Leo Morris: A gymnast shows us the way

Thank you, Simone Biles, for pulling me out of the funk I’d talked myself into over sports.

On my best days I am ambivalent about athletes. I respect their prowess but resent them for my own physical shortcomings. I admire them for the loyalty they inspire among fans but hate the shallowness and casual arrogance they sometimes exhibit.

Just like I’m still in high school, in other words. We all resented them back then — called them jocks and cast doubt on their mental acumen. But it was our devotion to their teams that made them the stars all the cool kids wanted to hang out with.

My funk started earlier this week when I read that minor league baseball was asking for millions of dollars in COVID relief funds to make up for the lost 2021 season. My thoughts naturally turned to the Fort Wayne TinCaps and Parkview Field.

And it annoyed me to no end.

Officials tore down a perfectly good baseball stadium that had just been paid for so they could build a new stadium with mostly public funds. Now those who profit most from the stadium — not Fort Wayne taxpayers — have hit a rough patch and are crying for federal funds.

I could probably have rebounded from that quickly enough. The baseball team is a well-run outfit, and Parkview Field turned out to be a gem that arguably helped turned downtown Fort Wayne around. And it’s not just been for baseball — I had a lovely time there one evening for a Bob Dylan concert.

But once on that track, my mind then turned to all the other evidence that sports today have taken a dark turn.

Like the big cities that have poured hundreds of millions in public funds to build stadiums so pickpocketed fans can have the privilege of buying $10 beer and $5 hot dogs. Yes, looking at you, Indianapolis. Parkview Field’s public footprint is chicken feed.

Like the obscene salaries. The top 10 pro athletes earned more than $1 billion in 2020. Yes, I should be libertarian here and acknowledge that they deserve whatever the teams are willing to pay. But when I do the math and realize that quarterback Patrick Mahomes gets more for playing one game — a few hours on a Sunday afternoon — than I made in my whole career as a lowly journalist — it’s hard to maintain perspective.

Like the fact that Indiana, after the advent of online gambling, is among the strongest markets in the U.S. for sports betting. Hoosiers bet a whopping $254 million on sports in May of this year alone.

Like the NIL — name, image and likeness — standards all colleges will soon have allowing the athletes who make billions for their schools to start cashing in themselves. Surely, we can finally dispense with all pretense that we’re dealing with “amateur athletics” here.

And on and on and on, a dismal picture when contrasted with the reality that the value of athletics is not trickling down to where it would do the most good. A 2019 report from the World Health Organization notes that 80% of children aged 11-17 aren’t as physically active as they should be. The average child spends fewer than three years playing sports, quitting by age 11.

But then on Sunday, I watched reports of Richard Branson’s remarkable trip to the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic spaceship. He talked about his trip being a dream he had nurtured for decades, which he kept pursuing despite the setbacks and heartaches on the way.

But the fact that his vision and determination were taking us to our next step in space was lost on some of the commentators, who seemed determined to miss the point. This is just a race among billionaires in an age of great income inequality. Where will the benefit to ordinary people be — are we going to get something like Teflon out of this? Little minds trying to cope with a momentous event.

And that made me think of Simone Biles. (Come on, you knew I’d get there eventually.)

Branson’s attitude was the same I had heard expressed more directly by Biles.

Her routines are so physically spectacular that awe-inspiring doesn’t begin to describe them. One of her moves is so demanding that other women won’t even attempt it, and those who judge gymnastics are reluctant to score it properly lest they encourage others to recklessly court danger.

I saw an interview where she was asked why she kept pushing herself, even into doing routines that might not be officially recognized.

And she said just three words: “Because I can.”

She does what she can because she believes she can. And that’s why Richard Branson does what he does. He believes he can do it, so he does it.

We need people like them to inspire us to believe we can also do a little more than we think we can.

We need them so much we should forgive one of them for having a few more billion than we think he should have, and the other one for coming up from a sports world that seems to have taken a wrong turn.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].