I often ask young children, especially boys, what they want to do when they reach adulthood. One of the most repeated answers is that they want to become professional athletes. The two primary sports that they have an interest in, and not to my surprise, are basketball and football. It seems that basketball almost has turned into a cult sport. Many boys want to, in some way, identify with Dwayne Wade, Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant. The goal of being a sports star is expressed by students as early as elementary school. So it is not shocking to hear some of the same answers coming from boys at the middle school and high school level.
I have often wondered what is the appeal to being a professional athlete? When I was coming of age in North Carolina, I don’t believe I thought once about being a sports star. My friends, as we mused about what would be our life’s work, didn’t mention athletics as a possible career field. Is the draw to being a professional sports star linked to money, fame or visibility? I suspect that it is a little bit of all of these things. My professional career goal I considered when I was young was either to become a lab technician or a lawyer.
Professional sports stars are all around us as they fill our airwaves daily. I would suggest that today you can find a professional sports team on television 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Now, that is what I call sports overload but that is the current state of affairs. So maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised when we hear our children say they want to be the next LeBron James instead of the next Dr. Benjamin Carson. By the way, you may want to read his book entitled “Gifted Hands” which chronicles the life of this gifted surgeon.
Professional athletes, even retired ones, have been getting a lot of attention lately. Let’s just take the case of Brett Favre, who for many years was the star quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. He “retired” in a tearful ceremony just a few years ago only to come back last season and play with the New York Jets. He then announced after the season that he was going to retire “again”. Now at this moment he is being courted by the Minnesota Vikings. So some young boys see this kind of scenario playing out and they think that in some way this is cool and this is what living “large” really means. They say ‘maybe I want to be like Brett.’ What young boys don’t understand and what adult men don’t emphasize enough is that professional athletes live in an unreal environment. In the real world, you just can’t jump from job to job, and think that it’s okay.
It is my opinion that the hero worship given to athletes begins at a tender age. Over time, I have watched a number of sports being played by young boys and girls. I have had to smile as I listen to parents urge their children on to score the next basket, or hit the next ball. Don’t get me wrong as I think it is very important for us as parents to encourage and support our children. When my children were young I did the same thing. However, I wasn’t in the coach’s face demanding that my child get more playing time or, worst yet, trying to be a sideline coach. When a child is six or seven years of age they don’t really care if they score a goal. They aren’t looking for their name in the newspaper the next day. They simply want the “happy meal” at the end of the game. The winning and losing doesn’t stay with them very long. It ends when they get in the car. As a result of the emphasis on winning at an early age, it is not a wonder that some kids want professional sports careers.
Professional sports careers, in my opinion, are simply overglamorized. There aren’t many stores where you can’t find a jersey or a cap with your favorite player or team on it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful in some way if we couldn’t just “flip the script”, and put the names of successful people and businesses on jerseys and caps. Just for starters, maybe we could walk around with a Ben and Jerry’s (ice cream company) jersey or a Colin Powell cap. Yes, it is farfetched but we must balance a young person’s perspective about professional sports stars with a heavy dose of reality.
As adults, we know that there are only a limited number of opportunities in professional sports. In reality, a young boy has a better chance of becoming a doctor than he does of becoming a professional sports star. Planting early seeds about various career interests will help to broaden our children’s horizons. Providing them with information, taking them on excursions will also increase their confidence and broaden their minds. The next Dr. Benjamin Carson is out there!
Dr. Ewers is the associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University Middletown in Ohio. He is the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues.