|HE ATHLETES WE look up to are caught in a paradox, a Catch-22 of our making -- of my making, of your making. I really feel sorry for them.|
Here's how the endless cycle works: A young athlete starts achieving success, he gets noticed by coaches, fans, other parents; he begins dreaming of achieving greater success; he reaches new heights, so he's praised more and more; he begins believing all the praise, and he begins to understand that being able to perform athletic feats is far more important to people than doing well in school or serving others in the community; he receives special attention, then he receives awards and a college scholarship, and if he's good enough, a pro contract; he's praised nationwide.
And sometime during his rise to fame, someone starts holding this athlete accountable for his actions. That someone is made up of the very kind of people who gave him the recognition that made him a star, which made him a role model in their eyes. They forgot to tell him about that last part. Maybe his parents forgot to tell him, too.
Suddenly, he's being blasted by writers and radio talk-show callers for that reckless driving charge or for missing a team meeting. This kind of behavior is not to be condoned, he's told. You're held to a higher standard, he's told. And he's wondering: Why should my standards be higher than anyone else's just because I can run or catch or hit or shoot? Why is more expected of me than of the people criticizing me? Are those people held accountable for their actions?
But they're not role models, the athlete is told. You are in the public eye. It's part of the job description. If you behave, the masses will heap inordinate amounts of praise on you; if you stumble, you'll be lambasted more than your transgressions deserve. But don't worry, the athlete is told, as long as the good outweighs the bad, you'll be OK. Just keep smiling like Michael Strahan.
Dear readers, I'm not here to condone the kind of behavior displayed by Terrell Owens or Kobe Bryant, et al. But I'm not here to condemn it, not this time. I'm questioning the culture that produces such athletes.
There are actually two cultures involved here -- our everyday world and the sports world -- and they intersect at numerous points. Many of us, myself included, take sports way too seriously. Yes, sports can teach us valuable lessons, but I don't think those lessons have anything to do with product endorsements for 16-year old golfers, traveling youth baseball teams, or parents blaming coaches for their son or daughter's poor performance. When we skew priorities in sports, it's a sign that we've skewed them in our daily living.
We don't merely use sports as a way to teach our kids, keep them in shape and let them have fun. Nowadays, we see it as a path to future success. (And a life of luxury for Mom and Dad if Junior makes The Show.) This current culture is obsessed with wealth and fame, and becoming a pro athlete is one way to obtain those things.
We're also trying to make our kids grow up too fast. Our schools are telling them about things they aren't ready for (sex, for instance), and our sports culture is molding them into something they aren't ready to be. According to a TV ad for Under Armour athletic apparel, 10-year-old football players must be muscle-bound, bandana-wearing warriors training for gridiron battle against other 10-year-olds who must be crushed! Our kids are becoming miniature Ray Lewises (in more ways than one, sadly).
Ah, but there I go. Lewis was part of that University of Miami powerhouse, the school that was once independent (unaffiliated with a conference) and considered the outlaw of college football, a place that cultivated immense talent and unending controversy. Lewis was part of a culture that celebrated his athletic feats, and then later skewered him when he was caught up in a nightclub shooting.
But, one acquittal, a few video game ads and countless bad pre-game dances later, he's as good as new. Up and down and up the yo-yo goes.
I am part of the problem, you realize. In fact, I'm near the root of the problem.
I write about high school athletes, glamorizing their feats and giving many of them their first taste of fame, a taste that could later produce an insatiable appetite for more. What am I to do?
I realize athletic and academic feats are on par, in that both require hard work and sacrifice. Sure, brains make the world spin, but nimble feet and rocket arms add the kind of color and excitement to our lives that the scientific method just can't offer.
It's hard to resolve a paradox. I'm not even going to try on this one.
I've got my own paradox to deal with -- if I stop writing about these people, I'll have to start writing about real life. But then, real life is creeping into my little world more every day.
So I'll just keep writing and hope that somewhere along the way, these athletes come to know the only One who can truly guard them against themselves, and against the likes of me.
Brad Locke (email@example.com) is a sports journalist in Tupelo, Mississippi.
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