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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
When tennis star Maria Sharapova was suspended by the International Tennis Federation for doping in 2016, the response from her fellow tennis players was overwhelmingly harsh. Nobody went to bat for her. During the course of her 12-year career, Sharapova had engendered a lot of ill-will from her peers for her abrasive personality, and many were pleased to see her get her comeuppance. The tennis star was adamant that the failed drug test was an oversight, that the substance she had tested positive for had only recently been added to the list of banned drugs, but by and large the tennis world was unforgiving. She had cheated, she had tainted the game, and her fall was well-deserved.
The suspension was probably justified — the ITF ruling was generally accepted by the tennis world — but there's no doubt that schadenfreude played its part, too. People were happy to see her fail. In addition to her success on the courts, Sharapova is also a well-known international celebrity with numerous endorsement deals and a high profile. Tall, blonde, striking, she's had her success with modeling and with Maxim-magazine-esque heavy breathing that celebrates her physical beauty. It's almost inevitable that people would get a charge out of seeing someone so off-putting and beautiful and successful take her lumps.
It's hard to beat her up to much, though — at least for me — when you realize her history. Sharapova and her father moved to the U.S. when she was seven, to further her tennis career. Neither spoke English. Because of visa restrictions, she wasn't able to see her mother for two years. None of this justifies any of her actions twenty years later, of course, but I can't help wondering how hard that must have been for a 7-year old kid, to have to be separated from her mother and her homeland like that. I have to wonder if she was ever able to articulate the question that kept springing to my mind — namely, is it worth it for a kid to be deprived of so much just to pursue that "dream?" Which may not have been her "dream" to begin with?
It's always been a question that's sat uneasily in my head whenever I see a precocious athlete performing on a huge stage, and this year's Olympics only exacerbated that feeling. I enjoyed watching the Games this year, and like most Americans, I rooted for my countrymen to do well, but my enjoyment never totally erased that question from my mind. When you learn about the all-encompassing nature of the commitment that the young athletes have to agree to, it's hard not to question if the moments of triumph on the medal podium are really worth all that sacrifice.
There's no denying that being a parent has ruined a lot of things for me, like the Olympics. I can't help personalizing it; I can't help thinking, whenever I hear stories about 6-year olds going to gymnastics boot camps, man, that could be my daughter there. The notion doesn't fill me with pride, or excitement; more like dead fear, or dread. I can't imagine letting my kid leave the house at such an age, regardless of their burgeoning talent. I'm well aware that as a parent I'm a total sap, that I blubber at the mere thought of my kid enduring estrangement or loneliness, but that doesn't mean I'm not right here. I still maintain a fervent belief that kids should be treated like kids as long as they're kids.
And yeah, I know the millions of examples of kids who make these sacrifices and turn out okay. I'm aware that there are a lot of parents who have a different philosophy than I do, and I'm leery of making any snap judgments against them. I have great empathy for parents; most of them are convinced that they're doing a terrible job. It's striking, whenever you interact with other kids and other parents, how often parents apologize for their kid's behavior. "He's normally much more talkative." "He usually shares, I swear." "I'm sorry, he hasn't had his snack yet." It's like every parent has to apologize for their kids whenever they do something kid-like. And I do it, too; I do it all the time. It's like a compulsion. So I don't want to run parents down, especially when I understand many of their impulses.
But boy, in this era of sports travel teams and endless after-school activities and the absolute dearth of unsupervised time for children, you have to wonder if we're all not dead wrong about this tendency to over-schedule the hell out of kids' lives. I know some 9-year olds who put in as many hours in their day as an on-the-make young lawyer does in a cutthroat practice. This can't be good for kids, can it? I know in some instances this constant activity can help ward off some pernicious social evils but I'm not sure that it has to be the rule. And while there are always studies from sociologists that parents can point to to justify their particular decisions, they're often contradictory--after school activities can enrich many children's mental and physical lives, but unsupervised time is essential, too. It's a tricky thing for all parents to balance.
My initial impulse if a harsh one: no activities for the kids. Ever. I'm serious. Soccer? Forget it. Soccer sucks. Musical theater? Are you kidding? I don't want a bunch of spunky divas on my hands. Chess club? What, are we committed to making nerds here? If left to my own devices I'd probably force my kids into a monastic existence, trapped in their house with their eccentric parents and their bombastic opinions until they turn 18 and can finally, blissfully, escape.
But of course I recognize that not only is this impulse foolish and hard-headed, it's probably destructive as well, so when my daughter timidly asks if she can try out for the soccer team, I'll bite my tongue and say, Certainly. And then I'll brace myself for a dozen Saturday mornings of orange slices and apple juice and those portable fold-up chairs that somehow manage to make your back hurt more than just lying on the sod would. And I'll take my place with all the other fretting, apologetic parents who are quietly hoping that their kid doesn't drop an F-bomb if they miss an open shot. It's the little victories that matter to parents, after all.