7:00pm

Tue January 17, 2012
Sweetness And Light

Take Your Ball And Go Home? How Dare You!

Originally published on Wed January 18, 2012 5:11 am

Now that Tim Tebow is out of hearts and minds, and we can actually turn our attention to other things, let us go clear to the other side of the world. There, a short while ago, while preparing for the Australian Open, Serena Williams said: "I don't love tennis today, but ... I've actually never liked sports."

While her confession might have surprised some, I suspect that even more were irritated, actually angered, that an athlete — a great champion! — could utter such blasphemy.

We sometimes also hear the sentiment that we'd like to see an athlete quit near the peak of his career, but when Tiki Barber, the running back, did just that a few years ago, he was utterly astonished at the reaction of so many fans. They all but berated him — how dare you leave the game!

It's not just that so many of us love sports so and can't comprehend someone who's in the game not caring for it all that much. Rather, I think, there's a lot of envy involved.

So many people — girls as well as boys now — grow up playing sports and loving them and ultimately failing at them; and so when we see someone who achieved what we couldn't, we're all the more put out if they can blithely turn their back on it.

Why, fans have even been shocked at the recent revelations that several ice hockey goons really didn't enjoy being goons.

Now, when somebody from another glamorous profession — an actor, say, or a model — walks away from success, there isn't the same intensity of either jealousy or bafflement because not so many of us tried to act or model when we were growing up. Ahh, but how many of us kids played sports and dreamed of being a star?

The irony is, in my experience, that for those athletes who do make it to the top, a passion for the game does not necessarily best light that path to glory.

In fact, at the age of 30, Serena is old for a tennis player, and she may still be a contender only because she has not loved tennis so much.

Through the years, it's aggravated a lot of people in her sport when she's appeared cavalier about the very thing that has brought her fame and fortune, but simply because she has been able to distance herself and find other outlets may explain why she's not yet burned out, physically or emotionally.

On the other hand, it's also my experience that a lot of the more restrained athletes who do quit before they are done only find out afterward how much the game really meant to them.

When Tiki Barber wanted desperately to come back after five seasons, nobody wanted him. Youth may be wasted on the young, but in sports, the most telling truth is that youth must not be wasted.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We hear now and again, gifted athletes claiming they don't really care about the very sport they excel in. It's the kind of pronouncement that can really get under the skin of fans.

And commentator Frank Deford thinks he might know why.

FRANK DEFORD: Now that Tim Tebow is out of hearts and minds, and we can actually turn our attention to other things, let us go clear to the other side of the world. There, a short while ago, while preparing for the Australian Open, Serena Williams said: I don't love tennis today, but I've actually never liked sports.

While her confession might have surprised some, I suspect that even more were irritated, actually angered that an athlete - a great champion - could utter such blasphemy.

We sometimes also hear the sentiment expressed that we'd like to see an athlete quit near the peak of his career. But when Tiki Barber, the running back, did that just a few years ago, he was utterly astonished at the reaction of so many fans. They all but berated him: How dare you leave the game.

It's not just that so many of us love sports so and can't comprehend someone who's in the game not caring for it all that much. Rather, I think, there's a lot of envy involved. So many people - girls, as well as boys now - grow up playing sports and loving them and ultimately failing at them. And so, when we see someone who achieved what we couldn't, we're all the more put out if they can blithely turn their back on it.

Why, fans have even been shocked at the recent revelations that several ice hockey goons really didn't enjoy being goons. Now when somebody from another glamorous profession - a model, say, or an actor - walks away from success, there isn't the same intensity of either jealousy or bafflement, because not so many of us tried to act or model when we were growing up. Ah, but how many of us kids played sports and dreamed of being a star?

The irony is, in my experience, that for those athletes who do make it to the top, a passion for the game does not necessarily best light that path to glory. In fact, at the age of 30, Serena is old for a tennis player and she may still be a contender because she has not loved tennis so much.

Through the years, it's aggravated a lot of people in her sport when she's appeared cavalier about the very thing that has brought her fame and fortune, and thus the ability to pursue other interests. But simply because she has been able to distance herself and find other outlets, may explain why she's not yet burned out, physically or emotionally.

On the other hand, it's also my experience that a lot of the more restrained athletes who do quit before they're done, only find out afterwards how much the game really meant to them. When Tiki Barber tried to come back after five seasons, nobody wanted him. Youth may be wasted on the young, but in sports, the most telling truth is that youth is not to be wasted.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday from WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.