I remember having a really nice man as one of my church youth leaders when I was about 14. But when that same man stepped onto a basketball court to play a game – pick-up or not – he became a different person. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It confused me how someone so nice could treat other people so poorly while playing a game, and a game that to me was so much fun to play. Didn’t he realize when he was screaming in vitriolic anger at an opposing player or a referee, spittle flying from his mouth, that these were other human beings he was treating like demons? Were they demons? Of course they weren’t. He was being an absolute idiot, and no excuse was adequate. “I just have a bad temper.” Weak. “He fouled me and it wasn’t called – it wasn’t fair.” Big whoop – life has a lot worse than that to throw at you. Do you think the women getting raped daily in Sweden and the Congo get to yell at the referees about it not being fair? They have a real problem – you don’t. Let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture beyond sports. Most of us are extremely fortunate by comparison with much of the rest of the world. Sure, there is always someone who has it better than us, but there is also someone who has it far worse. Should our primary focus be to get what “rightly belongs” to us – what we think we merit based on the set of criteria we construct to judge our own circumstances? No, our primary focus should be on how we can help someone else, at every opportunity. When that is our focus, we generally end up helping ourselves, and sometimes in ways we didn’t plan. Funny how that works, but that kind of generally selfless behavior shows more courage and intelligence than anything a petulant basketball superstar, avaricious Wall Street lordling or self-obsessed actor or politician does on any given day. I’ve heard color commentators and analysts pine for the “good old days,” generally meaning 10-20 years ago, but sometimes more, when opposing teams hated each other and were allowed to get away with more physicality with no fear of being tossed from a game by a referee. Let ‘em play! This is the NBA, not the county youth rec league! (Actual quote) Those people are being idiots, and I’m actually embarrassed for them when I hear them spout such stupidity. They’re literally like old Roman gladiator fans, thirsting for blood and oblivious of the pain such blood-letting is causing others. I remember the coach I had for 8th-grade football. I think he was generally a nice guy, but he sure didn’t have the proper perspective on the true value of competitive sports. Before every game, he would gather us into a large huddle where we would chant a building chorus of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Really? Was this battle? Was I supposed to want to hurt my opponents? Were they somehow evil? To this day I can’t get over how ridiculous that was. I recognized it at the time, though admittedly I didn’t have the guts to say, “Hey coach, let’s just play hard and have fun and try to win – we don’t have to try and kill anybody.” I wish I had, even though he likely would have ignored and/or ridiculed me, with the rest of the boys joining in. In some ways, we’re actually making some improvements in the way our sports contests are conducted. We see league commissioners trying to lessen the amount of rough play, increase respect among the athletes, make the contests more fair, and reduce the chances for injury. Of course, part of this has to do with knowing who’s buttering your bread, and there’s that fine line between keeping the “assets” safe and sating the bloodlust of the loyal fans. Derek Rose is a big money generator for his team and the league – he gets butts in seats and eyes on screens. Do you think the NBA wants to see someone try to take out his knees? Of course not, but there are plenty of other guys who are less “valuable” and can therefore be allowed to mix it up a bit for entertainment, even if their careers are shortened. They’re expendable, right? Wrong, and our humanity is lessened each time we revel in that kind of behavior, even if we try to laugh it off and utter a half-sincere, “Well, I hope he’ll be okay.” Additionally, we tolerate so much crass indecency – particularly among the fans – that it’s absolutely appalling. It’s okay to have rivalries. Rivalries can actually be fun when kept in the right context. But when so-called “fans” start treating rival fans like inferior, disease-ridden rodents and truly make them enemies, we’ve gone way too far. How about the Dodger fans who attacked a San Francisco Giants fan after a Dodgers game, knocking him to the ground and then kicking him for effect, causing him to hit his head so hard he was sent to the hospital and went into a coma with a diagnosis of probable long-term brain damage. Yay team! That’s the kind of frenzy we too often put ourselves in (especially when liquor is involved), and while most of us wouldn’t go to the extreme of these boneheads, we’ve done our fair share of abusing the “enemy.” Good heavens, they’re humans – just like you – who happen to live in a different place and root for a different team. Get a grip. Should we let our college-age kids just write off that type of behavior as the consequence of youth? Well, yeah, I suppose, if we’ve declined to teach them anything. Yes, go and be stupid, because I decided not to teach you how to be smart, treat other people with respect, and have a modicum of control over your passions and emotions. Oh, and while you’re at it, why don’t you go spend some time being continentally stupid in Vegas or Miami Beach? Remember, what happens in Vegas … will have consequences sooner or later in your life that you have no clue about right now. With regards to some of the parents of our youngest generation … Youth sports leagues can be, and should be, an absolute blast. Watching children participate in anything that helps them develop their talents is a wonderful experience, and we’re doing our jobs as parents, coaches, and officials if in the microcosm of youth sports they are learning how to deal with highs and lows, successes and failures, while generally enjoying themselves and learning to how to improve, win or lose. So why do some parents think they have to scream at their own kids, at other kids, at coaches, at refs, and at other parents over youth sports? What good can they possibly think they are doing? I knew a kid whose father publicly berated him every time he did something wrong at travel-league baseball games, and from a very early age. The kid got to high school and was an absolute mess. His father messed him up, and they’ll both be paying for it for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of their lives. Is it worth it? What if your kid makes it to the professional level but is so emotionally fragile that he or she can’t handle the real curveballs of adult life? They’ll be rich, for a while anyway, and maybe they’ll have bought you a new house and a fancy car, but they’ll be miserable. Will that make you proud? Will it make you happy? Contests of skill, sports and otherwise, can be fun and can help us grow. Sure, winning is definitely more fun than losing, but if we can’t lighten up and enjoy the game for it’s own sake, we’ll just continue to cause ourselves more grief than it’s worth.
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