A Long Slow Divorce: My Sports Journey

Tanner & JonathanWhen I was a kid, I was a true sports fan. Sports was a central theme of family get-togethers. We watched whatever seasonal sport was showing, and discussions at family gatherings always drifted to sports. The thrill of victory and agony of defeat ran through my veins and informed my dreams.

I read books from the 50’s and 60’s of improbable feats of heroism by ordinary athletes and teams. I religiously watched the Cubs, Bears and Blackhawks play on television and listened on radio. I swung a baseball bat for hours alone perfecting my swing and pitched tennis balls endlessly against a garage or brick wall with visions of a major league career running through my head. I galloped through backyard football games with a ball tucked under my arm like the ghost of Gale Sayers, replaying in my mind each night the highlight reel of my performance. My brother and I even played makeup hockey, baseball and football  games with any objects we could find for pucks, sticks, bats and balls – just the two of us.

Some of my earliest sports memories were watching the “Galloping Ghost”, Gale Sayers, run the Wrigley Field gridiron and Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams launch home runs from that same hallowed ground transformed to a diamond. Other icons of my early memories included Bobby Hull, Stan Makita and Tony Esposito, who brought Chicago as close to sports nirvana as my beloved Cubs.

The allure of the world of sports, however, began to unravel not long thereafter. When Wertz terminated the Blackhawks contract with WGN, relegating hockey to the snowy underworld of UHF TV, I was probably 9 or 10. I lost my taste for hockey and never regained it.  I was too young yet to appreciate fully why the Bears home games were not televised. I was very much cognizant; however, of the betrayal I felt when my beloved Cubs traded away Bill Matlock after he won the National League batting crown. The beginning of sports free agency did much damage to my preteen sports psyche. My heroes were not supposed to be traded away like commodities. Worse, they were not supposed abandon my loyalty to the Cubbie Blue. Ken Holtzman, Ron Santo and others followed.

Around the same time, I was introduced to a new sport. The 1972 Olympics in Munich featured what may be the most renowned American freestyle wrestling team our country has known, led by the inimitable Dan Gable. He was a different breed. He won gold without a single point scored against him and was the heart of that Olympic team that took home a many medals.

I became a wrestler that year as a 7th grader. Wrestling was a different kind of sports experience. People did not talk about wrestling. While other sports were all about the communal glory and acclaim of victory, wrestling was grind-it-out hard; no one knew much about it or talked about it; and the victories to be won were as much about overcoming doubts and fears in the heart as about prevailing in competition.

Most teenage boys inevitably find other things that are more alluring than sports as hormones kick in. I was no different. I ran track, played football and baseball, and I wrestled through my teen years, though other things captured my heart. I also abandoning one by one the sports of my youth until only wrestling remained. I carried wrestling into college where academics and other things took on more importance. The ideal of sports gave way to other ideals: the pursuit of knowledge, faith, and a soulmate, among others.

Though it is common for other things to take center stage as life goes on, sports remain a common denominator and topic of discussion and debate for most. It is part of our culture. Sports performances can be ennobling. Who does not remember the inspired performance of the 1980 Olympic Hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union? Michael Jordan’s ability to carry the Bulls to victory on his shoulders and to hit that last jump shot at the buzzer to synch the victory is the stuff of legend. But the luster had long begun to fade for me as I hit adulthood.

It turns out Michael Jordan was human. He gambled. He had a midlife sports crisis. He got divorced. Baseball, football and hockey strikes and lock outs each took their toll. Money has become the heart and soul of professional sports in a way that was not true, or at least not evident, when I was young. Money is a common theme that runs through professional sports, obscene amounts of it. Money dominates talk of college football and college basketball (all wanting a piece of the golden pie). Money, too, it turns out, runs through the veins of the Olympic movement, which seems to have stalled in the sludge of creeping commercialism.

The Olympic ideal began to tarnish with Communist regimes fashioning state sponsored, hand-picked athletes into finally tuned and performance enhanced machines. The fiction of amateur status could not be maintained. The victory of the US hockey team in 1980 was all the more legendary for the fact that the team was amateur David taking on the Soviet Goliath supported by the state. Now any professional can play in the Olympics. The professionals have not only tarnished the shiny Olympic finish, they have cheapened the games. Basketball in the Olympics is just a side show for the NBA. Perhaps the last nail in the coffin for me was the recommendation of the International Olympic Committee to remove wrestling from the Olympics.

For better or worse, money has not tainted wrestling, at least not at its core. There is no money in it.

I do not watch professional sports – at all – anymore. I have not watched a full baseball, football, hockey or basketball game in years with rare exception. I do not go to professional sports events. I have a hard time seeing  past the taint of money and the betrayal of the ideal that once illuminated a young heart and soul.

My sports heroes are, now, my sons who wrestle and their (my) fellow wrestlers. They and their fellow wrestlers (men and women) have my admiration and respect and remind me of what is good and wholesome and inspiring in sports. The hard work and dedication is unparalleled. There is no fame or fortune awaiting them. They do it only for the thrill of victory. They forge their character in the agony of defeat and the countless hours, the blood and the sweat, the focus and commitment it takes to overcome fears, doubts, temptations to take an easier road and all of the obstacles that life can bring to gain the ultimate prize of being, simply, the best of the best.

The glory and acclaim in wrestling is no less communal than professional sports, but it is a small community – more like a sisterhood and brotherhood. It is more like family than community, and it is, perhaps therefore, a stronger tie.

My 24 year old announced in December 2013, after 15+ years of wrestling that he was done. He spent the previous 5 years chasing the Olympic dream, coming within sight of it, yet being just out of its grasp. The injuries demanded their price. The sacrifices no longer made sense. It was not the way he or I hoped it would come to an end, but there is a season for everything under the sun. That season is now over. The journey built deep character and will be cherished.

Just months ago the elite executive board of the International Olympic Committee announced its recommendation to drop wrestling from the Olympics beginning in 2020. It came like a slap in the face. What could be more Olympic  than wrestling? What is more characteristic of the Olympic ideal than the World’s oldest sport? It was not only one of five sports in the ancient Olympics, wrestling was considered chief among them. It was at the foundation of the modern Olympic movement.

The IOC reported through a spokesman that they want to look to the future. Wrestling does not have television appeal.

The IOC seems to want fads, not ideals. Wrestling is apparently is not “sexy” enough, but sexy wears off. True love is not sexy. Ideals do not become obsolete.

For now, wrestling is back in the Olympics. The full IOC voted in September to reinstate wrestling as an Olympic sport. I fear, however, that the future of the Olympics will only be about money, TV ratings and trendy things. The IOC committee recommendation to eliminate wrestling is an omen. We have seen the future, and I do not like it.

The love of sports for me has been a long slow divorce. I will never watch another Olympics without wrestling. For now there is reconciliation, but I fear the Olympics will go the way of hockey and other professional sports have gone for me. I hope that wrestling survives; but if wrestling does not survive, the divorce will be complete.

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