Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To Play or Not to Play, That is the Question

March is an odd time of the year in Streeterville. It's still pretty cold out, but it's starting to warm up a little. The days are getting longer and there is actual afternoon sunlight after I get off work. Soon there will be Daylight Savings Time, but most importantly, it is the time of the year when the real change occurs. It is now "cooler near the lake." When I left the outpost in Back of the Yards today, it was 42 degrees at the Mini. It was 38 by the time I arrived in Streeterville. Last I checked, the water temperature was still 35. Big body of water. Big local effect on the meteorological conditions. Nevertheless, it will soon warm up appreciably and RDR will return to the lakefront running path.

That has nothing to do with what I wanted to talk about today, however. I work professionally as an educator so as a result I think a lot about education, youth, and the future of our nation, and the world as a whole. Working as I do in an inner city neighborhood in one of those schools that are regularly condemned and referred to as failing, I get a unique perspective on youth, and education, and our nation's future. One of the travesties of the youth in such places is what I think of as the "I wanna be Michael Jordan syndrome."

Let's face it, the media gives short shrift to people who make scads of money doing mundane things like being doctors, lawyers, engineers, or any of a million functional things in our society. The media gives a lot of space to dudes who are athletically gifted and make millions of bucks playing basketball, football, baseball, tennis, or more recently, in the case of Lance Armstrong, riding bicycles. That has to be a lot of fun, playing games that most people have to leave behind early on because they have to get a job and pay the bills, and doing so until middle age, and doing so for a great deal of cash. Who wouldn't want to do that?

Trouble is that the persons who do that into middle age and get rich doing it are a very small group of very gifted athletes. Images of snowballs in hell come to mind. In poor neighborhoods across America, however, there are kids who are being brought up and led to believe by family and residents of the hood that White America won't allow you to get ahead. (It never occurs to a lot of poor white kids that the rich white people will let them get ahead either.) The only examples of monetary success and respect that these kids are pointed towards are those of the gifted athletes in professional sports, drawn heavily from minority populations and the poorer white neighborhoods. Kids begin to believe that this is their ticket out of the bad life and into the good life.

This is all despite the fact that there is an African-American man in the White House, an African-American on the Supreme Court, endless numbers of African-Americans, Latinos, and poor kids of every race, creed, and color who work hard and get PhDs, LLDs, and MDs, not to mention the MBAs who grace the business world and make more money than all of the above put together. It never occurs to a lot of kids that the odds of getting rich are a lot better if you just study hard and go to school seriously than if you try your damnedest to become a professional athlete.

Only the top tier of high school athletes get to play at the college level. Only the top tier of college athletes get to move up to the professional level. An awful lot of pro baseball players never get beyond AAA level and would have made more money doing any number of things that seem less glamorous. Same kind of situation with basketball players and football players. If you're really good but can't make it in the USA, you might make it in a foreign country. Of course you better be prepared for culture shock and the hard work of learning another language when you emigrate to play your game of choice.

And a large number of pro athletes find that their careers are ended in short order when they sustain career ending injuries. Specifically, a lot of NFL players live their post-NFL lives as virtual cripples. It's a very physical and brutal sport, even for those who are 6'8" and 275 pounds.

What got me off on this tangent initially was the fact that I read today about Jacob Hickman, a young man who played football at the University of Nebraska. It seems he was invited to a dog and pony show for the NFL and told them "No thanks." A lot of people did not understand. The young man in question has already had 4 surgeries and has 14 screws in various parts of his body. He has a college degree and a good future that does not involve football, and simply did not want to put himself through any more of the physical stuff.

In another example, Myron Rolle, a safety on the football team at Florida State was scorned by NFL representatives because he eschewed the NFL draft so he could be a Rhodes Scholar. He has designs on being a neurosurgeon. I expect that, in the long run, Mr. Rolle will fare pretty darned well. A lot of our young men (and women) should use him as a positive role model. There are very few Michael Jordans or A-Rods. There are a lot of talented and intelligent young men and women who can, with a little hard work hit the big time as MDs, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and businessmen and women.

That being said, I have to think of a friend from college who was a pre-med student, a very bright guy. Thing was, though, he was also a very big guy who could play football very well. Came time for graduation, he was offered a job with the Seattle Seahawks. I don't know what eventually happened to him. We lost track of one another over the years. Thing is, I would put good money on him never becoming that doctor he originally wanted to become, and considering the fact that he and I are both in our late 50's, his football career was over about 30 years ago. What has he done with himself since? Good question.

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