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Let's Hope Young Athletes Learn from the Greeks

Posted: 2009-11-05

If sports is a metaphor for life, we'd better help kids put things in perspective.

Let's hope young athletes learn from the Greeks And early though the laurel grows it withers quicker than the rose."

"To an Athlete Dying Young," by A.E. Housman

Good for the Greeks. Of course they put medals around the necks of the Olympic winners in Athens, but they also put laurel wreaths on their heads. Crowning champions with a fragile flower might help us, especially school children, keep sports in perspective.

Maintaining that perspective won?t be easy. If sports are nothing else, they are at least big business. You don?t have to be a fan to realize that a lot of money is involved in the Olympics, as well as professional and college sports.

But if you are a fan, high-school sports are not about money. There are not many better places to be than standing on the sidelines during a northern New York autumn. The trees are full of color, you can smell the apples in the orchards, and North Country kids are running cross country and playing soccer or football.

Some of us are very enthusiastic, very loud, very involved --that would be me. And because of enthusiastic fans, kids can easily overestimate the importance of sports.

They might think that sports are not just about fun and games, but have a greater significance: that sports define who they are and shape who they will become.

It's a seductive thought. We identify with athletes in a way that we do no other entertainers, expecting them to be role models. We want our kids not only to play like Derek Jeter and Mia Hamm, but also to have the personal qualities their play convinces us they have in their private lives.

In fact, an advertiser once told us to "Be like Mike," and we wanted to because Jordan could jump high and had a smile that made the world light up. He must, therefore, be a good person.

(Even my grandmother once said that she knew that Brooklyn Dodger second baseman Junior Gilliam was a good man. That he could turn the double play was enough for her. Of course, no Brooklyn Dodger was anything less than perfect in her eyes.) Lavishing publicity and money (the average major-league baseball salary this year is about $2.5 million) on athletes tells kids that they are successes, admirable, heroes.

They can even read about the role of sports in history books. "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton," the Duke of Wellington supposedly said after the defeat of Napoleon. Passed down for decades, it incorporates the almost religious belief that sports prepare us for adulthood, that the game is in fact a metaphor for life.

Football especially echoes Wellington's military reference. Quarterbacks have been called field generals, while forward passes are aerial assaults.

We old people can remember that many years ago, Heisman trophy winner Pete Dawkins of West Point embodied the ideal soldier/athlete who protected America from communism and the Soviet Union.

That combination of athletics and patriotism continues today with the playing of the national anthem before games. Why do we stand at attention and listen to the "Star Spangled Banner" before we throw a baseball or kick a football? Who knows, but it tells kids that the game symbolizes something very important.

The truth, obviously, is no symbol, and much uglier. There are just too many great players who are not great people. Sports reporters now check the police blotter as often as the box score.

An NBA player who choked his coach is still in the league and gets paid millions ($13.5 million last year). One of the great hitters of baseball is barred from the Hall of Fame because of his gambling.

The list of marvelous athletes who are bums gets longer every day. Sports and character are not related to each other.

But the Greeks understand the games and those who play them well, and so they reached back to the myth of Apollo and Daphne for the laurel wreath.

Playwright David Mamet, writing about an Olympic boxing match in 1988, said that for the Greeks the laurel "was understood to be an ironic reminder that victory is hollow --that most times, on achieving our goal, we find that it has changed and is no longer what we pursued." While we root for high school athletes to do their best, let's hope they learn a lesson from the Greeks.

Jerry McGovern, the Press-Republican's coordinator of Newspapers-in-Education, taught for many years in New York state public schools. He writes about his various experiences in education, as well as about current educational issues. He can be reached at gmcgovern@pressrepublican.com or 565-4126. This column is the opinion of the writer and not necessarily of this newspaper.

from the Press-Republican


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