With there being an obvious lull in basketball news, I’ve taken the downtime to focus my studies on three subjects that have fascinated me for quite some time, the Black Sox scandal, Greek Mythology, and the World Wars. Yes, a strange combination but one of these spawned the basic premise of an article. Don’t worry, I’m not going to write 1000 words on Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, nor am I going to defend my position that the Black Sox scandal was more a coverup by Comisky than it was players “fixing” the World Series. But my studies over the summer have brought me to a cruel and surprising awakening in regards to athletics today. What ever happened to Soldier-Athletes?
During the two World Wars, sports saw an impressive amount of not just athletes, but stars of the game serve their country in a time of war. Consider the following names and then understand they all served in either the first or second World Wars. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, Joe Dimaggio, Bobby Doerr, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, and Ted Williams. How about the Korean War? Earl Lloyd, Ted Williams (Again), Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, and Eddie Matthews.
Notice something? Other than the fact that the majority of these are baseball players (because the NFL and NBA weren’t completely established enough to have stars of baseballs level at the time) this list includes some of the best that have ever played the game. Many of these athletes halted their career in their prime to serve their country in their countries time of need. Instead of going for ungodly statistics and records, they knew that there was more to life than sports and knew the right thing to do. Think about Ted Williams, yes he is a 500 HR club member and one of the greatest hitters of all time, but how much greater could his legacy have been with a few years of statistics added to the mix? Could he have hit .400 in a season twice? Would he have set unbreakable records? But none of that mattered because Williams understood his country needed him.
Now lets flash forward to the present…. quick name me a legend of sports that is or was serving in the most recent war after their country was attacked on 9/11. Did any superstar give up millions to protect his right to freedom? Yes, lesser known players took the leap, we all know about Pat Tillman and a few others, but where are the players of Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Ted Williams caliber? Where is Lebron James serving on the front line? Derek Jeter serving as a sniper? Or Gunnery Sergeant Peyton Manning? Has money become that strong of an influence that it blinded our athletes today from what is really important? Think of the outrage from Nike (or ESPN) if Lebron James announced in “The Decision” that he was taking his talents to the front line as opposed to South Beach.
The media, sponsors and the leagues themselves have created an environment that discourages athletes from serving in the military as we saw throughout the last century. Positions on the team are no longer promised to those soldiers who are drafted, and once they return from service they are often hard pressed to earn a training camp invite because they feel the player is no longer in “game shape”. Oh the patriotism that we can’t even give our soldiers a chance! The NFL has become so cut-throat that teams have intentionally avoided drafting a player who has considered joining the military despite the flexible rules of the NFL allowing that player to stay on the roster during his service. And most importantly, sponsors have so much control over the every day lives of athletes today that they are often forbidden from participating in regular every day fun and games because the sponsor wouldn’t want their “investment” ruined, never mind what they would do if that athlete put their life on the line in War.
While there is no public outcry at a shortage of soldiers available for the military, it is an alarming trend to see that so many superstars were willing to give up their paycheck, their legacy, the rest of their baseball careers, and quite possibly their lives to serve for their country in the World Wars and Korean Wars, yet today we can’t name a single superstar that has made this sacrifice. For a generation of “me first” athletes, this comes as little surprise, though hardly makes it any less disappointing of a reality.