Our 8-month-old son, Dillon, can only spectate right now as his big brother races around the gym. He stands up and holds on to a bench, straining to see where his 4-year-old mentor has gone. His hands beat a steady rhythm on top of the bench while his knees flex and he yells out in excitement each time Braydon races by. He is inspired by the sheer beauty and explosiveness of human movement and is experiencing the joy you see all little kids display when they first learn to control their limbs and take flight. He watches, and learns, and yearns to participate, much in the same way we get inspired watching professional athletes or musicians or dancers or actors hone their craft. For decades it has made us, and for a small percentage of the population still does make us, want to channel that inspiration into action. For a growing part of the country, however, it’s channeling the inspiration into action that seems problematic.
We have become a gladiator society. Never before has it been as rewarding financially to be a professional athlete. Salaries soar into the millions of dollars per season, and endorsement contracts reach into the tens of millions. Autographs have been sought by children since modern sports were invented, but now they are coveted by grown men and women. There is an inverse relationship between the rise of athletes’ salaries and the overall health of our population. 30 years ago the average baseball player’s salary was $143,000 per year. Now it’s $3.4 million, or roughly 25 times greater. Obesity rates for adults have doubled from 15 percent to 30 percent over the same 30 years, with obesity rates in children tripling … yes, tripling.
While we sit and watch, while we get lazier and larger, apparently nothing can deter us from our right to be entertained. A hot dog and a beer will cost us $12, and we are willing to wait in a stadium food line that only grows longer each year. Better yet, we’ll have it delivered to our seats so we don’t have to get up. We adore and idolize the athlete as never before. We are stunned when Lance Armstrong lies to us, shocked when Tiger Woods cheats on us, disheartened and then angered when Marion Jones finally admits to using steroids. We feel deceived and betrayed, as somehow the modern athlete we’ve chosen to embrace is our friend and we have a vested interest in their success.
Years ago, NBA superstar Charles Barkley took some serious heat for saying, “I am not a role model.” Well, he was right. We spend way too much time watching and way too little time participating. You are your children’s role models. What you say, what you do, what your interests are and efforts reflect are all being absorbed. We have two very active boys, and sports will play a big part of their physical upbringing, but mainly as a participatory outlet for the tons of energy they each show. Games are games, and going to a Seahawks game or a Mariners game will be great fun. It’s natural for children to grow fond of a particular athlete, and we’ll try to be aware and always distinguish between the immense skill set and any character issues that arise.
What I hope is that the sheer joy of the sport itself, and not the emulation of a particular person, will be the motivator for a lifetime of athleticism and health. That the simple pleasure of playing catch on a warm spring day is what they’ll remember years later as they repeat the act with their children. We all work hard and deserve some time to relax, and undoubtedly cheering for the Sounders is a great outlet untao itself. But maybe the day after the game, grab a soccer ball and head for the park to show your kids what sports feel like, and not just look like.