High school sports are close to being simple, no-strings-attached athletics. It's the last time many of the athletes will play a meaningful game of the sport they love, and they want to get the most out of it and enjoy it as much as they can. However, high school sports are not wholly friendly.
There are those few athletes out there who are in line for college scholarships. To them every padded stat matters because to them, it could mean the difference between their top school and a school way down on their list. These are the ridiculously serious high school athletes who make their level of sports anything but simple competition.
Middle school sports are simple games. Middle school athletes - or most of them, anyway - are just playing for the love of the game. There's no money on the line, no scholarships - at least, not for a few years - nothing except school pride and fun. Middle school is the level of sports closest to being "just a game".
Even youth sports are not just games. Parents scream at the refs for every call against their kid, and they shout instructions to their kids in attempts to help them play better - when, in reality, it's just making things far worse.
I'm grateful to my parents for never doing that and being very supportive of my desire to play sports when I was younger.
If you're a parent with young kids - very young kids - (kids under the age of five) remember this: don't shout at the ref and don't yell at your kid during games if he or she starts playing sports. Your kid will be thankful for it. Offer some advice you think may help, but be very careful to limit how much you give.
So, no, most levels of sports are not "just games". When money, or the prospect of money, is close at hand, nothing is as innocent as it seems.