Like most of my friends, growing up I was a dedicated sports fan. Baseball was my favorite sport to watch, collecting baseball cards was a hobby that occupied much of my time, and memorizing player stats took precedence over any subject in school. All that changed the summer between high school graduation and my freshman year at college. The Major League Baseball player strike in 1994 was a watershed moment for me. It gave me a glimpse into the strong focus on money in professional sports. My favorite players went from being heroes to goats, who only cared about another million dollars or a signing bonus and getting their TV revenue share. I tuned out.
It took a few years until I returned to loving professional sports. I came to understand that the players were only fighting for what was rightfully theirs and the greed was part of the culture, mostly perpetuated by the franchise owners and sports agents. Over the years, as my own children have become avid sports fans there is nothing I enjoy more than heading to the ballpark, arena or stadium with them in tow to enjoy another exciting sports event. I now smile widely while watching a game on TV as I listen to my kids talk player stats just as I did with my friends a generation ago.
Nevertheless, I've been very critical of professional sports lately. From football's rampant concussion problem and offseason arrests to players using performance enhancement drugs and being abusive to the women in their lives, there are a lot of reasons to rule pro sports as inappropriate for today's youth. There have been stories of pro athletes making ungodly amounts of money during their playing careers only to file for bankruptcy a few years later. These millionaire sports stars charge their adoring young fans for each autograph and then quickly skip town when another team offers them more money. Fighting between players is no longer unique to hockey games as fights have increased in the NBA and NFL, in addition to more bench-clearing brawls in pro baseball. In my more pessimistic moments, I wonder if there are any role models for our kids in pro sports anymore.
The other night I put aside this pessimism as my eyes opened to some truly amazing stories of humanity in sports. If you want to see what is still great about athletes, just attend a local Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Every state has its own Sports Hall of Fame into which it inducts the top athletes with connections to that state. On Thursday night I had the privilege of watching some truly wonderful sports stars become members of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. The focus was less on their career statistics or accolades as players or coaches and more on how they have given back to society and are leaders with ethics and integrity.
There was no doubt that these men and women will go down in history for their accomplishments on the field, but for those couple of hours as I listened to their philanthropic contributions off the field I felt very confident about the future of sports. In this year's extraordinary class, the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame inducted NY Yankees all-star and Kalamazoo, Michigan native Derek Jeter (he was unable to attend at the last minute and will be formally inducted next year), Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer and University of Michigan standout Barry Larkin, Michigan State University's beloved basketball coach Tom Izzo, Detroit Red Wings great Sergei Federov, Detroit Lions All Pro defensive tackle Doug English, pro-bowler Aleta Sill and four-time Olympian swimmer Sheila Taormina.
These former players, along with Coach Izzo, spoke about the philanthropic foundations they have set up to support the causes that are near and dear to them. (While Jeter wasn't able to be there in person, his own foundation has famously raised close to $20 million to help guide students toward leadership roles and educational opportunities.) These men and women spoke of the sacrifices they made throughout their careers -- often at their family's expense -- and how they always tried to put their fans first. They spoke about how they are fans themselves and never lost sight of how fortunate they were to have the opportunity to play a sport they love for so many years and be compensated well for it.
Coach Izzo, in his always humble manner, talked about how he was only being inducted into the Hall of Fame because of his players. He considers himself more than just a coach, but a mentor to young athletes. As a college coach he has helped prepare several young men for the professional level. The other inductees talked about how they continue to mentor young athletes. Barry Larkin, who has a son playing in the NBA, spoke of how meaningful it is to coach youth baseball and help young boys develop the right attitude as they grow up playing sports. Sergei Federov, now the coach of HC CSKA Moscow (the Red Army hockey club), is also able to give back and train the Russian players who might eventually make it to the NHL just as he did two decades ago as only the second hockey player to defect from the former Soviet Union.
Doug English, like so many other former professional football players, is outspoken about the safety concerns for today's players. It's critical that guys like English aren't pushing the NFL to keep the status quo because that is the game they knew and loved. Rather, they are voicing their distress about the head injuries leading to concussions that result in brain trauma later in a player's life. So many players could be intimidated by the NFL to remain quiet on this very serious issue, but they clearly see that the ethical implications outweigh the league's reputation.
The two women inductees, Aleta Sill and Sheila Taormina, spoke about how important it is for young girls to have strong female role models in professional sports. Each of these women were at the top of their respective field -- Sill was the first female bowler to reach $1 million in prize earnings and Taormina was the first woman to qualify for the Olympics in three different events (swimming, triathlon and modern pentathlon). While bowling and these Olympic events do not get the national TV exposure of the major American professional sports, I thought it was important for the young people in attendance at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony to see that top athletes of these other sports are receiving notoriety on par with baseball, basketball, hockey and football stars.
There is a lot to criticize in sports these days, but if I learned anything from watching these men and women be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame it is that we must judge sports today on the merits of each competitor. For every player who gets arrested in the off season there are dozens who use their own philanthropic foundation to fund youth recreation leagues and pay for sports scholarships.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Detroit last week restored my faith in sports. It showcased the best of each sport and reminded me that there still are sports heroes in our society. I'm glad my children show such an interest in sports, just as I did in my own youth. Each sport has its own kinks to work out -- in the collegiate level too -- but I'm hopeful that improvements will take place in the future. For now, I'll look at athletes and coaches like Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, Tom Izzo, Sergei Federov, Doug English, Aleta Sill and Sheila Taormina for inspiration.