The impact of professional sports on society

So I just got done watching Trophy Kids, a documentary about overzealous parents who want their kids to become professional athletes. These parents are accurately dubbed in an IMDB review ‘some of the worst parents in America’. It’s painful to watch this documentary as these insensitive parents pressure their kids to sacrifice their childhood and practice a sport the kids don’t even seem to enjoy. The sad thing about this is these parents weren’t capable to achieving their goals, so they try to achieve their dreams through their kids. It’s is cringeworthy and uncomfortable to watch as these parents berate their kids and push them to their limits for the gratification of saying they’re the mom/dad of a professional athlete. 

Beyond this, the chances of making it as a professional athlete are very, very low. If you’re a US high school athlete, here are the odds of turning pro for the following sports:

  • Football: 0.02%
  • Men’s Basketball: 0.008%
  • Women’s Basketball: 0.007%
  • Men’s Soccer: 0.017%

(Source: Student-Athlete to Professional Athlete: Confronting the Brutal Facts).

Coupled with this near impossible task of becoming a pro athlete, why does professional sport grip us so much? Money and fame, perhaps? Sports teams in and of themselves are multi-billion dollar businesses. The Dallas Cowboys are worth $6.5 billion. The New York Knicks are worth $5.8 billion. The best athletes are insanely rich. But at what cost?

I love my sports but then I watch something like Netflix’s The Figo Affair: The Transfer that Changed Football. How does it get to a point where fans break down into tears when their team wins? Where did the visceral hate come from when Figo left FC Barcelona for their rivals Real Madrid? At the end of the day, they are people kicking a ball into a net; making me wonder if professional sports has too much of a grip on our society.

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September 22, 2022 10:53 am

People love sports. Like really, really love sports. Obsession would be a more accurate word. Everyone has either been involved in or witnessed incessant arguments about which teams or players are better. Manchester United is better than Liverpool! Wilt Chamberlain is the GOAT, not Jordan. Serena is the best tennis player of all time, no one else comes close. And the debates rage on.

The debates about professional athlete compensation is contentious. It’s mind blowing to learn how much some of these players earn every week. At one point Cristiano Ronaldo was earning $540,000 per week at Manchester United. LeBron James pocketed $790,000 per week as part of his contract extension with the LA Lakers. You’re already incredibly rich in the top 1% if you bring in this much a year, but every week?!?

It all comes down to simple economics. Supply and demand. As you’ve rightly pointed out, the chances of becoming a professional sportsperson and reaching the elite of your sport is very slim. An enormous, never-ending uphill climb. You better be sure that you’ve won the genetic lottery and have a relentless work ethic. But even that’s not enough.

Take someone like Michael Jordan. I know that even if I had his physical attributes, skills and work ethic, which are a once-in-a-generation combination, I still wouldn’t have achieved what he did. Why? Because I don’t mind losing. It’s really no big deal to me. I tend to be blasé about it. Jordan on the other hand HATED losing. His life revolved around winning. That was all that mattered to him. His competitiveness was unparalleled. Jordan’s mindset rocketed him to be the best basketball player of all time, and the relentless desire to win meant that although he was the best player ever, he wasn’t a particularly nice person to be around. Punching his own Chicago Bulls teammate Steve Kerr in the face during a practice session gives you an idea of what he was like.

Take all of Jordan’s physical attributes, unparalleled ability and unheard of mentality to win, and you have someone who comes around once in a lifetime. Supply of athletes like this are exceptionally limited. Few people in professional sports can be named alongside him. Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams. A miniscule list. When you have such a limited supply of these athletes, they command a high price. All of the aforementioned athletes are multi-millionaires because their ability is in very short supply. Couple that with the obsession society has with sports, and money is quite literally thrown at them.

Michael Jordan.jpg
Aaron Seleka
September 21, 2022 9:17 pm

Interesting that you say professional sports creates division. I would say it also brings about unity. When the Springboks, South African rugby team won the Rugby World Cup in 2019, a lot of people in traditional and social media kept saying things like, “A win unites a country.” There was a lot of happiness in my neighbourhood after the win with people honking their car horns, waving flags and dancing around on street corners. You could say we were united with national pride for a brief moment.

We have an interesting case in South Africa, with the performance of our Olympic Gold medal athlete Caster Semenya. If you know anything about her story, she has been a dominant female track athlete in recent years, winning Olympic Golds and World Championships in the 800 meters. But she was found to have high levels of testosterone, which suggested an inter-sex condition. Her fight against World Athletics, formerly IAAF, continues to this day to allow her to compete.

What we found was because of nationalistic pride, we as South Africans rejected every adverse IAAF finding, even if we did not understand the science. We supported her heavily, she was well-endorsed by local brands and is held up as a positive role model for girls everywhere. I know that athletes and fans from other countries celebrated her ban from competition unless she was administered testosterone suppression medication, but we supported her in defiance of this.

And spot on about the fame and money. Football, or soccer, is South Africa’s most popular sport by fan engagement and team following. Although we are probably well known for rugby and cricket. Rugby and cricket are followed more by the middle to upper classes as they are played at expensive schools and in the case of cricket, lots of equipment is required. Having said that, both rugby and cricket are being made more popular by their governing bodies and there is real penetration into poor schools and areas. Football is hugely popular but the national team, Bafana Bafana (The Boys) are just not that good. Even by African standards, we are often beaten by our West and North African brothers and sisters during tournaments or tournament qualification. So when we have a successful sportsperson, we like getting behind them. When a rally driver named Giniel de Villiers did well at the Dakar rally, his national profile rose quite high. We even had a BMX rider getting all sorts of endorsements not too long ago. That can happen with any successful sportsperson in our country.

Parag Khanna
September 24, 2022 1:15 pm

I think professional sports is a huge part of society because we’re watching the best of the best. There’s the odd joker who thinks, “That stuff is easy. I could do that, I just don’t want to”, as they recline on their couch chomping on potato chips. The rest of us know we’re watching something special, something unique. As weekend warriors we may play a bit of sport on the weekends. We are well aware that our efforts pale in comparison to the professionals. Unless you’re that joker I mentioned. Don’t know what I’m referring to? Do a search for “bully walks into MMA gym and challenges pro fighters”. Always a good laugh to see bullies get humbled.

Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I think that’s true the majority of the time. But then again there are people with God-given talents who are on another level from the start. That’s why professional sports captivates us. It’s the equivalent to watching a circus show.

Dennis Rodman is one of the best defensive basketball players of all time and 5x NBA champion. During the 97-98 season he was skipping practice with the Chicago Bulls to train professional wrestling with Hulk Hogan at WCW!

Jay Cutler is a former professional bodybuilder and 4x Mr Olympia. The first time he stepped into a gym he benched over 300 lbs! How many people can say they have done this?

Shelton Benjamin is a professional wrestler who got his first push with WWE in the early/mid 2000s. He was and still is a lean 6’2 240 lbs. He must work hard for that physique. Not exactly. He confirmed the rumors during an interview when he said he doesn’t work out. At all. Most people if they ever reach those stats have to work out and eat right for years. Benjamin ate whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted and didn’t train.

There’s something addictive about watching these genetic specimens, which are concentrated in the world of professional sports.

Jason Ng
September 23, 2022 10:40 am

The International Olympic Committee frequently talks about the “unifying power of sports” and “bringing the world together in peaceful competition”. In my experience sport is a positive thing but it can also bring out the worst in people, even when they’re not competing. I’ve seen Trophy Kids, an infuriating watch. It could accurately be renamed “How NOT to be a parent”.

Sport does something to people, especially a popular sport like football. A while back I joined a social football league to meet new people and get a bit of exercise. I was baffled at the way people I didn’t even know, people on my own team were shouting at me, berating me for making a mistake. It was confusing. I thought this was a social league! When I signed up there was a clear choice between a social or competitive league, so why people were shouting like their life depended on it was straight up weird. Maybe it’s the bandwagon effect. Players see one guy taking things too seriously, so they do the same. Before you know it everyone on the pitch is treating the game like some kind of war. I maintain that sport is a good thing but for some personality types it does more harm than good. It takes their latent aggression and multiplies it by 10 when they compete.

Paulina Klaman
September 25, 2022 4:28 pm

Sport is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. It entrances us. When we watch a team we love, we are right there on the pitch, court, field with them. When they win, we are elated. When they lose, we are devastated. Sport is intrinsically connected to our emotions and lets us express our vices and desires. Panic, elation, domination, violence, destruction. Sport has it all. Unsurprisingly the protagonists of sport, the best athletes in the world, are celebrities. Many look up to them and want to emulate them.

This was true of Leonidas of Rhodes, a multiple time winner of Ancient Olympic Games that turned him into the premier celebrity of his time. He would have been the Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan of his time. Leonidas earned 12 victories in 4 separate Olympiads between 164 BCE and 152 BCE. It is a testament to his achievement that we know of him more than 2,000 years after his victories.

Things are no different today. The most followed user on Instagram isn’t a singer, actor or model. It is a football player, Cristiano Ronaldo. The highest paid athletes in the world Lionel Messi and LeBron James are each earning over $100 million annually, with a large chunk coming from endorsements. Our obsession with sports and sportspeople has a long history going back thousands of years. But just as much as we favor the sporting greats, their star can fall. Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong are notorious for their cheating scandals. Society loves winners but doesn’t tolerate cheaters. One day they are shaking hands with the President of their country, the next day they are dropped by their sponsors and ostracized. There is no middle lane in sports.

Ancient Olympic Games.PNG
Ernest Vicente
September 25, 2022 11:39 am

I guess it goes without saying but overzealous parents as you put it are massively counterproductive to an athlete’s success. Giving them a boost of motivation and encouragement when they need it is one thing. Helicopter-parenting, pushing them beyond their limits and worst of all, living through your athlete-kid will eventually make them crash.

Teofimo Lopez is a professional boxer whose dad is a prime example of living through his kid. He’s developed a reputation as being a bit of a joke that’s harming his son’s career, not helping it. When Teo beat Vasiliy Lomachenko, at the time considered the number 1 pound-for-pound boxer in the world, Teo let it get to his head. This is the takeover, I’m the best boxer in the world; we heard it a million times in every interview.

Teo’s dad should have been there to keep him grounded. There’s a saying in combat sports, you’re only as good as your last fight. But instead of keeping Teo’s ego in check, his dad’s ego ballooned. In every interview you heard him saying we won the fight, speaking as if it was actually him in the ring who fought Lomachenko.

When it came time for Teo to fight George Kambosos Jr, there way no change. He lost his cool during the pre-fight press conference and in his interviews he stuck with the ‘we’ terminology. We gonna show the fans what we all about. Before the fight he already started calling out Teo’s next opponents: We want you next, we want you bad! He became so deluded that he said he’d stop training his son if he didn’t take out Kambosos within 3 rounds. This is a counterproductive statement on so many levels, least of which it put pressure on his son to go for an early knockout.

Those who watched the fight know how that turned out. Teo went in heavy handed and got dropped himself in the 1st round. Rather than controlling his son’s emotions, he stirred them up and got wrapped up in the hype. The fight was a clear victory for Kambosos but the Takeover had a meltdown in the ring afterwards, deludedly claiming that he won the fight. His dad is meant to help Teo navigate his career and control the hype. Instead by living through his son, he’s doing the exact opposite.

Jenna T
September 26, 2022 9:32 am

I visited Cuba in 2015 and one of my most distinct memories was walking with a tour group in Havana as we walked past a main square. There were 2 crowds of people, agitated, boisterous and pointing fingers at each other. Observing their raised voices and aggressive gestures, I wondered what their dispute was about. Land? Maybe politics? As I took in the scene around me I also noticed that everyone else in the square was going about their day, reading books, sitting in the sun, enjoying their walks. They weren’t paying any attention to the volcano about to erupt.

I apprehensively asked the tour leader if we should change direction to avoid the crowds. He laughed, brushed it off and said this happens all the time. Crowds meet in the square to argue about which baseball team is better. 😳

They were arguing about baseball? That’s when I got a glimpse of how important sport is to people.