Friday, May 20, 2011

Sports as Metaphor for Life: Let’s hope not!

This week, two prominent men have come out as gay. In most quarters these items are being treated as the nonevents they are, especially in the case of CNN anchor Don Lemon. Unfortunately, some in the sports world might react differently to reports of Phoenix Suns President and CEO Rick Welts’s sexual orientation.

Welts informed several friends of his sexuality before going public, including NBA Commissioner David Stern. “What I didn’t say at the time was: I think there’s a good chance the world will find this unremarkable,” Stern told the New York Times reporter who broke the story. “I don’t know if I was confusing my thoughts with my hopes.”

According to Suns Guard Steve Nash, “Anyone who’s not ready for this needs to catch up.”

Unfortunately, some in his profession will not.

Many people consider sports an example of the way the world should work. Sports is usually a win-lose proposition: someone wins only if someone else loses. One team wins, the other goes home. Olympic athletes get silver and bronze medals, horses can place and show, but few remember the losers in championship games.

On the other hand, to instill confidence in people with developmental disabilities, every Special Olympics athlete gets a ribbon. But even that practice isn’t without critics. Some believe the spotlight should be focused entirely, and only, on winners.

Sadly, the metaphor explains the way things are now. In politics, one person wins and the rest return to their other lives. Some executives only consider themselves and their companies successful when others aren’t doing as well. That mentality is demonstrated in lists of companies and countries that inform everyone how participants are doing in the “game” of life.

For decades, the argument that men who compete in team sports at a young age are better prepared for life was used an excuse to bar women from advancement in business and politics. Then came Title IX and the growth of sports for girls and women, and that argument no longer fits. But despite gains for women in business and politics, as well as sports, there’s still work to be done.

The sports mentality prevails in other ways. Athletes are encouraged to push themselves beyond their limits, ignoring both physical injury and goals unrelated to sports. This leads to unnecessary injuries and damaged relationships and lives.

Young people who want to give up sports for another activity are often accused of not following through with commitment. Even people who want to change careers in midlife are looked upon as quitters for not reaching goals they set when they were young and knew less about themselves and real life.

Competitors are expected to ignore the body’s natural signals that indicate an activity is causing harm. That’s why so many participants suffer from what are casually termed “sports injuries.” The fact that head injuries weren’t taken seriously explains why so many pro football players suffer from such debilitating conditions as dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s.

This attitude reinforces prejudice against disabled people. We’re considered losers from the get-go, lesser beings than potential winners. And the strength-in-sports mentality spills over into the area of sexual orientation, especially among men.

Gender is usually less of an issue for women than for many males. Men are more apt to question their own sexuality when they learn another man is gay. Women rarely take the issue of another woman’s sexuality as a reflection on their own identity. Even women with religious convictions against homosexuality are usually more comfortable than men about working with or living near a member of the LGBT community.

With all this, I haven’t even mentioned the corrupting factor of money in sports, as well as life. Daily headlines in Arizona papers scream news of the Fiesta Bowl scandal, along with evidence of general corruption in the bowl game selection process. One look at the corruption and economic breakdown of the past few years, and it’s easy to understand the source of the mentality that led us to this abyss.

All this proves it’s time to choose a better metaphor to teach young people about life. Besides promoting win-win activities, society must provide more opportunities for women, disabled people, and members of all minorities to participate in the real “game” of life. We could do more than just “catch up”; we could actually enjoy more shared success for all.

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