I was recently in a middle class neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. I counted at least five basketball hoops in front yards, yet on a nice sunny day not a single basket was being shot. Instead eight boys between the ages of five and 15 were doing jumps off of a make shift ramp. They were on BMX bikes, skateboards and scooters. They were doing jumps and tricks, simpler forms of the tricks showcased on ESPN2.
When I was a kid we loved to go outside and play sports. We'd play baseball, basketball or football. Sometimes we couldn't get enough guys together and we'd play Horse, whiffle ball or just kick field goals. We dreamed of being the next George Brett or Michael Jordan, not the next Tony Hawk.
Walk into a toy store today and you'll be hard pressed to find a whiffle ball. You can find all manner of skates, skateboards and scooters. The tried and true yellow whiffle ball bat with the pebbled handle is a relic, but I can buy miniature pro BMX action figures, with tiny, little metal bikes.
Nerf footballs are hard to find, and the Nerf soccer ball is a thing of the past. Instead Nerf makes missile launchers, crossbows and Gatling guns. Back yard war is more popular than back yard football games.
Don't get me wrong, I love to rollerblade. I play roller hockey and used to skate to classes at the U of A. However, I'd rather shoot hoops than go skating any day.
Today the sports we all love to watch look decidedly different. The Latin invasion in baseball and the European influx in basketball can be, at least in part, traced to a lack of American athletes. Although a number of other factors are also responsible, there is no doubt that less Americans are competing in the three major sports.
Baseball is nearly a dead sport in the inner city and is struggling in the suburbs. With basketball seen as a ticket out of the ghetto and football still offering 85 scholarships, baseball is a sport that is seeing almost no participation by inner city youths. To make up for it, teams are scouring Latin America for the next wave of talent.
It's not much better in the suburbs. With baseball scholarships limited, the incentive to play America's game seems to be diminishing. Why fight for 3/7th of a baseball scholarship when you can have one of 85 football scholarships.
What is funny to me is what ESPN bills as a sport, my friends and I called a dare. When we'd jump our bikes it was a test of courage. Now it's a prime time sport. The guy who is now the star of the X-Games, used to be the guy who'd do anything for a dollar. At lunch he'd eat the mystery meat and in the afternoon he's riding his bike off the roof into a swimming pool.
Little League participation is down, while AYSO, Pop Warner and AAU Basketball seem to be thriving. Finding a place to play baseball can be tough. Soccer fields are replacing baseball diamonds and it is always much easier to set up a plywood ramp than it is to find enough guys to play a game of baseball.
It doesn't help that it's also a sign of rebellion. Why should a junior high school boy play catch with his dad, when he can tick him off by skateboarding in the front yard? Why work your tail off at football practice, when you can race dirt bikes at your own leisure. Isn't it more fun grinding curbs with your friends, than getting yelled at by a coach with a crew cut and whistle? Kids today don't listen to mom and dad, why should they listen to a coach who's played the game?
Thanks to Tiger Woods, more kids are going to the driving range with their moms and dads than the batting cages. Thanks to ESPN, kids are watching Tony Hawk attempt a 720 instead of Sammy and Barry trying to hit 70.
When we were kids me and my friends would fight over who got to be Dr. J or Larry Bird. Today a Play Station lets you become any player you want. Can't picture the backyard as Fenway? No problem, the Xbox makes your television any stadium ever conceived. As a kid we played Atari. The little box shaped men looked nothing like the heroes we watched on television. Now video games scan in the player's actual faces and emulates their actual movements.
Our best athletes will always be drawn to sports. Kids will always emulate sports heroes. Now however, there are more sports to choose from. In-line skating is more popular than running. Tony Hawk sells more merchandise than Kobe Bryant. This century is going to see more new sports develop as technology and tastes change. Next time you can't pronounce the name of the Eastern European forward for your favorite NBA team, buy your child a new basketball, not a pair of roller blades.
The fact is the next great quarterback or shooting guard may instead be skating the half pipe or riding freestyle BMX.
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