LeBron James was supposed to be a Cleveland icon for generations to come. His story was a classic heroic tale, prematurely cut short, in my opinion, by self-absorption, immaturity and cowardice. Watching his charade of an interview on ESPN last Thursday night, many northeast Ohioans felt angry, disrespected, betrayed, humiliated, and sad. Emotions are still running fast and furious. One of my colleagues (a long-time Cavs fan) stated that she does not like to take a gamble, but bought season tickets (2010-2011) for the first time during last year’s playoffs and now feels like a fool. A 22-year-old son of a family friend has been withdrawn, sad, angry and tearful since he heard LeBron’s decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Why are we so fascinated by professional athletes?
In ancient times, frenzied crowds filled coliseums to cheer for certain gladiators. If you saw the movie “Gladiator” you may recall the depiction of gladiators as revered by their adoring fans. Psychologically speaking, we look upon our professional athletes in much the same way. In fact, except for the gore that accompanied the gladiators’ bloody contests, today’s sports figures have much in common with these ancient athletes. Today’s fans worship their favorite sports figures and live their lives vicariously through these athletes. The athletes, in turn, seem almost ‘super-human’ since most possess extraordinary physical abilities and big personalities.
An element of voyeurism plays a role in our fascination since we feel compelled to probe into our favorite athletes’ personal lives. In this era of television, 24/7 sports news, corporate sponsorships, video games, Facebook and Twitter, professional athletes are much more visible to the public. With so much access and information, it’s only natural that people begin to develop strong affinities towards certain athletes and/or teams.
Professional athletes and sports teams also offer a galvanizing force for a community to come together irrespective of age, gender, religion or ethnicity. Cities, states and even countries often identify with their favorite professional sports team. This explains the out-of-control behavior by people in the wake of a major win or loss by a professional sports team.
Should professional athletes be our role models?
I do not believe professional athletes are appropriate role models for our children. Granted, some athletes are unique in their commitment to the community and do set a good example based on their virtues, rather than their skills. But what must be remembered is that professional sports are just good entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. And professional athletes are paid to play a game and play it well. They are not paid to give back to the community. Some do, but many do not. If we encourage our children to seek role models, it is best to steer them towards those who have made enduring contributions to the world such as Albert Einstein or Mother Theresa. You will never see either on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but believe me their work and contributions can teach your children a great deal about achievement and commitment.
What lessons can be learned from sports?
When our favorite team wins, we feel a sense of pride and a vicarious sense of achievement. It may bring our community together in celebration. There is certainly an economic impact on a community when the home team wins – or loses. But the most important lessons we can teach our children about sports have nothing to do with the actual game.
LeBron abandoned his fans and his roots to go off to Miami where he hopes to win a championship. Rather than stay and fight for the championship in Cleveland, he felt it was easier to go. For LeBron, winning is everything. We must teach our children that winning is only part of the picture. Good sportsmanship, camaraderie, achievement and team work are also a part of sports – and there are many lessons to be learned in these. Striving for excellence, committing to a common goal, and, most importantly, winning or losing gracefully are all lessons that will help our children grow into responsible adults. And if your child becomes a professional athlete, these lessons will keep him or her well-grounded in the extravagant, high-profile arena of sports.
Next week: The Psychology of Horseback Riding