Amateur athletics on downward spiral

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It’s time to say farewell to any quaint notions we may be clinging to when it comes to so-called amateur athletics.


We’ve all witnessed the trend of big money and bad behavior working its way down from the pros to colleges to high schools and even into youth sports programs, and there seems to be little hope for improvement.


A few days ago, Oklahoma State basketball star Marcus Smart went into the stands and pushed a fan who verbally abused him. There were rumblings that the “adult” who ticked off Smart, Jeff Orr, issued a racial epithet, but Orr denied that, saying he had “only” called Smart a “piece of crap.” Smart was absolutely wrong to get physical with a fan, and he was suspended for his transgression, but the boorish behavior of those in the stands at sporting events at every level continues to reach new lows.


Orr, who is described by himself and Texas Tech as the Red Raiders’ “superfan,” previously made an obscene gesture toward a young player on another opposing team, but the Texas Tech athletic director didn’t find that bothersome. Orr has decided to self-impose a punishment of not attending any further basketball games this season. What he should be doing is a self-assessment of his life. People who have an obsession with sports teams, center their lives around following those teams and base their happiness on whether their favorites win or lose are in desperate need of a fresh look at the priorities in their lives.


Another sign of this misplaced athlete worship was the recent “signing day,” on which high school football players jotted their John Hancocks on letters of intent to attend the colleges of their choice. An entire industry has cropped up around predicting and salivating over where these players will cast their lots. Never mind that assessing which of these kids will succeed and which will fail athletically is a ridiculously inexact pursuit, or that many of them, based on their academic “achievements,” have no business taking up space at an institution of higher learning.


But, hey, we still have the Olympics, in which every two years fresh-faced young amateur athletes from around the globe gather in a pure, unspoiled pursuit of athletic excellence, eschewing financial enrichment for the honor of representing their homelands. Or not.


A cursory viewing of the current Winter Games makes it clear athletes can switch national allegiances about as easily as most of us change underwear. It’s nothing to see Russian-born ice skaters representing Canada or Germany, or for a speed skater or snowboarder to have sported the uniform of one nation in the last Olympics and a different one in the current games. Then you have ice hockey, in which the top teams are stocked not with the kind of youngsters who led the United States team to the legendary victory over the Russians in 1980, but with NHL millionaires.


And there’s the cost. Hosting the Olympics – and providing for the glorification of de facto dictator Vladimir Putin – is costing Russia, mainly the Russian people, somewhere in excess of $50 billion. Bloomberg Businessweek broke that down to about $520 million per event. It also noted that contracts totaling $7 billion were given to a couple of Putin’s childhood pals. Who knows, a few rubles might even have trickled up into Putin’s pockets. Oh, and Putin’s reputed girlfriend, a former rhythmic gymnast known by virtually no one outside her homeland, got to carry the Olympic torch in the showy opening ceremonies.


The Olympics might be the most egregious example of amateurism gone bad, but it’s sadly representative of what happened over the years to our entire world of sports, from top to bottom. Even our youth sports are not immune. The best players in popular sports abandon their local teams to compete on all-star “traveling teams,” and parents sometimes shell out tens of thousands of dollars to support the usually misguided notion that their kid is the next Andrew McCutchen or LeBron James.


And it will only get worse. You can take that to the bank.


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