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Sports Gone Wild
Part 2: Regaining Proper Perspective


We all need to take a deep breath and remind ourselves that sports do not grant us our identity—personal or national. Sports are, after all, just a game.

You've probably met someone whose life consists of athletics and little else: the former high school star whose conversations rarely venture beyond his glory days; the college athlete who was not quite good enough to turn professional but has no meaningful degree; the ex-pro who spent his way to bankruptcy. They all placed sports above everything else.

Which is the crux of the problem. Not just athletes, but many parents, coaches, fans, and, yes, healthcare professionals have lost perspective on sports. Instead of sports as character-building for life, we have sports building characters who have no life.

Two months ago, I highlighted the pandemic of lax drug policies. Last month, I widened the discussion to sports in general and the mindset that leads to athletes' extreme bad behavior.

I ended last month's column by challenging all of us in sports medicine to question whether we place sports above health. Here are other concrete steps for restoring athletics to its proper place:

•Emphasize, for our patients' sake, the difference between sports and exercise. Sports value winning and dominating, while exercise favors health and enjoyment. Let's underscore the great value of lifelong exercise compared with the trivial value of watching and idolizing pro players.

•Remind patients to keep sports in perspective. Sadly, parents might need to hear this message most. Ask them whether they apply any sports-related pressure to their kids and whether their approval might be conditional to athletic success. Query about nonsports activities that might round out a child.

•For kids elementary school-aged and younger, ask about how they stay active outside of organized sports. How often do they get outside to just play? How much TV do they watch? Encourage an interest in multiple sports and activities.

•For junior high and senior high athletes, the pressure to lose sight of values like sportsmanship and discipline accelerates. Take a moment during preparticipation exams and at other times to talk about the role of sports in their lives. Try to discern if it's disordered. Ask about their role models, and maybe juxtapose that with a hero of your own—like a single mother of four struggling to keep her kids off the streets. Pay attention to students who are no longer "good enough" to make the team: What are they doing to fill their identity void?

•At the college level, be an advocate for the student-athlete in an environment where the push for athletic and coaching success places incredible pressure on promising athletes who are still just big kids but are now living away from home.

•Accept the reality that sports are tainted. But let's not explain away childlike behavior—nor reward it. That might mean ignoring large segments of professional sports. Tell patients to support high school or college sports instead. Or, better yet, encourage them to attend events for the disabled and feel the difference in cheering on athletes who aren't full of themselves.

•Sublimate the "fan" inside us when we're covering a sports event, and focus on medical care.

•Finally, reevaluate our roles as physicians of professional athletes. Let's make sure we can ethically and medically support the policies of sports governing bodies and teams. If not—as I said in January—let's consider seriously whether we should be involved.

And send me your ideas on perspective.

Gordon O. Matheson, MD, PhD

P.S. Many thanks to the deep contributions of executive editor Jim Wappes to this three-part "Gone Wild" series.