The average annual salary of an MLB player is $4.41 million. The average salary in the NFL is $2.7 million. A PGA Tour player makes on average about $1.48 million per year. The salary of NBA star Stephen Curry is $48 million. You can buy a lot of sneakers with $48 million, but he undoubtedly gets sneakers for free anyway. The world values, admires and adores professional athletes, but the question is why.
Indeed, these athletes provide the viewer with excitement as they compete and provide “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” but I think there is much more going on in the fan then being plugged into the thrill of it all. I am employed as a sport psychologist and so I am the envy of many a sports fan, given the fact that I have an inside the ropes glimpse into the mind of the athlete.
I am often asked by friends, sports fans or media people exactly what I do with the athlete and what areas we work on. Here is a hint. One of the basic questions that I am asked by athletes who come to my office is how do they reacquire that fun, playful and enjoyable aspect of their game? Our work is often geared toward helping them to relearn the ability to relax, have fun and become creative once again.
It may seem ironic, but I think the reason that athletes are envied, admired and paid so well is because they have chosen an occupation that is fun to do. Every kid in America loves to play touch football, stickball or stoopball. But soon enough we all grow up, lose the ability to have fun and enter the rat race of life. Goodbye to fun. And so our last American hero, our “Captain America,” is the athlete because they are the ones that held to the idea that life ought to be filled with leisure, fun, creativity, magic, excitement, imagination and joy.
That is one of the primary reasons that the fan goes to see sporting events or watches them so voraciously on TV. It was just last week that the world watched the Super Bowl and soon enough we will be turning our expectant and hopeful eyes toward opening day in MLB and The Masters in golf. It is as if unconsciously we are saying “well, I may not be able to play and have fun anymore, but at least it’s good to know that some adults out there are still embracing the concept that spirit, fun and meaning exist.” One of the great challenges in adulthood is how to still have fun, play and create without the aid of alcohol or pot.
One of the greatest symbols of play and growth seen in the cinema was when Stanley Kubrick converted the Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” into the epic science fiction film “2001, A Space Odyssey.” The opening scene was set in prehistoric times on a savannah in Africa. A clan of apes was barely surviving by eating shrubs and avoiding hungry lions. One morning a large black monolith appears which confuses and excites the apes, and one goes up to it and after hesitating he touches it.
The next scene takes place later that day when the ape who touched the monolith is playing with some bones and as he holds one bone and begins to hit some other bones with it, he suddenly realizes that this will make a very good weapon to kill things with. Thus, the beginning of mankind occurs, all based upon the ability to “play” with a bone.
I can recall listening to a radio review of this film when it first came out in 1968 and the way the reviewer ridiculed the use of this monolith as “a meaningless incomprehensible object.” The reviewer should not be blamed for this since it has taken me 57 years to finally figure it out. Clarke was exploring the way men need to become playful and creative to become a human and to grow.
Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote the classic text on the value of play, but it was the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who explained why the ability to play and be creative was crucial to live a mature meaningful life. Winnicott also developed concepts such as false self/true self, transitional objects and how playfulness must be learned in psychotherapy if the patient was to grow beyond neurosis and mental illness.
Play and fun are key aspects of good therapy and also one of the primary reasons that fans watch athletes and why athletes are paid so much. Former NBA player Charles Barkley was wrong when he said, “Athletes are not role models.” Athletes, as well as artists and actors, are cultural role models in the very best sense of the word. They are modeling what it’s like to live a life of full of fun and freedom. Every fan who loves the game of sports is in some way trying to relearn what it’s like to be a kid again and have fun. Winnicott called this process “being in the potential space.” The potential space is where the child or the adult is relaxing, being creative, finding their true self and their reason for being.
The Nike slogan “Just do it” was incorrect. It should have been “Have some fun.” If you can relearn that childlike ability to have fun, you are on your way to living a good life. I recall my wife once talking about Pablo Picasso and she said, “Picasso’s greatest secret was that he never forgot how to play and have fun.” And so it was with Tiger Woods, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Mohammed Ali. They all stayed young at heart and that’s one thing we can learn from them.