Monday, August 24, 2015
Forbes came out with its list of highest earning athletes for 2015. Numbers three and four were Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, earning $80 million and $74 million, respectively. Other than Fortune 500 CEOs and the world’s richest people, no other profession garners such press about what they earn. When a player is signed to a team, that declaration is always followed by a statement on salary and bonuses. Every year the numbers escalate, and we gasp to hear what someone makes for athletic prowess and the transfer fees clubs are willing to lay down for their services. The English Premier League just began its season, and I was watching a match with Manchester City where the announcers declared that Nicolas Otamendi had been purchased from Valencia for $56 million. Double-digit million dollar salaries have become common place in the world of sports, and athletes can supplement their contracts with bonuses and endorsements. It’s no wonder we parents look at our budding soccer player and wonder if he or she will be so blessed.
That siren call of mega-salaries encourages us to see the next Clint Dempsey or Abby Wambach in our children. However, the closest any of us come to any sort of professional sports contract is primarily through a six degrees of separation situation. In our family, my daughters went to high school with the present manager of the Milwaukee Brewers and my workmate at Wisconsin ODP had a son who played briefly for several MLS teams. The left forward to Robbie’s right on his US Youth Soccer ODP team now plays for Columbus Crew. Bryce actually had a one year contract to play professional indoor soccer at $50 a game – double-digits at the wrong end of the pay scale. Most of us have stories about a player we know who went on to play professionally, but it’s rarely our own child. That doesn’t discourage us from keeping an eye on professional salaries and wondering if we have the offspring who’ll make the cut. Robbie and Bryce liked to design villages made out of sponges, cardboard, and glue, yet I admit I didn’t obsess at the idea of them becoming contractors or architects the same way I thought about them advancing in sports. I just took it as part of childhood play. There’s something about athletics which makes us think far more long-term than any other activity in which our kids participate.
That elusive but huge carrot at the end of the stick somehow creates an atmosphere where we expect something tangible from playing sports. It’s not enough that kids have the chance to run and screech, learn some athletic skills, share fun with their friends, and get some exercise. If there is to be youth sports, there has to be wins, trophies, rankings and honors. But most importantly, there has to be a future that kids strive toward – travel team, US Youth Soccer ODP, high school, college, professional. Parents see this as one continuous road that our kids will travel, so we often miss the signs that our child has either had enough of that sport or isn’t up to the next level. We can’t imagine our players quitting or not achieving. The concept of youth sports has morphed into a production line with heavy expectations of the quality and complexity of the final product.
The long-term tangible of sports would be salary, but we also look to the more short-term. This may explain why kids get participation trophies. As result-based as we are in competitions, we seem not to be content with only wins. If you can’t win, then at least you can feel appreciated. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison turned to social media to express his frustration with these awards. When his boys attended a camp this summer they both came home with participation trophies, which Harrison made them return. His argument was that he couldn’t raise his boys “to be men by making them believe they are entitled to something.” He expressed his pride in and support for everything his boys did, but he felt they had to earn their rewards through effort and talent. The argument has raged for decades – some saying these awards help create stronger self-esteem with others saying it promotes a culture of entitlement. When The Today Show reported on this story, it ran a poll asking if kids should receive trophies, medals and ribbons for participation. The results were an overwhelming 93 percent for “no,” a surprise considering how much society values overt indications of achievement. I’ve often felt that these participation incentives were more for the parents than for the child. They provide material evidence that the child is progressing, even when that’s not true. But perhaps the tide is turning.
Parents may actually need encouragement more than the kids. Youth players usually define success in terms that adults don’t use: having fun, seeing friends, running, goofing around, and, yes, even scoring a goal. Adults see success in terms of outcomes: wins, scoring, trophies, getting an honor, playing time, and team standing. Kids become concerned with those things, but they grow into those expectations as they witness their importance with the adults surrounding them. Taking the next step in a sport by elevating a level in competition can be very important to parents, but less so to kids. Youth athletes often just want to be on a team with their friends and have fun doing it. Most youth players rarely hang on to any disappointment over a loss, even a very lopsided one. They have a much different agenda – what are they doing after the game, what’s the snack, can they go out for pizza. The same holds true for a win. Trophies are nice, but after a ceremony I frequently found those ribbons, medals, and trophies stuffed in drawers, packed away in boxes, even left under the car seats. The boys had shelves reserved for displaying the hardware, but because they got so many awards for things that had nothing to do with being champions, the value of everything was diminished. A hard fought victory, even a well fought loss, meant more than the promise of swag.
It’s difficult to hear about highly paid athletes and not feel both envy and ambition. We parents are all well past the point where we could hope to earn those salaries, but our kids possess the possibility. Even manufactured rather than true accomplishment makes us believe the dream could happen. And it may, but only for a few grains of sand on the beach. Kids concern themselves with the process while adults consider outcomes demonstrated by discernible rewards. We focus on progress in the form of advancement in competitiveness, records, awards, and even money. We forget the real reason kids play sports, which has nothing to do with accomplishment. While youth players do enjoy wins and accept a trophy with pride, these aren’t the reasons they participate. For them a participation award is the opportunity to be with friends, play with abandon, and just have fun. That’s something that actually has value.