Should you encourage your child to take up dangerous sports with the goal of becoming a professional athlete and earning lots of money? De la chanson o depends on the child, parent, talent, motivation and opportunity. The answer is a resounding “no,” if you ask this father of four. I will explain more of my rational later. For starters, caveat emptor: sports, like other businesses, have the bottom line of exploitation that few see or want to see. Being proactive is prudent because advice given after an injury is equivalent to medicine after death.
There are functional skills that one can acquire by playing various sports: teamwork, perseverance, determination, winning, and resilient habits. Also, playing sports can be beneficial to your overall health.
Obesity is a global health problem with known consequences. Some of these consequences are high blood pressure, type II diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, joint disease, various types of cancer, to name a few. But don’t tell that to the many Nigerians (in particular and Africans in general) who believe that being fat is a glorious thing, a status symbol, evidence of good living and wealth. Performing physical activities throughout life are worthy habits that promote both quantity and quality of life, according to health experts.
However, there is a big divide between playing sports recreationally and playing them professionally. No sport is risk-free, but some are more dangerous than others. The costs of admission to the club for professional athletes can be too high; frankly, it may not be worth it.
At 20 I liked to watch boxing. The fight between Sugar Ray and Thomas “Hitman” Hearns II comes to mind. Marvin Hagler, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Mike Tyson, the second coming of George Foreman were my favorites. I watched those fights every time I got the chance. At a Pay-View event in 1987 in Oakland, California, I was sitting next to a former boxer. As we left the venue after the exciting fight, he made remarks that were etched in my mind as a spectator lamented the millions the fighters made. He said that “these fighters will pay dearly for the rest of their lives for the blows they have received today.” He went on to say that “all the millions made today will not be enough to cure the pain and suffering for life.”
Looking back, his statements were quite prescient because little was known then about the effects of concussions, blows to the head, performance-enhancing drugs, Parkinson’s disease, memory loss, and speech difficulties. Some of the sports we send our kids to play today are just as dangerous, don’t be fooled by the hype, the money, the fame, and the medical advances. Remember that the beef came from a cow or as the Igbo say, “Yours ahu si n’ahu nama”!
Seeing the huge money and fame in these sports, it was only a matter of time before Nigerian parents and/or our own children started looking for the pitfalls of these sports. Some may want to reap the obvious benefits without seeing the pitfalls. These parents and children should adhere to this quote from Einstein: “learn the rules of the game [first]. And then you should play it better [on and off the court] than anyone else”.
I must dedicate a paragraph and pay tribute to the athletic heroes of Nigeria and indeed the world. Dick Tiger, Christian Okoye, Hakeem Olajuwon, and today’s professional gamers have all displayed shining examples on and off the stage. They remain the beacon of all that is good about Nigeria and Nigerians. When was the last time you heard something negative about these heroes? Through their actions, they continue to tarnish the image of our Motherland even as corrupt politicians and the 419 are hell-bent on tarnishing its global image. As grateful Nigerians everywhere, I salute these undying heroes.
Are these reasons compelling enough to allow your child to play dangerous sports?
I hope that Nigerian parents, both at home and especially abroad, do not push their children into these sports for profit. We are often people with total tendencies to make money at all costs. Some may want to dispel a myth and end up exposing themselves and their children to hidden dangers. According to a sportswriter, “People are skeptical of Nigerian players; they are soft, not tough enough, and too polite.” That’s a loaded statement! Trying to “prove negative” can cost you dearly. You may remember Loyola Marymount basketball star Eric “Hank” Gathers, who died on the court in 1990 during a televised game. The youngster had a known heart condition, but he continued to play without taking his medications that made him too drowsy to perform at the level of his star.
All sports have inherent risks. As the Italians say, “ogni rosa ha le sue spine” or “every rose has its thorns”. I like to ride a bike. Many cyclists are injured and even killed while riding their bikes. Just 3 weeks ago here in Austin, Texas, a cyclist pushing his disabled bike was killed by a distracted driver less than 10 miles from my residence. Did you know that female soccer players suffer the second highest number of concussions, after female football players? Go imagine that.
However, some sports are like cigarettes: they are dangerous when played as prescribed. Some of the injuries are cumulative from very young ages (elementary and middle schools) and the ill effects are not fully felt until game days are over.
The odds of turning pro are pretty infinitesimal. As a friend who played one of these sports professionally tells me, “People only see the few who successfully jump over the ridge. But look down into the abyss to see the crowds who didn’t.” The few who make it to the pros end up living painful lives after their injuries begin to manifest and when their insurance benefits are gone. They quickly squander their earnings due to poor financial management skills. Just as many Nigerians refuse to plan for retirement, these athletes think they will always have money. Those who help you waste your resources will not be there for you when you need them. The wake, if that, can only bury one after one has died, it will not sustain the living.
I am not recommending that you or your children avoid amateur or professional sports. I’m also not singing any sports. As I said, every rose has its thorns; no sport is risk free. What I recommend is that you do your own research before exposing your family to any sport. If after all that you still feel that sport is for your child and he or she has the wherewithal to become the one in a million winner, go for it. I wish the best to your family. Watch out for all that glitter it may be brass, not gold.
Ask yourself these questions:
How is it that very few children of professional players follow in the footsteps of their parents? Have the genes that propelled your parents to stardom suddenly “lost their way”?
Why don’t the team owners, the coaches, the team doctors use their enormous influence to play these obviously lucrative sports with their children? Other businesses, including preachers, train their children in the family business, why not as dangerous sportsmen? Is it because they tell the truth or, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, does society write harm in dust and profit in marble?
Are sports the only way to get college scholarships? Academic scholarships are better than most sports scholarships. The former graduates more students than the latter. Reading will not give you the aforementioned injuries.
If you don’t know of any former professional players in the sport your child might be interested in, search Google or Facebook to find one to talk to. They are relatively easy to find and you will find them willing to help you. Listen with an open mind to what they tell you; do not take their comments as bitter comments from former players. That’s what I did years ago before my kids were old enough to play popular American sports. As a proactive measure, I started discouraging my children from playing soccer. I was surprised when my high school son told me that he had been asked to try out for his school’s team.
My wife and our children were at first jubilant at the news. I went full throttle to discourage him from playing football. When he refused to back down, I hurt him but told him he wasn’t going to any of the games. They said he was good at it. He convinced his mother to go to one of the games. I must inject here that she is in the medical field. After seeing the game live and hearing the sounds of war… I mean the beatings on the field that day, she came home to join me in dissuading our son from playing that sport. The sounds of hitting were unlike anything she hears from soccer games on television. My response was that if she thought high school players hit hard, she can imagine how hard high school and college players hit, let alone professional players. She couldn’t stand to watch my son play football, I just can’t. Call me chicken!
After that first year of soccer, our son announced to our delight that he was quitting the sport. I asked him why, he said that none of his team members were in their AP classes, in fact most of them were not doing well in school, in part due to missed classes due to injuries and/or sports entertainment. This is the case in Africa and elsewhere. Some excel in both sports and academics.
Thank God my son didn’t get hurt and his grades are still up. He talked about the serious injuries other footballers suffered, how they were encouraged to eat and lift more weights to get bigger, stronger, hit harder and run faster. He talked about using below-average teams and the drive to play for college scholarships and pro prospects. Academics weren’t a priority, practicing and winning games was! Ultimately, he said he found that we wanted what was best for him now and in the long run. He realized that we did it with and for love. And we can live with that!