I am as much a proponent of the positive values of sports as anyone. I believe that sports can provide children and young adults with effective role models. Children who play sports learn fundamental qualities that will make them better members of their communities and better providers for their families. And while I will always believe this to be true, it’s also important to examine ways in which athletics may lead Americans astray.
The events and discoveries of this summer opened my otherwise blind eyes to some of sports’ more negative effects. Barry Bonds’ record-breaking home run, Michael Vick’s guilty plea and the gambling habits of NBA referee Tim Donaghy shook me from my unequivocally pro-sports cocoon. These developments made me ask myself whether athletics are always a force for good. What occurred to me is that sports are never perfect and that role models in professional sports, the imitation thereof and the attempts by many of America’s youth to pursue a career in athletics can sometimes be detrimental to our communities and our children.
The role models sports offer are supposed to be hard working, kind-hearted and honest people. American children are to gain from imitating them. But this summer brought to light that many athletes, even more than we once thought, do not fit this job description. Many are spurious and deceptive. Thrown into the spotlight and given the chance to make millions of dollars, our superstars often make the bad decisions we would expect from criminals. They are quick to take a shortcut, even if illegal. They are easily swayed by cronies and other negative influences.
That I once smiled and cheered for a man who, in my opinion, has utilized illegal, performance-enhancing drugs to eclipse baseball’s most famous record makes me feel betrayed. That I once sat on the edge of my seat to watch the dashing and darting of the “incomparable” quarterback who gets his kicks from killing defenseless animals makes me feel sick to my stomach. Michael Vick, in his first of what will be many apologies, encouraged his many young fans to learn from his mistakes. Unfortunately, the purpose of a powerful role model is to be totally imitable.
But the behavior of America’s most disappointing stars is less concerning to me than the growing specialization of young athletes. The pursuit of a career in professional sports can often distract these young people from the acquisition of basic social skills and other prerequisites for life as a healthy adult. Indeed, as sports have become more popular, children have begun to specialize at an earlier age, sometimes even foregoing school in order to continue their athletic development. This is admittedly an extreme case, but the consequences of a childhood spent schlepping to 5 a.m. practices rather than studying vocabulary can be grave.
In a country where our school system already struggles to hold on to its students until graduation, distractions from school beyond a certain point are not helpful. The ratio of American children who pursue a career playing professional sports to those who actually achieve that goal is extremely low. And while those individuals may indeed learn the value of teamwork and, for that matter, hard work, when do their athletic pursuits become detrimental? Unfortunately, the answer is that, more and more often, athletics may conflict with our children’s education.
But the positive qualities of sports still outweigh the negative. Sports remain good teachers. Moreover, sports promote personal health and provide extracurricular opportunities for students who might otherwise be led down the wrong road. And in neighborhoods domestic and abroad, organizations are using sports as a means of encouraging peace among people who have long misunderstood each other.
Furthermore, it is still a minority of young athletes who put their life on hold in order to explore a career in sports. And the NFL and NBA’s restrictions on the age of draft-eligible players have helped limit the frequency with which talented athletes forgo their college experience.
With regard to our country’s superstars as role models, the picture also remains manageable. The frequency with which NFL players have been arrested this past year is certainly alarming and has put a serious dent in the League’s reputation. Nevertheless, professional athletes, including the majority of football players, still make better role models than popular music artists, actors and actresses.
Moreover, student-athletes continue to be the best role models for any youth — athletically inclined or otherwise. It is the ability to work hard, balance a variety of activities and excel in many environments that makes this breed particularly special. Where student-athletes can be watched and imitated, America’s youth will strive.
It is the student-athlete, therefore, not the professional athlete, who promotes the positive qualities of sports and education alike. And maybe that’s what we as a society should be stressing, rather than favoring one over the other.
Nicholas Thorne is a senior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.