By John Krull
John Krull, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Long ago, when I first started in the newspaper business, my friends and I on the news side gave the sports reporters a hard time.
We said those guys – and, at that time, they were mostly guys – didn’t cover anything that really mattered, but spent all their time on fun and games. We called them “the toy department.”
I thought about those teasing conversations when I talked with Tamika Catchings on “No Limits,” the radio show I host.
Catchings now is a huge success story.
The backbone of the world champion Indiana Fever, a former Women’s National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player, a collegiate national champion and a player selected as one of the 15 best in the WNBA’s history, Catchings is on her way to the Basketball Hall of Fame. When it comes to hoops, there are few mountains she hasn’t climbed.
A listener, though, asked about how she had overcome disability and hardship to become a champion.
And, in answering the question, the girl that Catchings describes bears little resemblance to the woman – the champion – I see sitting before me. From the way Catchings talks, though, I know that that little girl is still there within that champion’s skin.
Catchings says that she wore hearing aids when she was young. She had braces, too. Pigtails, even.
“I got picked on. I got made fun of,” she says. “A lot.”
Playing sports gave her a way to cope.
The other kids, she says, might be able to make fun of her at school or in the neighborhood, but not on the court. Sports gave her confidence. Sports gave her drive. Sports gave her purpose.
Even now, after all the success, part of what drives her in basketball is that time when she was a little girl other kids made fun of. She says she plays as hard as she does in part because she knows that other children – other little girls – are watching her and that she wants to show them that there is a way for them to stand up. There is a way for them to show that they don’t have to accept being denigrated.
Being picked on.
Moved by her story, I ask her whether she considers herself a role model, given that many sports stars – Charles Barkley being the most visible example – have rejected that responsibility.
Catchings’ answer comes without pause.
“Yes,” she says. “I am a role model.”
She says that playing professional sports is a huge opportunity – a “blessing,” she calls it. She knows, she says, that there are boys and girls out there who admire her, who watch her every move, who look for her to set an example.
And she doesn’t want to fail them.
She wants to show them that, however lonely or disregarded they feel, there is a path to success. To happiness.
As I listen to Catchings, I realize I’m hearing something relatively rare in today’s world. I’m hearing a success story, a celebrity, speak not just of opportunity and entitlement, but also of duty and responsibility. I’m hearing a champion acknowledge that great success brings with it obligations.
I’m hearing a sports star say that she owes something to the world around her.
I’m now the father of a daughter and a son. In different ways, each of my children has taken solace in sports. By playing games, each child has developed a greater sense of confidence – has discovered resources of commitment, of sacrifice and of leadership in herself or himself that neither knew existed before they took to the field or court.
Both my daughter and my son have sports heroes they admire.
As a father, I am grateful beyond words that Tamika Catchings realizes what a profound responsibility that is.
Years ago, my colleagues in the newsroom and I made fun of sports reporters. We said they didn’t cover anything that mattered. We called them “the toy department.”
Tamika Catchings has shown me how wrong we were to think that – to dismiss sports as trivial.
After all this time, I hope that she and those old sports reporters will accept my apology.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.