Written by a reformed jock

It’s a lot easier to convince someone today that sports – and athletics in general – are not a positive endeavour. After all, professional athletes, the most noticeable people who play sports, are the ones who open sports up to the most severe criticism of athletics: gladly accepting inflated contracts, steroids and cheating. Yet, athletics remains a golden child of society, receiving billions of dollars of government funding from elementary school to the pro leagues. The consensus is that sports are a positive for society. Yet, when their impact upon society is fully considered, it is readily apparent that they are not.

Sadly the common arguments highlighting the detriments of athletics are not adequate. Most of them are focused on blatantly negative impacts and are of little use in actually persuading someone that sports are bad. Fair and Foul: Beyond the Myths and Paradoxes of Sport, a book by S. Eitzen, tries to argue against “the popular myth that sport is a healthy activity.” All the common arguments are included.

“I got real bad acne on my back, my hair started to come out,” says former University of South Carolina lineman Tommy Chaiken regarding his steroid use. “I was having trouble sleeping, and my testicles began to shrink – all the side effects you hear about.” Another example Eitzen cites is a 33-day span in 1997 when “three college wrestlers died while trying to sweat off pounds.”

These problems stem from an intense desire to excel – a desire that also causes athletes to overwork themselves to the point of injury, not allow injuries to heal and engage in unhealthy dieting practices. Other dangers of high-level athletics include emotional damage from failing to meet their goals and pressure from parents, even sexual abuse.

These arguments are solid when viewed in the light of elite athletics. In reality, the athletic populations which the paper focuses on are but a small sliver of an even smaller sliver of the athletic population: the lucky few out of millions who have made it to the NCAA, NFL or Olympics, leaving these statistics looking flaccid in relation to the millions of less serious athletes who these problems do not affect.

The fact that elite level sports are damaging to the athletes is so obvious that to use it in an argument against sports is akin to arguing that toxic waste is bad for the environment because the pipes that carry it get damaged in the process. The average life expectancy of an NFL player is 58 years old. That of an elite athlete is only 67. Sports are not bad because of the follies of the extremists, just like the Tea Party isn’t reflective of the majority of American citizens, or Al Qaeda of Muslims.

Sports are destructive because their contribution to society is overvalued to the point of absurdity, best reflected by money funneled into athletics programs that would be more beneficial serving other areas of society. Last year in BC alone over $29 million dollars went to youth sports organizations, not including post-secondary or high school athletics. In comparison, the Canadian government’s mandate towards the Canadian Mental Health Commission is $130 million over ten years, or $13 million a year.

Do the benefits of sports really outweigh that of social programs by that great of a balance? A long-standing support for athletics is the physical benefits. Hippocrates once said, “Sport is a preserver of life.” Eitzen similarly says, “The positive aspects of physical exercise cannot be denied.” But never does he say, “The positive aspects of sports cannot be denied.” Do physical benefits justify millions of dollars of funding? It is an even larger problem when you realize that Canadian athletics is a microcosm of larger systems in the United States, which consume much larger amounts of money that could be spent on crumbling infrastructure, crime, drug use and poverty.

One of the most damaging defenses of sports is the belief that they are a means of escape from poverty, mediocrity or bad situations: this is the American Dream and it is a myth perpetrated by athletic partisans. The archetypal story is Joe DiMaggio, a poor fisherman’s son in San Francisco who became one of the greatest Major League Baseball players of all-time and married Marilyn Monroe in the process. In today’s climate, sports offers athletes the opportunity to get an education or a chance to become professional athletes. This is an extremely valuable opportunity that sport provides. But it is a myth. As George Carlin once said, “It’s called the American Dream because you’d have to be asleep to believe it.”

This misconception was summed up by pro-football hall of famer Gale Sayers when he said, “I learned that if you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is, you can make it.” A quick look at a professional sports team will easily refute this. Will a short, un-athletic basketball player make the NBA because of how bad he wants it? Can a 150-pound diver ever make the Olympics? There are obvious exceptions but a preterhuman dedication is not enough to become a successful athlete.

Take collegiate sports for example: As of February 2010, there are 420,000 student athletes participating for the 1,200 member schools of NCAA Divion I, II, and III. That leaves, with simple math, 350 spots open at each school, for every sport for both women and men. The NCAA estimates that of 545,145 high school basketball players, three per cent will go to the NCAA. That leaves 528,234 athletes who are left out.

Similarly, a monomaniacal focus on a single sport, the dedication that people like Gale Sayers cherish so highly, leaves the athletes who have “[wanted] to make it bad enough,” but failed, in a poor position. As Eiten puts it, “Their efforts can be characterized positively as dedicated and achievement-oriented, or negatively as fanatical and one-dimensional. In either case, the children are giving up the chance to develop a wide range of skills from a variety of sports, music and other activities.”

This belief of athletic success in some ways mirrors that of the religious fanatic. Like the athlete, intense devotion to their religion is the highest compliment, as is faith in an irrational belief – God. In the case of the athlete, their misplaced faith lies in their ability to be one of the chosen few to succeed athletically.

Eitzen emphasizes the effect of failure heavily in portraying the negative aspects of sport; unlike the fanatic, an athlete can be convinced their god no longer exists. In an excerpt he includes from Little Girls, Ryan describes the experience of Kristie Phillips. “The road she had followed since she was four years old did not lead to the Olympics after all, but back home to Baton Rouge, where she had not lived since she was eight. Now she was 16 and saw herself as a complete failure. A zero. Without gymnastics she felt she was nothing less than nothing because she had disappointed everyone who had believed in her.”

Of course, there is merit to some of the arguments laid out by advocates of amateur athletics. Jill Humbert, a fifth year basketball player for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies explains that in terms of funding, “[The] numbers do seem extremely disproportional. I would not advocate athletics over the well-being of Canadians; however, for youth, it provides a safe place for them to be, provides them with life skills such as time management, cooperation and self-confidence. In the long run these will serve to benefit society.”

Regarding the opportunity provided by sport, Humbert says, “The reality is that many children live in poverty and can't afford opportunities that some other children are provided. Sometimes a basketball and a pair of old sneakers are all they have, and so they spend hours and hours playing on some street court. Some of these kids become great players, but without a role model, or knowing that someone just like them made a different life for themselves, they will most likely remain in the cycle of poverty.”

At a basic level, sports provide these opportunities because others have been taken away. Although it would be ideal for a young athlete to develop a “wide range of skills” as described by Eitzen, if quality education or other outlets are not provided, sports gain even more importance as a means of breaking the cycle of poverty. Sports are a way of escaping situations that shouldn’t have been created in the first place; if the only way an education is possible is through sports, it reflects more on how grossly inadequate the athlete’s environment is, not that sports are beneficial.

Sports and athletics are popular in society because they entertain and amuse us; arguments to the contrary are grasping justification that something simple and unnecessary is grandiose and enlightening. The negative effects of sports are not just seen by the elite athletes who suffer tremendously to excel, but in society as whole, as we ignore problems while funneling money towards sports funding.

Athletics have physical benefits, yes, but so does digging a hole. And in a hypothetical world where hole-digging was a gateway to education, fame and money, there would be the same attempt to justify it as “character building,” “a lesson in hard work,” and “offering valuable life lessons.” Sports are fun. But they’re not worth it.

//Mac Fairbairn
Opinions Editor

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