Insights: Culture

Working hard and playing harder, weekend warriors are often casualties of the game

One thing you can say for certain about the army of amateur sports nuts commonly known as weekend warriors -- they've got balls. Lots and lots of balls. Softballs, baseballs, golf balls, tennis balls, volleyballs, basketballs, footballs, soccer balls, rugby balls, croquet balls, cricket balls, lacrosse balls, Ping-Pong balls, racquetballs, billiard balls, bowling balls, bocce balls, street hockey balls, even paint balls.

They've also got sticks, clubs, bats, gloves, mallets, racquets, cleats, spikes, bikes, inline skates, barbells, boogie boards, surfboards, sailboats, power boats, wind surfers, rafts, kayaks, oars, paddles, pool cues, ATVs, SUVs, RVs, parasails, parachutes, bows, arrows, rods, reels, hooks, lines, sinkers and muzzle loaders.

Never before in history have so many been so well armed and well outfitted to engage in their favorite forms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, sales of recreational equipment, footwear, clothing and transport are a record $74 billion a year. Not surprisingly, recreational activity is also at an all-time high. The two leading sports -- exercise walking and swimming -- claim more than 138 million participants annually, or roughly one-half of the U.S. population.

Weekend warriors are a special breed of recreational activists whose members are sufficiently abundant, ubiquitous and injury-prone to have prompted the American Physical Therapy Association to disseminate an identifying profile. They are typically highly motivated, achievement-oriented male and female professionals over the age of 30, with a predominant number belonging to the baby-boom generation. Their last regular exercise regimens were either in high school or college, and they spend 60 hours a week working at jobs that require them to sit behind a desk.

What really distinguishes weekend warriors from the rest of the sports-minded pack, however, is their lack of restraint and old-fashioned common sense, especially during the warm-weather months of spring and summer. When weekends arrive, these desk-bound dilettantes take to the playing fields with reckless abandon. Their motto is: work hard, play harder. Their idea of fun is full bore, no holds barred, go at it until your shoulder separates, your lower back cracks, your tendons tear, your muscles cramp, your ankles sprain and your jock drops to your sweat socks as a result of what medical experts call ¿overuse syndrome.¿

Advancing age and immature attitudes only increase a weekend warrior's likelihood of sustaining injuries. According to an informal survey of chiropractors, orthopedists and physical therapists, a disproportionate number of overuse syndrome sufferers are men in the 40- to 50-year-old bracket who fail to warm up properly before they play their games, and almost never stretch out post-game. As one chiropractor observed, "They get hurt because they treat their sport like a hobby instead of a physically demanding athletic activity."

Despite the documented risks, the art of weekend warfare has become more and more militaristic in recent years. While sports ranging from inline skating, aerobics and fitness training to basketball, softball, bicycling, golf and tennis are still widely popular, the sports enjoying the greatest annual percentage gains in participation are kick boxing (65.4 percent), skateboarding (20.3 percent), muzzle loading (14.0 percent) and martial arts (11.8 percent). Another warlike sport on the rise is paintball, which now claims 5 million participants nationwide. One of the capitals of paintball games is a so-called Weekend Warriors Paintball Park on an Indian reservation outside San Diego, whose operators claim their field was named in honor of a 1991 Ted Nugent album.

For better or worse, today's weekend warriors are carrying on an all-American tradition that dates to the Revolutionary War era. Back then, weekend warriors were just that -- men (and occasionally women) who went to war on weekends against invading British redcoats. It wasn't until the baby-boom generation came of age during and after the Vietnam War that the term acquired its present peacetime connotation.

Along the way, several presidents tried to prove their fitness for office by displaying their fitness outside the office, often with dubious results. Gerald Ford beaned bystanders with errant golf shots, Jimmy Carter jogged until he collapsed, and Ronald Reagan struggled to stay in the saddle as he rode his high horse around his California ranch.

The White House weekend warrior without peer was the first President Bush. He prided in undertaking a daily nonstop presidential heptathlon at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, that comprised jogging, swimming, tennis, racing his cigarette boat, playing "polo" golf from an electric cart, fly casting and pitching horseshoes. Save for his sexual endeavors, the athletic exploits of Bill Clinton can't hold a candle to that. And for all the family likeness, George W. Bush, the nation's current First Jogger/Golfer, is hardly a multisport man in his father's image.

I've seen my fair share of civilian, though not always civil, weekend warriors because I live in the Hamptons, the summer resort area on the far eastern end of Long Island that is a Mecca for some of the nation's most affluent overuse syndrome sufferers. I have even been counted among them at times by virtue of telltale overuse injuries if not by financial qualification. Two of the more popular sports out here are softball and golf, both of which often incorporate the most popular sport of all, social climbing.

On the third weekend in August, East Hampton hosts an annual Artists & Writers softball game that dates back to the 1960s. Over the years, the star players have included singer/songwriter Paul Simon, actors Alec and Billy Baldwin, real estate/media baron Mort Zuckerman, sportswriter Mike Lupica, television anchorman Peter Jennings and former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. Originally an informal pickup game, the event has evolved into a charity fund-raiser complete with play-by-play public address commentary and teams picked according to celebrity status rather than batting or fielding ability.

From the weekend before Memorial Day through the weekend after Labor Day, the village of Sag Harbor is the site of a softball series whose participants recently celebrated their 25th season. Started by the critic Wilfred Sheed and John Leo of U.S. New & World Report, the Sag Harbor game bases participation on seniority, so if you're a newcomer the only game you may end up playing is the waiting game unless a spot opens on one of the rosters due to absenteeism or attrition. A few summers ago, a team of Sag Harbor softballers led by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta played their first road game against a team formed by media mogul Steve Brill. The site was a Field of Dreams softball diamond that Brill built in the backyard of his Westchester County estate. As if to prove their potential as national-class prime-time players, the Sag Harborites also played a game on the outfield grass of Shea Stadium against a team flown in from San Francisco by restaurateur Ed Moose.

While Brill's backyard ballpark is certainly impressive, my nomination for enshrinement in the weekend-warrior hall of fame goes to the late New York real estate developer and avid golfer Ed Gordon. In 1992, after joining the newly opened Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton, Gordon decided to do something creative with the landscape of his summer home across the street. He hired Rees Jones, the architect who designed Atlantic, to build an ultraprivate golfing playground. Known as Three Ponds, it is a full-scale nine-hole course that features double greens similar to those on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, where the game was born. For my money -- or better yet, someone else's -- the Gordon golf course sure beats the hell out of a paintball park.

Now that summer is here, you can rest assured that the living will be anything but easy in the Hamptons and everywhere else around the country where games are played by and for hotdogs, crackerjacks and beer bellies. But then why rest at all? It's time for all you weekend warriors to get out there and tear your anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs) hook sliding into second base on a short one-hopper to left the morning after you jammed your fingers playing hard-nosed pickup hoops and wrenched your neck chasing down drop shots on the tennis court. Just remember, it beats busting your butt all week in the office.


Harry Hurt III is an editor-at-large for Travel & Leisure Golf.