I was captivated, not merely by the playing of the games, but also by the aura attached to them. By the sense that they meant something incredibly important. So, in the course of my play, in addition to trying to put the ball in the basket, or complete the touchdown pass, I would also high five fans and teammates, and answer question from the press.
These fantasies of athletic success are still with me. They linger in the recreational sports I play, infusing them with meaning and value, fuelling my lust for competition and validating the significance of my occasional victories.
Much like LeBron James, Crosby was anointed as the chosen one while he was still a teenager. He was seemingly predestined to be one of the great athletes of his time. And he, like James, fulfilled that promise. He was (and is) beloved by fans and, no doubt, bolstered by their love.
But, as often happens in sporting life, he got hurt. And he missed time: 102 games. His injury was not to his arms or legs or chest; it was to his head. Specifically, to his brain.
The problem for Crosby, I imagine (because, of course, this is only my own personal reading of Crosby's dilemma), is that the repeated blows he suffered are not the only way in which he has been hurt. If it was, basic logic would dictate that he never play hockey again. He is an exceptionally wealthy young man who has already accomplished much in his field. The possibility still exists for him to have a fulfilling life, free of significant risk.
My fear is that Crosby was a little boy like me. He played because he loved to and because sports seemed to matter. And, as he kept playing, he found that it did matter. That people loved him because of how he played. That he was as important as he imagined he deserved to be. When he was injured, that went away. Not immediately, but slowly, and steadily. Those desperate for his return, originally so distraught at his absence, began to look elsewhere for heroes. And others stepped forward to take his place. Sports Illustrated, for instance, recently declared, "Long one of the NHL's best, the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin has emerged from the injured Sidney Crosby's shadow as the finest player in the world."
Sidney Crosby may never again be the chosen one. People will care about how he plays and will comment on it. Fans will cheer for him. But he will never be what he was to them.
I don't think he knows that, though. I think that for Crosby, the pain in his head over losing the connection with fans and teammates is greater than the discomfort caused by his injuries and the fear of further damage.
I think that's why he's coming back.
I think, if I were him, that I might return too, even though it is a terrible choice, likely one that will lead to more severe injuries and the possible loss of what might otherwise be a normal, healthy life.
I don't blame him for it. This does not mean that there is no one to blame. There is something perverse about a culture that makes doing something that has no inherent meaning or utility so important that a person will literally risk his life to continue doing it.
As I think I have been making clear, I don't think that Crosby's psychology is exceptional. Rather, I think his exceptional circumstances cast in sharp relief the predicament of all iconic athletes: they are the bearers of the hopes and aspirations of millions of people who were children like me. This privilege comes with a cost: for this fantasy of of purpose to sustain itself, the stakes must be high. If the players acted like the games they played were meaningless, then the fantasy would collapse (think of Vince Carter's refusal to play hard at the end of his tenure with the Toronto Raptors, and the resulting fury of fans that has yet to fully abate, so many years later). No, an athlete's responsibility is to treat sport as sacred--they must be willing to sacrifice completely for it.
What I think Crosby does not realize, as I have explained, is that it is too late for him to reap the rewards. The meaning of sport will persist, but in the body of another.
I was lucky. I did not make it as an athlete. I didn't even come close. I had to find personal worth in something other than sport. The betrayal of my childhood self was the salvation of the adult.
As a sporting culture, however, we are still governed by the dreams and desires of the child. It is the Crosbys, too talented to find the fortune of failure, who pay the price, whether the cost is the body or a sense of personal worth.
And it's too expensive.