No six-year-old plays tee ball for a contract. No eight-year-old joins a recreational soccer team for fame. No ten-year-old swims for a gold medal. They do it for fun—well, sometimes they do it because their parents make them, but mostly they do it for fun.
As we grow older we may tell ourselves we play for the euphoria of winning or the feeling of camaraderie, the masochistic pain of hard work, but that is not true. No matter the age or level, it’s still about fun. Sports have always been, and will always be about enjoying the game, and too often we forget that.
We as sports writers, we as athletes, we as fans, turn sports into something its not. We make it about profit and ego, about conflict rather than cooperation.
Last week, Lakers forward Metta World Peace charged down the court, threw down a highlight reel dunk and began celebrating, beating his fists on his chest and letting his voice echo in the arena. Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden was in his celebration warpath and paid quite the price for where he was standing. After World Peace attempted to shove him out of the way, he proceeded to throw his elbow straight into Harden’s skull, knocking him to the ground unconscious.
World Peace was once upon a time known as Ron Artest, a player blacklisted in the NBA after charging into the stands and assaulting a fan that had berated him. Changing his image, he formally changed his named to Metta World Peace and moved to a new city. Last week he proved that he deserves to be called anything but World Peace, for, Mr. Artest, an asshole by any other name is still an asshole. He took one of the best games all year and turned it into a press stunt for himself, acting recklessly and violently.
Artest (I refuse to call him World Peace anymore) will receive his punishment and pay his sentence, but when will we receive ours? In this cookie jar world of sports, we have become the foundation for what leads to Artest’s elbow by forgetting what sports are all about. From the tee ball field all the way up, we encourage our teammates and our children to lose sight of the fun inherent in the sports they play.
The truth is, the majority of college athletes are not playing with the vision of becoming a professional. Most of us just want to extend the fun of playing our sport a few more years. It is that love of the game that drives participation in athletics at a young age and never really goes away.
Those that do go pro will tell you it is the love of the game that keeps them at the top level more than the money or the fame. The problem is that the sports culture in America has been heading for years down an unfavorable path. From the bottom up, it is become a culture of competition and profit instead of fun. That breeds the kind of conditions that make someone like Ron Artest want to elbow James Harden in the head.
And while his seven game suspension will serve as a reminder to the rest of the league of why they truly play, it will not be enough to enact any real change in professional athletes’ mentalities.
Shifting this culture back requires changing the way we think of sports at the lowest level. We have to constantly encourage little-league participants to remember why they play—for the love of the game. Then a new generation of athletes will grow up emphasizing the right parts of sports and refusing to condone the abuses of competitive spirit, resulting in a return, once again, to sports being pure and simple fun.