Problems With Sports Today
PEOPLE used to argue that sports were of value because they built character. They claimed that games promoted appreciation for hard work, sportsmanship, and the joy of playing. But to many today, such arguments sound hollow, even hypocritical.
The emphasis on winning is particularly a problem. Seventeen magazine calls this “a darker side of sports.” Why? Because, to quote the magazine, “winning overrides concerns about honesty, schoolwork, health, happiness, and most other important aspects of life. Winning becomes everything.”
The experience of Kathy Ormsby, a U.S. collegiate track star, was used to illustrate the sad consequences of overemphasis on athletic achievement. On June 4, 1986, a few weeks after setting a national collegiate women’s record in the 10,000-meter footrace, Kathy veered off the track while competing in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) championships, ran to a nearby bridge, and jumped off in an attempted suicide. She survived, but she was paralyzed from the waist down.
Scott Pengelly, a psychologist who treats athletes, noted that Kathy is not unique. After Kathy’s suicide attempt, Pengelly reported: “I got phone calls that said, ‘I think this is about me.’” Another athlete, Mary Wazeter of Georgetown University, who set a national age-group record for a half-marathon, also attempted suicide by jumping from a bridge and was paralyzed for life.
The pressure to win, to live up to expectations, can be tremendous, and the consequences of failure devastating. Donnie Moore, a star pitcher for the California Angels, had been within one strike of putting his team into baseball’s 1986 World Series. But the Boston batter hit a home run, and Boston went on to win the game and the American League championship. Donnie, who according to his friends had been obsessed by his failure, shot and killed himself.
A related problem with sports today is the extreme competitiveness. It is not an exaggeration to say that competitors may be transformed, in effect, into monsters. When he was boxing’s heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes said that he had to change when he entered the ring. “I have to leave the goodness out,” he explained, “and bring all the bad in, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Athletes develop an obsessive compulsiveness in an effort to prevent others with equal talent from beating them.
“You must have that fire in you,” a former football coach once said, “and there is nothing that stokes that fire like hate.” Even former U.S. president Ronald Reagan reportedly once told a college football team: “You can feel a clean hatred for your opponent. It is a clean hatred since it’s only symbolic in a jersey.” But is it really good to work up hatred for an opponent?
Bob Cousy, a former all-star basketball player for the Boston Celtics, once told about his assignment to guard Dick Barnett, a high-scoring player for the Los Angeles Lakers. “I sat in my room from morning to night,” Cousy said. “All I did was think about Barnett, partly going over the way to play him and partly working up a hate for him. By the time I got on the court, I was so fired up that if Barnett had said ‘hello’ I probably would have kicked him in the teeth.”
The fact is, players often deliberately try to incapacitate opponents, and they are rewarded for doing so. Ira Berkow, a newspaper sportswriter, said that a football player who is able to knock an opposing player out of the game is “hugged and squeezed [by teammates] for a job well done. If he has delivered enough of those damaging blows, . . . he is rewarded at season’s end with either increased salary or, for fringe players, further employment. Thus do players proudly wear badges in the form of nicknames, like Mean Joe Greene, Jack (the Assassin) Tatum,” and so forth.—The New York Times, December 12, 1989.
Fred Heron, a defensive tackle for the St. Louis football team, related: “The coaches told us that [the Cleveland Browns’] quarterback had a bad neck. They suggested that, if I got a chance, I should try to put him out of the game. So during the game I broke through the line, beat the center and guard, and there he stood. I tried to tear his head off with my arm, and he fumbled the ball. My teammates were praising me. But I watched the quarterback on the ground in obvious pain. I suddenly thought to myself, ‘Have I turned into some kind of animal? This is a game, but I’m trying to maim somebody.’” Yet, Heron noted: “The crowd was giving me an ovation.”
Injuries resulting from extreme competitiveness are lamented by many as being a major problem with sports today. Sadly, millions of these injuries involve children who are introduced early in life to highly competitive play. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, every year four million children are treated in emergency rooms for sports injuries and an estimated eight million more are treated by family physicians.
Many children now suffer overuse injuries, which were rarely seen in earlier years. When children played just for fun, they went home when they were hurt and didn’t play again until the soreness or aching stopped. But in highly competitive, organized sports, children often keep on playing, damaging already sore or aching body parts. According to former star baseball pitcher Robin Roberts, adults are the main cause of the problem. “They’re putting too much pressure—psychological and physical—on the kids long before they’re ready for it.”
Money and Cheating
Another problem with sports is that money has become an overriding concern. Greed rather than sportsmanship and fair play seem now to dominate sports. “The innocence of sports, sorry to report, completely vanished during the 1980s,” laments The Denver Post columnist Jay Mariotti. “They swagger into the ’90s as a monster force in our culture, an incredibly mammoth, multi-trillion-zillion-dollar industry (actually, $63.1 billion [thousand million], 22nd-largest in America) that sometimes is better described as a racket.”
Last year 162 major league baseball players in the United States—more than 1 in 5 of them—made over one million dollars, with something over three million dollars being the peak salary. Now, a year later, over 120 players will be paid more than two million dollars, including 32 who will collect more than three million dollars, and at least one will be getting over five million dollars, from 1992 all the way through 1995! The quest for money and huge salaries has become common in other sports as well.
Even in college sports, the emphasis is often on money. Winning coaches are handsomely rewarded, making as much as one million dollars a year in salary and endorsement fees. The schools whose football teams qualify for the year-end bowl games in the United States receive many millions of dollars—55 million in a recent year. “Football and basketball have to make money,” explains college president John Slaughter, “and they have to win to make money.” This results in a vicious cycle where winning becomes an obsession—with disastrous consequences.
Since the jobs of professional ballplayers depend on winning, they often do practically anything to win. “It’s no longer a sport,” says former baseball star Rusty Staub. “It’s a vicious, physical business.” Cheating is pervasive. “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” explains baseball outfielder Chili Davis. “You do what you can if you can get away with it,” New York Mets’ infielder Howard Johnson says.
Thus moral fiber is undermined, and this is a big problem in college sports as well. “Some coaches and athletic directors cheat,” admits Harold L. Enarson, former president of Ohio State University, “while presidents and trustees look the other way.” In a recent year, 21 universities in the United States were penalized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for infractions, and 28 other universities were under investigation.
No wonder the values of young players are ruined, which is another major problem with sports today. Drug use to enhance athletic performance is common, but getting an education often is not. A major study confirms that players on campuses with major athletic programs spend more time on playing their sport during the season than they do studying and attending class. A federal study also found that fewer than 1 in 5 players ever graduate at a third of American colleges and universities with major basketball programs for men.
Even the few student athletes who eventually succeed in professional sports and draw good salaries all too often become tragic figures. They are unable to handle their finances and to face life realistically. Travis Williams who died this past February in homeless poverty at age 45 is but one example. In 1967, while playing with the Green Bay Packers football team, he set a still-standing U.S. professional football record, returning kickoffs an average of 41.1 yards [37.6 m]. He once noted that while in college “he never had to go to class. Just show up for practices and games.”
Today people spend much more time watching sports than they do playing them, and significant problems have resulted. For one thing, going to games often involves being exposed to obscene and even violent behavior by other spectators. Fights are common in the emotionally charged atmosphere of some sporting events, and hundreds have been injured and some killed while in attendance.
But today most spectators are not physically present at sporting events; they watch them on television. In the United States, a 24-hour sports channel devotes more time to daily sportscasts than any of the major networks devote to daily newscasts! But is watching sports in the privacy of one’s home problem-free?
Far from it. “For years my husband has known every professional sport individual,” explains one woman, “and he is not at all an isolated case. Few are his friends who do not watch sports on a regular basis. The biggest crime involving this activity,” this woman says, “is the influence it has on the children.” She adds: “I resent that my husband uses his personal time to watch sports without consideration for me or the children.”
An isolated complaint? Not at all. In households throughout much of the world, there are family members who spend too much time watching sports to the neglect of other members of the household. A Brazilian housewife points to a dangerous consequence: “The love and trust between a husband and wife can gradually be undermined, putting the marriage in danger.”
Sports enthusiasts often are unbalanced in other ways as well. They commonly idolize players, which some players themselves see as a problem. “When I entered my own hometown, people stood there and gazed up at me as if they were expecting blessings from the Pope,” German tennis star Boris Becker noted. “When I looked into the eyes of my fans . . . I thought I was looking at monsters. Their eyes were fixed and had no life in them.”
No question about it, sports can be a magnetic force that creates excitement and strong loyalties. People are fascinated not only by players’ teamwork and feats of skill but also by the uncertainty of a game’s outcome. They want to know who will win. Moreover, sports offer a diversion for millions from what may be to them a humdrum life.
Yet, can sports bring people happiness? Are there real benefits they can provide? And how can you avoid the problems associated with them?
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The Religion of Sports
Canadian Tom Sinclair-Faulkner has argued that ice “hockey is more than a game in Canada: it functions as a religion for many.” This is typical of the attitude displayed by many sports enthusiasts, no matter where they live.
For example, sports in the United States have been labeled “a positive secular religion.” Sports psychologist David Cox noted that “there are a lot of connections between sports and the dictionary definition of religion.” Some “people treat athletes as if they were gods or saints,” added Mr. Cox.
Sports fanatics make great sacrifices, devoting time and money to their sport, often at the expense of their families. Fans will devote countless hours to watching sports events on television. They will proudly don their team colors and publicly display sports emblems. They will sing songs with gusto and bellow chants that identify them as devotees of their sport.
Many athletes even pray for God’s blessing before a game and kneel down for a prayer of thanksgiving after scoring a goal. In the 1986 World Cup game, one Argentine soccer star attributed his goal to the hand of God. And like some religionists, sports fanatics have even been labeled “dogmatic fundamentalists.” This fanaticism has led to bloody, sometimes fatal, fights among rival fans.
Similar to false religion, the “secular religion” of sports provides “saints,” traditions, relics, and rituals for its avid followers but gives no real or lasting meaning to their lives.
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Players are often incapacitated
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Watching sports on TV can cause family dissension