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This is an Olympic year, so many people really don’t fully know what goes into the making of an Olympic athlete. The physical and mental progression from one level to the next, as well as the financial outlay to complete the journey from a young hopeful in the ranks to being recognized as an elite caliber athlete is a lifelong pursuit. For too many people, the journey ends too soon. For others, the financial pressure is too much to overcome. Then there are others whose physical attributes prevent them from reaching the pinnacle of athletic success.
For elite and professional athletes, reaching that level of excellence in your sport comes at a price. When we look at the price paid for the cost of athletics today, we come to a startling realization of how much money is really involved. When we compare the associated costs with those of just 50 years ago, it is just another indication of how our society has become so obsessed with wealth. Just look at what the New York Yankees did with signing a baseball player to an unprecedented multi-million dollar contract last year. On top of that, if that athlete gets injured and can’t play, they’re still obligated to pay him his full salary. This was unheard of 60 years ago.
We should all remember that 60 years ago many young men were playing minor league baseball and Pop Warner football. I remember playing baseball every Saturday rain or shine. I had a four finger leather baseball glove that my father bought and I think that was the only expense we paid for me to play ball. When I entered high school, my parents didn’t have to pay any extra fees for me to compete in interscholastic sports, whether it was cross country, swimming or track. The school district covered our school uniforms, warm-up and transportation to and from meetings. Just imagine if 60 years ago there were no real financial disadvantages blocking our parents from playing interscholastic sports. This is not the case today. With school budget cuts at the forefront of debate in school districts across the country, so many athletic programs have been eliminated or fees to participate are alarming. When the cost of playing interscholastic sports increases, so many hopefuls are denied the opportunity to do so simply because many parents don’t have the extra financial resources to get their kids involved in after-school activities.
Going back to my college years, how fortunate I was to be able to participate in intercollegiate sports through a partial athletic scholarship that paid for the expenses incurred. We should remember that tuition fees at public school universities were relatively low compared to today. All in all, the cost of pursuing a sports career was far cheaper than it is today. So much so, in fact, that athletes today are spending more on high-tech gadgets to record and even improve their performance. I fondly remember that all we had during the cross country and track season were stopwatches.
When it comes to money today, there has been a gradual breakdown of behavior. During my long sports and professional career I have witnessed the decline in personal and professional behavior of many professional athletes. The professionalism and camaraderie of the 50s, 60s and early 70s gave way to an ideology of self-indulgence, self-serving, self-indulgence and self-profitability in which the individual is all consumed by monetary compensation and selflessness without the slightest regard for his teammates, competitors and fans. The sense of community that used to be the main motivation to be an athlete has been lost.
What has replaced playing for the “Love of the Game” is where players of all professional sports, as well as most college sports, have adopted a self-serving philosophy. When and where they play for the exorbitant sums of money offered to them, the professionalism, respect of every player, fan and the general public has diminished so much that players now expect adoration, attention and publicity to be bestowed upon them. It is not because of their ability, respect for players, coaches and fans, but because of the amount of money they receive. Whether they actually produce the professionalism that must be shown when individuals achieve that level of athleticism is now more often than not shown.
I remember the first time I competed in an athletic competition. The excitement, elation and respect I had for myself, my coaches and other competitors made me realize that just being able to compete was an amazing experience. Whether I won or came in last was not the main focus. My coaches understood that winning is not the most important thing, it’s just being able to try to do the best you can do. Of course, everyone likes to win, but even if you lost or came second, as long as you tried, you succeeded, and that’s winning.
Today, a huge number of high school and college athletes are lured by the prospect of lucrative professional sports contracts. Many have succumbed to the temptation to forgo a college career or hold off on graduation and opt for a professional contract only to realize that when their career ends or injury prevents them from competing, they are left with very few qualifications to begin a career outside of the sport.
Most of these individuals are not mentally, emotionally and educationally capable of understanding the extent of responsibilities involved in professional sports contracts. What has happened in professional sports today is that they have really encouraged the most unprofessional type of behavior from the athletes themselves. I’m not saying that all professional athletes have engaged in this type of behavior, but the media has continuously exploited some individuals that the general public actually further encourages students and professional athletes to behave in the most unprofessional manner.
“For the love of the game or sport!” Time not so far away. The days when players and athletes actually played and competed for the enjoyment of the sport itself and not for how much money they were or would be paid. Winning in professional sports is the ultimate goal. The key here is to recruit the caliber of players that will show when they actually play or compete. That they always give their best will produce the winning effect that is so important in today’s professional sports.
Today’s young athletes must be taught to restrain themselves and resist the temptation to forgo education in pursuit of that lucrative contract that looks like a safe bet when in fact it is a short-sighted and misguided attempt to interrupt an individual’s life process. What is really important is that when participating in their sports, students and student-athletes are held accountable for their behavior on and off the field. They must demonstrate a level of personal respect and display kindness, respect and genuine fellowship towards all.
Can it be any wonder, with so many schools consistently underfunding physical education and so many other cultural rewards in the elementary and secondary school systems, that it is so difficult for today’s students and young aspiring athletes to have the same accessibility to programs that were considered an eternal part of the educational experience before only 60 years? Until schools across the country recognize the importance of athletics and the arts in their educational experience and find ways to prevent families and individuals with disabilities from participating simply because these programs are too expensive, many promising athletes, musicians or performers will be denied opportunities to achieve its full potential. The net result is one of the reasons why our society has drifted away from the moral values of the not-so-distant past. A very sad comment for today.
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