Ageism is a serious problem in the United States. Many of our cultural motifs tout the virtues of youth while at the same time portray middle-aged and elderly people as slow-witted, outmoded and unable to adapt to change. These societal attitudes toward aging have real-world consequences; they encourage businesses, government agencies and individuals to provide unequal treatment. In an excellent article from 2004, which is still relevant, the Associated Press describes how these views negatively impact middle-aged Americans, who face discrimination at work and in public. It notes that society often treats seniors even worse by failing to provide them with adequate caregiver attention or via consigning them to nursing homes that offer substandard care. An actor’s remark in a CBS article about Hollywood is indicative of American society as a whole, “Ageism is prevalent in our industry and it’s like a silent killer, like cancer, and it gets worse every year.”
Nowhere is the focus on youth more prevalent than in professional sports. The athletes are the stars of this industry, commanding seven or eight figure salaries and large endorsement deals. They have millions of fans who follow them on the field and on social media sites like Twitter. Just as important, the vast majority of these players are in their twenties and thirties. The physical deterioration that occurs as people age, if only slight, is enough to ensure that even the best athletes are no longer competitive at the highest levels by the time they reach 40. As an ESPN article notes, even 30 is considered old for some sports such as tennis.
Given these conditions, it is inevitable that professional sports, to some extent, will help foster our nation’s youth obsessed culture. However, the sports media does not have any excuse for perpetuating views that demean older Americans. When sportscasters and writers use words like youthful energy, kid, and carefree to describe young athletes and contrast it to older veterans who are ancient, rickety, and over the hill, they help to perpetuate stereotypes that glorify youth while demeaning middle and old age. Their word choices matter, as indicated by the furor that recently erupted around prejudiced comments regarding NBA player, Jeremy Lin.
Even articles that compliment older players often use phrases that reinforce ageist notions. As an example, a July 18, 2009 story by the Associated Press commends Tom Watson for his play at the British Open but nonetheless uses phrases like, “laughing all week, just waiting for the old geezer to collapse.” By contrast, according to an article in Fox Sports, a young star like Cam Newton shows “youthful exuberance,…and the self-confidence that emanates from the pours of his soul.” The authors of these articles are not intentionally trying to spread ageist memes. Nonetheless, those remarks and ones like them, however well meaning, do more than simply denote whether or not a veteran player can still compete professionally or discuss a young athlete’s abilities; they reinforce negative stereotypes of older people.
Every day, sportswriters and commentators reach millions of American homes through their articles and broadcasts. Their voices not only help shape the public discourse on sports, they influence Americans’ opinions on a range of issues, including their views on aging. As such, the sports media should work hard to ensure that they do not unwittingly support ageist views that strip older people of their dignity.