4/6/07 – The Value Of Sports?

People who like sports and think that they are important ingredients in the social fabric ascribe to sports certain benefits that society derives from the existence of sports. Two of the more common of these societal benefits are that sports and the competition aspects of the various games teaches the participants to play within a certain set of rules and to strive to succeed. And the minute you begin to think about the importance of teaching good sportsmanship at the same time, you’ll start to hear folks singing Cumbayah in your head for the next several days. We teach sports to young folks because the logic is that they will grow up having learned to follow rules, to work hard, and to play fair; on the surface, that sounds great. But when I look at what is going on in sports at the moment, I’m not sure that we are teaching such noble concepts.

The problem is that the headlines in sports sections all over the world on at least half of the days call out very different messages to me – – and therefore to all the kids who are paying attention to sports mainly because adults have them participating in order for the kids to learn valuable life lessons. Where to start…

In NASCAR, the concept of cheating is so ingrained that people will say with a completely straight face that if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t competin’. That’s not the noble message of sports; that’s not the essence of what it is supposedly all about.

The use of steroids or “performance enhancing substances” is a recurring theme related to baseball, track and field and cycling at the very least. Most parents – even most of the ones who would never get a mention in the “Parent of the Year Nominations” – don’t look upon youth sports as a way to convince their kids that illegal drug usage is a path to success. But that’s the message that screams out at kids who follow what’s going on in more than a couple of sports.

Every once in a while hockey referees will measure stick curvatures and the size of goalie pads; and when they do, they often find equipment that is illegal. Unless these officials always manage to catch the malefactors on the very night that they decided to trot out the “illegal gear”, that means this stuff has been used in hockey games for a while totally undetected. If you don’t call that cheating, what do you call it? Oh, maybe it’s just like Sammy Sosa’s corked bat; it was only used for warming up and never had been used in a real game situation before that time that it shattered. Sure it hadn’t …

Boxers have used “loaded gloves” ever since the Marquis of Queensbury decided it was more humane to put gloves on boxers in the first place. There is more than a little evidence that Jack Dempsey had loaded gloves on the day he almost killed Jess Willard and took the heavyweight title. Today we have a famous boxer who has bitten off part of the ear of a rival. And the constructive societal lesson here might be what?

Even golfers – those most noble of sportsmen who supposedly will turn themselves in for a rules violation because that is the culture of the game and the honorable thing to do – use club heads and balls that are “juiced” beyond the prescribed limits of the game. And if they don’t get caught for a while…

Players get caught taking bribes to fix games or manipulate the spread. Why shouldn’t they? After all, judges at the Olympics pre-determined the outcome of a skating competition rendering all the performances moot. Maybe all of this is just a big carnival scam.

So what exactly are we demonstrating to children in sports by these kinds of actions? In a sense, sports are teaching them that cheating is perfectly OK as long as you don’t get caught. And if you happen to get caught, the best thing to do is to feign total ignorance and to make up a plausible – if not totally credible – excuse as to how all of this happened. And whatever you do, stick to the story until the whole thing blows over. But, by the way, if it’s OK to cheat in a game in order to gain an advantage to win, just how is a child supposed to understand that it might not be equally acceptable to cheat and lie in other areas of his life in order to succeed or to get what he/she wants?

If you can cheat and get away with it even when you’re caught simply by making up some story, doesn’t that indicate to the young athlete that rules don’t apply to him? And if rules don’t apply, then how big a leap of logic is it for him to decide that laws don’t apply to him either nor do commonly accepted social norms of behavior apply to him? There’s a whole lot of “domestic violence” perpetrated by athletes these days; that violates the law and the basic American concept of acceptable social behavior. But why should the young athlete worry about any of that; all he needs to do is make up a story and stick to it until it all blows over…

When Little League exposes a kid to a coach who reinforces the longstanding baseball tradition of throwing at an opposing player in retaliation for something that opposing player did previously, how does that coach augment the collaborative problem solving skills of the kids on his team? Don’t tell me it never happens; it even happens when a coach tells one of his players to throw at the head of another of his players because the “target player” is autistic and isn’t a very good player. If that kid were injured, he wouldn’t be required to play his minimum number of innings and the squad would “add by subtracting”. Wonderful!

Oh, since I just mentioned Little League, let me pause for a moment and acknowledge the technological advances that Little League has made in the area of falsified birth certificates. There’s no violation of “sportsmanship” involved in any of that…

When we have brawls at youth sporting events involving parents, coaches and/or umpires and the police have to intervene, what is the important lesson that we teach to the kids? That they too can learn to recite the Miranda Warning?

We like to tell kids “winners never cheat and cheaters never win.” Yeah, right; tell that to a kid who’s a NASCAR follower; tell that to Roger Maris’ grandchildren; tell it to every fan of every team that ever lost a baseball game to Gaylord Perry…

If these kids watch ESPN, they can witness – over and over again – hockey players using their sticks as potentially lethal weapons on the heads of opponents. Or if they go to ESPN Classic, they can watch what happens when some NBA players decide to take out their frustrations on a bunch of fans in Detroit. Or they can see the effects of the latest soccer riots in Italy that led to police refusing to provide security at most Italian soccer venues or they can read about the coach of the Pakistani Cricket team who was found dead under suspicious circumstances after Pakistan was upset in the Cricket World Cup. Recently, in Greece the government shut down all sporting events – all of them everywhere in the country – after rioting killed a fan and injured a score of others at a volleyball match. These happenings are emblematic of the lessons we seek to teach children?

In high school geometry class, you learned that certain statements were postulates; they were taken as absolute truth and need not be proven. Regarding sports, it has long been a postulate that they teach sportsmanship and camaraderie and working together. It worked for me when I was growing up. Was that because I grew up in a kinder and gentler time? Possibly. Did it work for me because I was a naïf and didn’t realize that the seamy side of sports was there all the time? Possibly. Or did it work for me because the adults in my life who provided the parenting and coaching lessons – and the ones who provided role model behaviors as premiere athletes – didn’t behave so badly that their anti-social tendencies were constantly in my face? Possibly – and more likely too.

Thirty years ago, feminists began a tradition of a women-only vigil to “take back the night” as a way to call attention to crimes of violence against women. I don’t know if those vigils still happen; perhaps they have become sufficiently commonplace by now that they are less “newsworthy” today. But maybe we need to take a page from the book of the feminists of that era; maybe we need to “take back the sports”.

What we need to do is to punish severely those professional athletes who get caught cheating or who get caught engaged in some kind of horrid anti-social behavior. What we need to do is to expunge from the rolls of “coaches” and “advisors” in youth sports those chronological adults who foster anti-social behaviors by instruction or by example.

Since NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell seems to be on a path to impose league sanctions on players outside the legal system, perhaps we need to codify and establish such a system for all of sports. In order to do that, we need to establish that legal penalties exist for situations when legal thresholds of proof and evidence are presented; and that simultaneously, there are also societal penalties, which may be enforced at a lower level of evidence. There are more than a few examples in Western Civilization where societies ostracize/shun certain members of a social group for things other than violations of the “law of the land”. Ostracizing some of these ne’er-do-wells from sports would be a good first step to “take back the sports.”

Here’s a cautionary note. We will have to keep the bleeding hearts from taking the position that participating in sports or being a coach in a youth sports league is an inalienable right. Yes, it does constitute part of the pursuit of happiness for some people. But we need to reestablish the concept that an individual’s pursuit of happiness may not involve destroying the joy of others. And when it does, that person’s pursuit has to be curtailed and restrained instead of encouraged.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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