Hey, it’s the summer, what else do you want me to talk about?!
A side effect of running this site for the last five months is that I’ve started to look at everything through Oklahoma State lenses. Not that my orange-colored glasses are blinding me to the truths of what is going on in sport, but rather that everything I watch in sports today I relate back to OSU. Watch Bron Bron falter late in the 4th quarter, wonder how LeBryan is going to close. Go to a Rangers game at the Ballpark at Arlington, wonder if they, like OSU, need to upgrade their facilites. Walk the fairways of Augusta National, wonder if Boone ever broke 100 there. You get the picture.
So after I read this gorgeous piece on Lionel Messi in the New York Times the other day that essentially said if he had to play soccer for free he would I couldn’t help but pose the question to Kevin today: Does unadulterated love of sport exist in the North American collegiate culture today? Do kids growing up wanting to be rich and famous via sports or do they grow up falling in love with the art of their craft?
Kevin: A) That was amazing. I don’t care much about soccer outside of the World Cup, but wow.
I hate to be cynical, but there’s no way this exists today. Most of these kids who play are doing it to either a) get a free ride to college b) get paid in the NFL/NBA or c) both. Do they “love” their sport? Sure. Most have been groomed their entire lives for this. Summers spent traveling the country on AAU teams, going to 7 on 7 QB camps. Their families saw it as a way out. “Todd is good at basketball. Turns out he’s really good. If we move to this school district, get this coach to notice him and put him on this team, he could go pro at 22. And then it’s all dolla dolla bills ya’ll.” (side note, I think I’m far too white to even type “dolla dolla bills, ya’ll”) Also, I don’t even know a Todd.
Kejaun Jones, for example, went to Hale High School in Tulsa until his Junior (maybe Soph) year. Suddenly, his mom becomes a Janitor at Jenks, he throws on the maroon and white, and takes a slant 80 yards to the house in the 6A Championship on his way to a scholarship to Norman U. Football got him a free ride to college. But I doubt he’s playing flag football games on Riverside Dr. on Tuesday nights just to show how much he loves the game.
I want to be idealistic and think that KD loves basketball in a pure, beautiful way. And, to be fair, he does love basketball. But would he have pursued it if he couldn’t have made a gajillion dollars playing it? No. Hell no. He might join a bunch of scrubs on a Saturday morning and dominate a league at the Y, but Monday-Friday he would be sporting khakis and a polo, analyzing oil leases and trading in his Chesa-bucks for a healthy meal on the monstrosity that is the Chesapeake campus.
Editor’s note: KD actually does play pickup ball apparently.
I almost went really controversial with this and made it into a race issue. And part of me thinks it’s a valid argument, but I’m not looking to have Al Sharpton coming after me for a blog post that he’s never even read. I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life.
Kyle: No, I think you’re wrong about KD. Or your conclusion is wrong anyway. You’re saying he wouldn’t play basketball as much as he does now (which is obvious because he would have to make a living somehow else) but how can you say he wouldn’t love it as much?
That being said, I’m rolling with Team DeShazo, nobody in college (or the pros) loves their craft in America like Messi loves his.
There are two reasons for this (and neither is racially charged):
The first is that the United States is the most individualistic society in the world. I don’t mean that in a “we don’t want to pass the ball” kind of way but rather in an “I can pull myself up by my own boostraps” way. We envision “making it” as becoming independent to the nth degree. It’s a lonely sort of revelation when you think about it because we become slaves to whatever “making it” entails. Suddenly making it trumps playing it, no matter what “it” is.
South America, where Messi was born, is one of the least individualistic societies in the world. In fact, according to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions test, Argentina is about half as individualistic as the US. Making it in Argentina is much different than making it in America. In Argentina your family has your back, both financially and in every other way, it’s just…different. So Messi can afford to develop his craft and worry about little else outside of that. It’s more the way a society should function.
The other reason is socioeconomic, like you said, the weight of entire families and future generations is placed at the alter of [college athlete X's] ability to perform with the entire nation watching on Saturdays. That’s not exactly my idea of fun.
I have this theory that the purest form of sport is found in the darkest crevices of competition. Post-midnight flag football games with just fourteen dudes and two referees, all-night softball tournaments complete with diving plays and game-winners, and Saturday morning pick-up games with nobody watching. It’s where sport was meant to exist and somehow these guys like Messi and KD have re-created it amidst their tumultuous professional lives.
You read the ESPN article on KD’s middle school canvas that doubled as a recreation center for youths in Baltimore. This kid, falling for his own greatness and really falling in love with the grind of becoming better than he was yesterday, built his own 6’9 empire. How many kids do you know like that these days?
Kevin: KD might not have been the best example, I can’t argue that he doesn’t truly love the game of basketball.
Still, would he love it if he hadn’t spent his childhood watching Kobe ascend to a god-like status? (note: I initially said MJ, then I realized that with KD being 22 and this being Kobe’s 14th year in the league, KD was 8 when Kobe arrived. Good grief.)
KD loves basketball. Like many inner-city kids, it was an escape for him. An escape that he happened to be really, really good at. But would it have been his escape if he didn’t grow up seeing the rock-star lives that pro athletes lead?
We idolize musicians, actors, athletes. We see their success (see: money, cars, women) and we want to be like them. So we hit our driveways practicing turn-around Js over 7′ Germans with no time on the clock. We beg our parents to get us a guitar and we strum away envisioning that we’re John Mayer singing to a 50,000-strong crowd of Minka Kelly look-a-likes. (this is all to your America being the non-Argentina point)
Very few turn out to actually be good at those things and they are able to make a career out of it. But what attracted them to it? And at what point does that initial attraction turn into an actual passion? Or does it? (I’m looking at you JaMarcus Russell)
I think the great thing about KD and Messi is that they love the work. They love getting better. Even more amazing about Messi is that he has every reason to hate soccer. Though he’s from Argentina, he wasn’t raised there. He’s no Maradona, as the article pointed out. He was raised on a soccer compound in Spain. He has lived and breathed soccer his entire life. It was forced on him. He lived the life of every poor child whose parents I criticize for trying to live out their athletic fantasies through them. Yet he still loves it.
And as much as I love KD, I don’t think he, or any other professional US athlete, can touch Messi’s love for their craft.
Kyle: I think I agree. And I think you can even make the argument that college athletes (such as those at Oklahoma State) love sports less than professional ones.
The NBA playoffs have been very revealing to me – Here’s why: does Dirk Nowitzki need to make another dollar in his life? No. He could fly to Hamburg tonight and just chill at Oktoberfest for the rest of his existence on Earth and never have to worry about anything. And yet there he is at the AAC getting in two-hour shooting sessions before Western Conference Finals games, hitting DEEP daggers and raising his hands as if he’s been fulfilled as an athlete. I think money sometimes matters more to those who don’t have it and because of that we see the corruption of college sports so much more clearly.
It’s as if these dudes wallowing in (literally) millions of dollars don’t care. Now I grant you for every Messi there’s a thousand Ricky Davis’s but I’m just talking about the great ones. The artists.
It’s a polarizing time to be a sports fan: amateurs getting paid hefty sums of money, professionals playing games like they’re still kids, and all of us drinking it in thirstily, as if we’re never satiated. And sometimes I think that’s kind of the point.