State of Play, Play of State

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 10.08.13 PMJust got done watching “State of Play,” the new HBO documentary on sports parents. Though the material wasn’t groundbreaking, it was a solid 56 minutes of vignettes on whining, moping, screaming, pouting adults and the children they hope to one day push into the NBA, NFL, LPGA and WTA.

You’ve almost certainly seen people like these folks. They insist they’re doing it for the kids when, in fact, they’re doing it for themselves. They’re frustrated, unfulfilled adults who bequeath their dreams upon their offspring—whether the dream is shared or (as is usually the case) is not.

Here’s the quirky thing: There’s clearly a belief that, with life as a professional athlete, comes this blissful satisfaction that makes all the sweat and hours worthwhile. Well, that’s nonsense. Having covered pro sports for nearly 20 years, I can tell you—unquestionably—that many of the most miserable, unhappy and unfulfilled people I know are professional athletes. As was the case with the late Jovan Belcher, the life of an athlete comes with non-stop, unyielding pressure. Pressure to meet expectations. Pressure to secure a contract. Pressure to live up to the contract. Pressure to stick. Pressure to meet the social expectations placed upon you. There’s a reason so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so many retired professional athletes struggle once their careers end. They’re emotionally stunted, financially strapped, professionally unqualified men and women whose existences have always been programed and feted upon. In the recent NFL Network documentary on the 1990s Dallas Cowboys offensive line, Nate Newton looked into the camera and said, with experience as his guide, “As soon as you step off the field, nobody cares. Nobody.”

He’s right—and that’s an awfully difficult thing to overcome.

And yet, we still tend to push our children to The Dream of a career in sports. We push and push and push and push. Because … well, I’m not entirely sure why. Money, I suppose. Bragging rights. Glory.

I happened to have been raised by two exceptional parents, neither of whom ever pushed me when it came to sports. Oh, Mom and Dad attended most of my Little League games and road races. But they never screamed at me, or criticized my showing. It was always, “Good job!” and “Are you happy with how you did?” and  “Congrats! You survived another one.”

Then we’d grab some ice cream.

Ultimately, they left it up to me to discover my own passion. Nothing was thrust upon me; nobody nudged me this way or that. When I nailed a summer internship at a newspaper in Illinois after my sophomore year in college, Mom and Dad let me take the car for seven weeks, handed me some spending money and wished me well.

Twenty-one years later, I’ve thrilled with the path I chose.

The path nobody forced me to take.

3 thoughts on “State of Play, Play of State”

  1. I wonder if the more successful one is an athlete the harder it is to be happy after the career is over. When it comes to football with so many players, I assume most of them were happy to just get a chance to play.

  2. Great essay. I think I’m going to force my kids to be writers.
    Seriously though, writers may not be happier than pro athletes. Hello? Hemingway? Sylvia Plath? It’s often the person, not the profession, that determines happiness.
    That said, I’m showing my son this essay–but I won’t force him to read it.

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