Won't someone think of the children?   

Updated: March 9, 2009

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A children's crusade this week, in which no child is left behind.

When those of us who write or talk about sports for a living trot out the cliché that some professional athlete plays like a little kid out there, what we're usually trying to say is that he or she plays the game with a lot of joy. That they play with the happy abandon of childhood.

Trouble is, happiness isn't the only attribute of childhood.

As adults we tend to remember only the untroubled innocence. The fun. But childhood is actually pretty frightening, a struggle up the ladder of fears and upsets and confusions for which we're born unprepared. We learn our way out of most of our worst behaviors as we grow. We learn not to be afraid of the dark, not to throw tantrums, not to lash out in anger, not to grab or bite or lie, not to pester adults for their attention and not to put just anything we find laying around in our mouths.

Manny Ramirez

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Now that Manny's back in uniform, how long before he needs to be sent to his room without dinner?

Eventually we even learn to share, to ask politely for the things we want and to be gracious if we don't always get them, to overcome our ignorance and to be secure in ourselves and our thoughts and decisions and at ease in our own skins.

Most of us do, anyway.

Others, prominent among us, do not. After last week's tutorial on the matter, delivered by three of America's most gifted athletes, I've come to the conclusion that Terrell Owens, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez are much more childlike in their play than any of us ever suspected. They're like little kids out there! By which I mean they're alternately petulant, selfish, fearful, spoiled, forgetful, insecure, irresponsible, attention-starved and prone to hysterics. When they're not trying too hard, they're not trying at all. They are an absolute laundry list of the least attractive attributes of every child everywhere.

Having watched A-Rod's public performance over the past several weeks, can anyone doubt the depth of his personal uncertainty or the breadth of his need to please others? His need to be liked above all else?

There is something so unfinished about his character as to be disturbing. Every interview seemed to reveal not just his need to say the things he thought others wanted said, but a willingness to let others make every decision for him. To seek the approval of cousins, agents, managers, doctors, reporters on the matters of contrition and steroids and contracts and surgery. The person with the least influence on A-Rod's life is clearly A-Rod himself. In this way, he is never at fault. Deferential to the point of self-destruction, he's an absentee landlord in his own house.

And for the next six to nine weeks, the Yankees and Team Rodriguez and Major League Baseball will bring to bear on A-Rod's fragile hip all the expensive weaponry of Western medicine. For his psychic frailty, however, for his insecurity, for his bottomless self-doubt, for his unformed morality and his spiritual vacuity, they have nothing.

Manny Ramirez is his near-perfect opposite. He neither knows nor cares what anyone thinks of him or his decisions. Or anything else in the world. This might seem admirable if it arose out of mindfulness, out of some deeply held conviction or hard-won state of spiritual satori. Rather, it seems to arise out of a child's fuguelike cluelessness. Imagine trying to call little Manny back into the house for dinner 25 years ago. You'd still be standing there. Literally carefree, Mr. Ramirez is oblivious to everything in the world but himself. A savant with a bat, he too is never at fault.

Thus his limitless self-absorption is the comic counterpoint to A-Rod's tragic absence of any self at all.

Terrell Owens somehow manages to synthesize both these opposing liabilities into one big tangle of neuroses. He can neither live without your attention nor stand for your scrutiny.

Somehow, having now touched all four points of the compass north, south, east and west, Owens remains completely directionless.

Set aside for the moment all the hackneyed oratory and manufactured outrage about locker room cancers and news conference prima donnas, and think about Mr. Owens' root problem: At every station along his trail of tears, he drives away the very people he needs most: quarterbacks. This seems in a wide receiver a personality defect worth exploring.

Instead, the press will cover with great care and deliberation whether T.O. prefers to eat his wings at Duff's or the Anchor, and Drew Rosenhaus -- who looks more like a carny on the lam from a rural justice of the peace with every television appearance -- will simply tell us it's not T.O.'s fault.

For its part, the NFL will restate the manly value of "mental toughness," by which it means "keep your mouth shut." Because in professional sports any deviation from the norm in the mind or the spirit is a terrifying weakness, an embarrassing and incurable infirmity.

Football, like America, does not thrive on emotional complexity. We are a nation in thrall to spectacle and cheap sentiment, and the NFL, like Hollywood, delivers on both counts.

And what of me and my colleagues up here in the press box? Well, in much the same way that Rush Limbaugh hopes the new administration fails -- because it keeps him in business to say so -- sports writers have a vested interest in bad outcomes for players like A-Rod and Manny and T.O. There's no malice in it, really, but as a narrative matter, success isn't as interesting. And good news doesn't sell papers. Failure, on the other hand, makes for great reading, and the noisy personal collapse of the famous is always brisk business.

The dissonance in all this is that in the moral vacuum of professional sports we treat our athletes like children -- then punish them for behaving like children. They're like little kids out there!

If this seems only another indictment of the world of the coddled jock, of the witless superstar insulated from reality, of the vapid action hero finally paying the price for his epic narcissism, think again.

Because T.O. and A-Rod and Manny live in the same fantasyland of unearned privilege and unreal expectation every one of us has inhabited for a very long time. This is the same America of shameless appetite and instant reward, of limitless self-pity and bottomless selfishness, of aggressive impulse and monumental entitlement, of loud opinion and ignorant vanity and ethical bankruptcy that we've all been busy building. This is our no-fault America, the America of perpetual adolescence.

It is a place without consequence or cost, a place without a care for the future or a worry for the past. It is an America of the bright, eternal present, where cause and effect are suspended in favor of a walk through the mall, an empty head and an interest-only balloon mortgage.

This is the America currently collapsing around us.

This is the America we inherit from ourselves, a nation of children.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.


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