Sports and Us

My son Max years ago not paying attention as per usual. Cute kid though.
My son Max when he was younger, not paying attention like usual. Cute kid though.

Remember when sports were fun? Like throwing the pigskin around in the front yard with your dad or kicking the soccer ball with mom or playing H.O.R.S.E. or bumping the volleyball, and how it meant the world to you to spend that time with them. Sometimes, the most important conversations you had about life were with mom or dad in those moments. I can tell you in my case that it was in fact, the New York Yankees that kept my father and me barely talking my junior year in high school. And for that I would like to say, thank-you NY Yankees. Oh and also- what the hell are you doing with your draft picks? Who is the most recent pick to start a game, Jeter?

My brothers and I were just discussing a terrific memory from our youth of playing what we called “Five-for-Five” in the front yard with our father. Dad was all-time quarterback, and we each got five chances to catch his pass while another brother played defense. Best out of five won, or it went to sudden-death for whatever we arbitrarily decided at the moment. If mom was calling us for dinner for the fifth time it was “next one wins,” but if it was only the first call to come inside, we probably went another two to three throws each. Dad would turn his back to the defender and use the palm of his hand to draw the route for the receiver. I can smell his quarterback breath of coffee and cigarettes now. Being the older brother, I also remember dad floating the passes a little softer and less on target whenever I was the receiver, giving the younger brothers a chance to knock it down or intercept it. But that was his job; to keep it fun. And it sure as hell was.

I still love sports. Sports were reality TV before reality TV but without the script (you know it’s true). The drama of having to hole a ten foot putt to win the Masters, capping off the end of a two-minute drill at the end of the football game to win, to have to serve facing Championship Point in the fifth set at Wimbledon, being down big on the scorecard and getting the KO in the last round, hitting the 24-footer from the corner while falling out of bounds at the buzzer, winning the game with 2.3 seconds left on a slap-shot from thirty feet, winning the 100 or 200 meter sprint at the Olympics, and of course- ninth inning, two outs, bases loaded, down three, game 7 of the World Series. KNOCK -Every kid’s dream. I remember practicing rounding the bases after hitting it. Gotta act like you’ve been there.

By the way, is there a moment for Curling? I’m sure there is. I’ve had quite a few great ones over a Shuffleboard table. Down two, last stone, takes-out two of the opponents’ stones in the house and wins the game! The crowd goes wild. And for soccer fans- I would put “saves a goal in PK’s to win in the finals of the World Cup,” but when your regular season games can end in a tie, I have to refrain. Ten seconds left, ball on the wing, he passes it in, it’s headed, the goalie dives, GOOOOOoooooOOOAAAAAaaaaOOOOOOOLLLLLLLL.LLLLLLLLLohmygodOOOOLLLLLLL! And the game ends in a tie. Drive safely everyone. No wonder soccer fans are so angry.

(Should I rename this blog; Another Tangent?)

Greatness stays with a person when it happens as does the failure. It molds who you are. And think of this from the fan’s perspective. We count great sports moments as important historical markers. Why? Because they meant something to us on a deeply interested level that is also shared with others. As a fan, the pure joy of witnessing the rare and truly great, singular moments are hard to forget, but watching your kid get his first hit or score a goal – well, there is nothing like that either. Think of college fans tearing the goal posts down because they finally won in an upset or the kids crying on the dad’s shoulder after a crushing defeat.

I played sports year-round growing up, and I don’t regret a minute of it. Well, except that time I missed the game-winner in eighth grade against St. Cecilia’s. I should have taken it all the way to the hoop and either made the layup or got fouled. It still burns. People would say, he’s competitive, excusing my attempts to do the best I could and to make it culturally acceptable to be a maniac. It didn’t matter what the competition was either. It could have been a video game, bar darts, who could throw the ball through the tire swing more, the triple jump, who could put the most cigarettes out on their hand- it didn’t matter. Pool, the card game Speed, pole-vaulting over the couch, trivia, charades. I think you get it.

I played what I could: soccer, football, baseball, basketball, and golf. I even signed up for a tennis tournament when I was twelve just because I was riding my bike past the sign-up in front of the tennis courts one day. I’m fairly sure I would have played others as well, but playing multiple sports was tough enough when the big ones overlapped. Parents know all-to-well what it’s like to go from practice to game, game to game, game to practice and so on. If I added hockey, La Cross, and Curling to my schedule on top of the one I already had, one of us-‘us’ being my mother or myself-was going to die.

My little brother Matt with a very large hat.
My little brother Matt with a very large hat. (It fit later)

So with all that said, it might surprise you when I tell you how disappointed I am with sports and the culture of sports these days.

I still love them for their examples of hard work paying off, leadership, teamwork, tolerance, dedication, persistence, GRIT, passion, and more. But sports used to be about getting the kids away from the television and expending energy outside. It was about making a commitment to a team and the other players then keeping it. It was about overcoming adversity like tough relationships with coaches and lack of playing time.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the sweet nectar of winning as much as anyone.

But have you looked around lately? It’s ugly. I used to be told by my father that winning wasn’t what was important (This usually took place on the car ride home after the game and was where I would also make my points years later with my own son, but who, for some reason, always tried to go home with his mother whenever we brought two cars). Dad preached that it was the effort and respect and getting better and being there to lift your teammate up when they made a mistake and vice-versa. And you know what? That is already a lot for a kid. It takes several reminders over several years for it to sink in. How often do you see a twelve-year-old yell at teammates or beat the brown, metal folding chair after losing? Nowadays they also have to worry about the exact weight and length of their bat and their BMI, or memorize a playbook for sixth-grade football that’s as big as the Chicago Bears. You know what my dad used to say when I wanted him to buy me a new bat? Just grab one and hit the damn ball. 

The parents are supposed to be shaping their kid’s understanding of the world and reminding them what their priorities should be. So what the hell happened?

The adults have lost their sense of priorities. No, that’s wrong. They have lost their damn minds. They want to win more than the kids. They want to spend more money on gear and lessons than the kids do. They want the kid to pick one sport so they can play it year round and get on travel squads and select teams even if it means missing out on the fun and lessons from the other sports. They love the exclusion of select teams unless it’s their kid being excluded, then they want inclusion. Nothing makes some of these parents feel better than their kid being inside the special circle. But what’s with the act and the crazy desire to be part of the parent club? Is it because in a way, you as a parent are now part of a select team and get to smirk at the other parents and say things like, “It’s so crazy all the games and practices and tripsconsider yourself lucky your boy didn’t make it.”

Now, seventh-grade football teams have coaching staffs (staffs? I had two coaches) that meet four or five nights a week for meetings. For seventh grade football. Four or five nights a week. For meetings. Just stop it. Who is this really for guys? You? Or the kids? Go home, read a book, and help your daughter with her homework. And quit yelling at the kids like your Mike Ditka then telling everyone it’s good for them. You are an idiot and have zero sense of what is good and not good for children. Now put the tight-end down and step away.

 Don’t think it’s that bad? Remember “Bountygate” from a few years ago where the New Orleans Saints implemented a bounty system that offered financial reward for knocking opponents out of play. Well that was old hat for the coaches of the Tustin Red Cobras, an Orange County, California, Pop Warner squad. The coaches were suspended for offering incentives to their players for big hits against opposing teams. The athletes receiving the bounty were 10 and 11 years old.

Parents get in fist fights with the refs and each other regularly at kids sporting events. Quick side-note; unless you have ever refereed a full game in any of the sports using only your eyesight and natural foot speed to monitor what is going on, SHUT THE HELL UP! -I have also heard parents at eighth grade baseball games jeering and yelling at a player on the other team trying to make a catch with “miss it-miss it-miss it-miss it!” They weren’t only rooting for their child to succeed, they were beseeching the other kids to fail. Which brings me to my next segment… Now that’s classy. High schools are recruiting kids that might not even be playing sports in two years. How often does it happen that the 6’1″ kid in eighth-grade was 6’1″ and a 1/2 his senior year?

Look how we treat college athletes. It’s ludicrous. People spend all day on blogs arguing whether some sophomore in high school would be a good fit for their college team and criticize the fifteen year-old prospect for not having a jump-shot. Then when they get to college he has to wake up, workout, go to class, workout, practice, workout, eat, study, sleep then do it again the next day. But Bill over in Human Resources has had just about enough of said kid because he can’t tackle running quarterbacks. Then we admonish the kids that leave early for the pros. If that was a scientist who left early to join NASA for a million dollars a year, Bill and the complainers wouldn’t be singing a word. But the athletes get, The kid is getting a full-ride. Does he realize how lucky he is? Yea. As lucky as all the students given full-rides for academics or the kid whose parents paid for the year in cash. Bill, your jealousy is showing again.

Some pro team fans are more concerned about the trades or play-calling or the tailgate menu than they are about their own family.

Three surgeries
Three surgeries

I played a lot of games in my life, and I had a lot of great moments along with quite a few bad ones. But if you think I remember my win-loss record, you are crazy. And while I am sure my lifetime winning percentage is pretty high, (that one is for my brothers) I really don’t care. What is more important, is that I am who I am today because of sports; a broken down half-human/half-metal softball player with a beer belly who yells at anyone who takes a 4 ball walk. 

“It’s softball you pansy-ass!! You don’t walk!”

I kid. Although, I have to agree with old beer-belly who still wears his baseball pants at forty-five. If the ball is anywhere near hittable… swing the bat.

Guys taking walks in recreational softball is actually another good example of winning taking precedence over everything else. Sports can be good. It really did make me who I am. Sports gave me the confidence to try anything and overcome my fear to fail. Sports taught me how to lead and to follow. Sports made me not see race or religion, only the goal. Sports gave me a sense of pride and taught me that nothing comes easy and that you have to earn every bit. Sports taught me how to be coached and get better. Sports taught me that life isn’t always fair.

The rare 1987 Tony Mainelli card where he posed left-handed.
The rare 1987 Tony Mainelli card where he posed left-handed.

The money spent on sports is completely out of hand all the way down to grade school age. Private pitching lessons five nights a week? Are you kidding? Teach the kid to play guitar, speak German, do calculus, AND play baseball for that kind of money. And don’t tell your mother that her granddaughter is too busy with her select volleyball to come spend time with her when she plays 300 days a year.

People are actually dying or being wounded by fans from the other team after the games. Just this last week was the awful story about the Winston-Salem quarterback who was allegedly beaten by up to five players on the other team while in the restroom at a luncheon that was being held in celebration of both teams reaching the championship. Huh?

I was raised to do everything within the rules to beat your opponent on the court or the field, but not off. You helped him up after you knocked him senseless, you shook the other teams’ hands, and you said good game. And if you lost, you said Get you next time.

Business models are understandable. Profit is profit, and professional athletes certainly generate lots of revenue and deserve their share. But where are our priorities as the human race? We laugh at the Ancient Romans and their fervor for gladiators, chariot races, and lion killings. That’s like Presbyterians laughing at Mormons who laugh at Jews who laugh at Catholics who laugh at Lutherans who laugh at Scientologists for having ridiculous beliefs. OK, Scientology is pretty ridiculous. I’ll give you that one. Don’t put a hit on me Tom Cruise. I’m just teasing.” 

Now – lastly – let me be the first to tell you- your kid is not going pro. Sorry. If you need to go walk it off for a few minutes, go ahead, I’ll put a red mark here as a placeholder. ♦ You can buy him the very best bat-bag or high tops or private QB lessons that money can buy, but the chances are so rare. I’m not saying they can’t shoot for it; it’s good to have goals and to give it everything you have. All I am saying is that counting on turning pro is like putting the house up for sale because you bought a lottery ticket last night. Probably should make other plans. Just sayin.

Oh, and do me a favor -parent who thinks their kid is the next Lebron James- try to get out on a Major League diamond, or an NBA basketball court, or an NFL field before a game and take notice of the average size of these people. Yes, I know you can name many good, small players from every league, but if you want to go there, then let’s check the odds for athletes under 6’4″ who go pro. They can’t be very good. So do me a favor, unless your kid is a super-freak in size or ability, or even if he is, let them also take music lessons or take up painting or join a science club or whatever, so the kid can experience a little more out of life. They’ll thank you later.

And I hate to say it, but your kid is probably not going to play college sports either.

The NCAA did a study that was last updated in 2012 on the percentage of athletes that moved on from high school sports to college athletics to professional leagues.

Look at the bottom row of numbers. That is the percentage of high school athletes that make it to the Professional level. It’s like I always tell my brothers;

ncaa study

“If it wasn’t for my bad back, bad knees, lack of height, and lack of ability, I’d be retiring from the pros about now.”

Add up the numbers. Out of about 850,000 high school senior athletes, 44,000- that’s 5% – will play at the college level. Then of those 44,000 student-athletes, about 1,000 will get drafted into a professional sport.

While an athletic career is certainly achievable for a few, 99% of high school athletes who participate in sports with pro leagues, won’t be needing an agent unless it’s for acting or writing or making a travel reservation.

If my parents would have made me play one sport all year-long, I would have gone crazy. And no, it doesn’t make you better; it makes you have very little adaptability and creativity, and a really narrow view of life.

Let’s all just settle down and enjoy sports for what they are- human beings competing, winning and losing (and tying- damn it soccer!) making mistakes and creating great moments. And also asking whether the Yankees won last night because for the time-being, it’s the only thing keeping you and your father speaking.


References: Athletes Going Pro, Probabilities, Estimated Probability of Competing in athletics beyond high school level    

Published by Dave Mainelli

Small business owner, former International franchise business consultant, a musician, father, husband, and writer. Served on the B.O.D. for Red Hen Press and Fine Lines Literary Magazine, an MFA in Writing from the University of Nebraska, and a teacher for Wayne State and Iowa Western.

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