Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Remembering Amateurism: Jenny Finch Retires

Jenny Finch dominated college softball. She pitched Arizona to a national championship, helped bring home Olympic gold and silver medals to the USA and spent the last eight years a vagabond carving out a life in the sport she loved. She ended helping the US win the World Championships this week. The Olympics, under pressure from Europe, banished softball  undercutting the infrastructure that kept softball athletes alive and competitive. With no real pro league, sporadic national and international events, softball players have no where to go. Jenny Finch is retiring at the age of 30.

I have been privileged to watch a magnificent softball athlete play for UW, Danielle Lawrie. She lead UW to a national title, played on Canada's Olympic team, won national player of the year twice and will graduate next year with a very uncertain sports future.

I cite these wondrous softball players as examples of true amateurs. Being an amateur is a way of being in athletics, not a legal category about whether you are "paid" for performance. These athletes do not play to get rich; they need money to live but live to play.

Like Finch they scramble around to get sponsors, find jobs  and lives that permit them to practice and compete. They have no guaranteed contracts, no high powered leagues, no unions and at best may make expenses or a reasonable living to compete, not be wealthy.

Most athletes who don't play in the pot of gold sports like football or basketball live as amateurs. All women athletes live in this older world not so riven by mercenary motives, but still driven by glory, achievement and love of the game. Finch could still say "I am still having fun," the day she retires.

Amateur derives from the Latin "amo"- to love. As a noun it literally means a lover--a lover of the game, the sport. Love complicates things. Lovers do irrational things because their relation to the sport brings them joy. Athletes love playing and competing in their sport.

Loving a sport brings joy and  satisfaction. Lovers work on what they love and love motivates them to get better. Love can grow into a compulsion if its desire consumes a person. Being in love can also be tortured, and more than a few athletes live out a tortured relation to their skills and achievements, loving and hating what they are driven to do. The love can also make it hard for them to carve out personal lives given how consuming their passion for their sport can be; it's hard to make room for two loves.

But love does not have to be tortured. Love can be fun and joyous, and great amateur athletes usually stay for the love and joy, not the torture. Love also brings heartache. If you are doing what you love and fail, it hurts all the more. It brings a pain of loss and failure far deeper than if you were just doing your job. Love also provides a wellspring to renew and recover. At the winter Olympics athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Askel Svindel demonstrated the will and strength to come back from body and career destroying injuries just to compete and win, not just bring home a paycheck.

This is why amateurs represent an old and deep ideal of sport. Athletes achieve from love, not just mercenary motives. Love and money are not incompatible.  Ancient Olympic, Chinese and Indian athletes fought for glory and prizes. They were well recompensed for their achievements in honor of their city, country or Lord. College sports and the world of national competitions creates an in between world of support but not riches for athletes. In college sport athletes receive education to last them after sport leaves their lives. They receive a community, travel and play and medical care and support and facilities. But not riches.

Money sustains love of sport because athletes need time to train and live.It enables athletes to raise families and have a life. Money matters because  athletic excellence flames for a brief moment of  supreme achievement then dampens from age. In the pot of gold sorts, money can become riches, but the riches themselves are fraught. Almost 60 percent of pro football players leave bankrupt after five years of their career.

Love sustains better than money. You can feel a job athlete a mile away, actually the entire NBA season feels that way. No joy, no love, more charade than sport.

Love moves us to do strange and wondrous things. Love fuses with athletic aspiration to drive millions of players to play at all levels of sport. It permeates club games (leaving aside AAU basketball) and can be found on courts and fields all over the world. Yeah, there are always yahoos who play only to prove their dominance. But it begins and endures with  the deeper love of game, love of skill and love of being with comrades.

Love is not enough. We all know that. Athletes need to train, live and many choose to have families and still try and hold it together. They need sustenance for this. Ironically the fact that most sports are not pot of gold sports keeps love alive.

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