Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Don't let your kids grow up to be athletes

To those parents who are presently concerned about the recent steroid rumors and drug scandals in Major League Baseball, I have one simple bit of advice: Don't let your kids grow up to be athletes.

Playing athletics is fine. Just don't let them become athletes, which is a surreptitious way of saying the term, in the modern vernacular, does not connote achievement on the field, court or any other sporting venue. It has more in common with criminal disobedience and flagrant disregard for public safety.

I say this with great regard for those who play sports at any competitive level. Not only do I admire their discipline (and in many cases, God-given talent), I am not ashamed that I once aspired to achieve as they do.

At the age of 35, I can only fantasize about athletic accolades these days, but my fantasies are not much different than my former childhood dreams.

However, I learned long ago that idolizing athletes is a quick path to disappointment. Athletes may be extraordinary physical specimens, but they are not often required to be extraordinary people.

That's the rub. The iconoclasm of American sports heroes is based on a very faulty premise.

American sports hero worship is rooted in conventional American ideals. The lure is the romantic notion of the gentle warrior, someone who can turn on the rage when he or she needs it, and turn it off when the battle's over.

Over the years this idealized athlete has become more myth than reality. Better said, we've realized it's always been part of sports writer mythology, and that mythology is no better catered to than what once was our national pastime, baseball.

Did reporters do any justice to Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle by ignoring their off-the-field follies? We speak of Ty Cobb as we speak of Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, and yet baseball history books are filled with stories that portray Cobb as a bigot and malcontent.

There's no denying there are some truly amazing cultural heroes who first made their name in sports. Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Pat Tillman come to mind.

Yet, it was their personal convictions we first considered. Their accomplishments as athletes came secondary. Jackie Robinson probably wasn't the best African-American baseball player of his day. Pat Tillman never made a Pro Bowl. Sadly, young tennis players do not often invoke Arthur Ashe's name.

These three are better known for the impact on everyday life. That makes them bigger than a game, but somehow that kind of adulation fails to impact sports culture, either by the players or the fans who follow.

If character and morality were the only standards by which we measured athletes, we'd all be more interested in the outcome of church-league softball than whether or not Barry Bonds hit another into the bay. No one pays high dollar to watch teetotaling Christians hit softballs. Millions would pay to watch Barry Bonds hit a baseball without giving a second thought he might be chemically enhanced.

The answer is to keep sports in proper perspective in your house and make sure your kids know emulating an athlete comes at a price.

If your child plays athletics and hopes someday to get paid for it, make sure they first grow up to be people.