Slaw Says: Professional athletes corrupt not only sports but the kids that emulate them

Many times, people will talk about the way sports should be. They think sports should be played simply for the joy of it all and money and pride should not be factors.

Many of these people look at professional sports, shake their heads and say today's superstar athletes need to look back at their childhood to remember why they play the game.

It is the common belief that children play sports because they are fun. They aren't getting paid, so they can't be doing it for the money. Kids just want to be with their friends and play the games they love together.

I used to believe that with all my heart. I'm not so sure anymore.

For the past two summers, I worked at a day camp back in my hometown. The children ranged in age from 5 to 13. The other counselors and I took them hiking and fishing, made arts and crafts and cooked s'mores. Most of all, we would play sports with them.

Most of the younger kids were great and did fit into the stereotype of kids that play sports just for fun. They would run around and not worry about keeping score or who was on what team. It really didn't seem to matter to them.

At some point, for some unknown reason, they changed.

The older campers took their games much more seriously. Occasionally, they took them violently seriously.

The worst sport was baseball. I'm not saying that baseball is a bad sport. I love baseball. But when it is put in the wrong hands, it can be a dangerous thing. I'm not sure what it was that brought out the worst in these normally well-behaved kids, but it turned them into glory-hungry, ego-driven, irrational fiends.

They had very little concept of fairness when it came to making up the teams to play a game. Most of the time, the older and more skilled children would separate themselves from the younger and less-experienced campers.

That way, they would get to hit more and therefore win the game easily. Whenever I would step in and divide the teams evenly, many of the older campers would refuse to play because they didn't think it was "fair" that they didn't get to play with their friends.

When we were lucky enough to play a game, it rarely went smoothly. Nearly every call was argued. Bats were thrown in anger. There seemed to be an almost constant chant of, "This isn't fair," in the air.

At the end of the game, I would ask the kids who won. Most of them had no idea what the score was, but they all could recite their statistics for the day to me.

By the end of the summer, games of baseball were very rarely played. Instead, the older campers would take over the whole field so they could play their version of home run derby. This quickly became a heated rivalry and often degenerated into name-calling and equipment abuse as each player tried desperately to out do his friends.

Why? I couldn't figure it out. How could a game make such good kids into monsters?

Then one day, I got my answer.

While I was watching a camp episode of home run derby, the batter hopped ala Sammy Sosa after connecting on a home run. That brought it all together for me. All these kids were doing was emulating what they saw their major league heroes do everyday.

Many people think players are corrupted when they reach the major league and play for big bucks. I think players are corrupted long before that by the images presented to them as heroic by professional sports.

Remember kids: it is only a game.

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