What’s Best?


In a recent post I noted that the template for so many activities we humans engage in has been created by business. We have become a nation of shopkeepers governed by shopkeepers with tiny minds. I mentioned the health-care industry (note the noun) and education — which I have commented about endlessly, some might say. I should have mentioned sports, especially professional sports.

I noted repeatedly the increasing movement toward business in NCAA I sports, especially football and basketball. But I might also have noted the effects of huge amounts of money in professional sports. Because in both cases it is money that is indeed the root of the evil. I  recall a discussion I heard on ESPN recently among four men and one woman, who all agreed that the trend toward football players opting out of the meaningless Bowl Games at the end of the year is perfectly OK because these young men “must do what is best for them” — meaning, they must do whatever necessary in order to make as much money as possible in professional sports.

Now I have a habit of whistling into the wind, as some might have noted. Some will insist that I am blind to reality. But I will agree that young men should do what is best for them, and even agree that they would be wise to maximize their income in a sport that may well cripple them. But there is the fact, ignored by so many these days, that these young men do have a responsibility to their college teams and it is not clear that making the most money possible is indeed what is best for them. In any event, the trend started last year when a couple  of young men who knew they were to be high draft picks in the upcoming NFL draft refused to play in their team’s Bowl Games after the regular season ended. This year a player on the Ohio State football team chose to withdraw from the team in mid-season because he knows he will assuredly be a high draft pick and didn’t want to get hurt after returning to the team and therefore lower his chances of landing a big contract from some NFL team or other.

Coaches used to like to say, “There  is no ‘I’ in team.” But then a great many coaches jump ship whenever they get a better offer from another university and the players who sign on with them are often severely disappointed, even frustrated. They have learned to be suspicious and take promises at their face value — which value is becoming increasingly worthless. Now players can transfer from university to university and become immediately eligible to play on their new team, and, as I have noted, the really good ones feel free to quit if they think their professional futures are in jeopardy, given the violence of the game they play. To be sure there is a risk. There are millions of dollars involved. And that is the rub.

The trend toward opting out of the Bowl Games is one that the experts are convinced will grow as more and more players with potential to become highly paid professional players realize that by playing in what is in so many ways a meaningless game they would jeopardize their future wealth. All five talking heads I referred to above agree that this is coming, if it is not already here, and it is perfectly OK. They saw nothing whatever wrong with it. And this speaks volumes when it comes to understanding what is going on in our post-modern society. It is all about money. End of story.

But I will not end the story because not all things should be about money. Health care certainly should not. Education assuredly should not. And a young man or woman who plays for a collegiate sports team and accepts a full scholarship should pause before choosing to quit before their season ends — even if that season ends in a meaningless Bowl Game. Because let’s face it, all of the games are meaningless in the grand scheme of things; and the Bowl Games, as absurd as they are, are still a part of the football season and are prized by many who play the sport and are not good enough to expect a professional contract when they are finished.

In a word, there is a responsibility to the team here, a responsibility that is totally ignored because we have all become so inured to the parade of fools who sell their better selves for filthy lucre. It is not all about money. Sports are not and education and health care certainly are not. And yet the fact that we have allowed the business model to become so very prominent in our culture causes us to ignore the deeper levels of human behavior — such things as character, for example. And this seems to me to be a serious problem we might well consider as we casually dismiss the latest young man or woman who is concerned only about “what is best for them.”

 

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Facts (As Opposed to Opinions)

I wrote this in the early years of this blog, but, with a few additional comments added, it seems especially relevant today with “false facts” floating around us. And, Heaven knows, we need a respite from the truly ugly political shenanigans going on.

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact or simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the New England Patriots are sure to win the game on Sunday, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos — unless you are a really good bluffer.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from lower forms of animals became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion, that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways one might try to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot.  Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual to the extent that they can no longer be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, even in principle, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. The Freudian position is usually denied the status of fact precisely because it cannot be proved — or disproved, even in principle. Still, it functions as an explanation of many of our human foibles and can be regarded as plausible.

We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make could ever be proved false, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is probable. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal to seek ways to reverse the trend. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.

Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Please note the modifier: “foolish.” He is not saying that it is foolish to be consistent. He is saying it is foolish to cling to a position despite the evidence that displaces that position, despite evidence to the contrary. We seem to love foolish consistencies in this country and to distrust anyone who changes his or her mind — thinking, perhaps, that the person who does so is weak. George McGovern, years ago, lost the presidency, according to many experts, because he changed his mind about his running mate early on in the race. Heaven forbid that a man change his mind because he has determined that he was wrong! We had better be thought strong — even at the cost of foolish consistency.

As one who taught logic and critical thinking for many years and who thinks consistency in itself is a good  thing — not a foolish consistency, just ordinary consistency — I am amused by the ability of so many of us to hold on to two or three conflicting claims at the same time. Recently Terrell Owen, a football great in years past, was voted into the Football Hall of Fame — on the third ballot. He was incensed. He, suffering from entitlement as do so many athletes today, thought of himself as a “first-ballot” candidate. It was not to be and he fumed. The induction occurred recently and he determined not to attend the official ceremony in protest. He had his own celebration in McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga,Tennessee where he grew up and had friends clothe him with the gold jacket which had been sent from Canton, Ohio. He then gave a speech to approximately 3000 people who were there to support him. They also thought he should have been a first-ballot inductee. And later several talking heads on ESPN lauded Owen for his “honesty,” not to say, his courage. Many have agreed that it shouldn’t have taken this long.

In his speech Owen started off by insisting that he was not going to excoriate (my word, not his) the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall as soon as he was eligible. He then went on to excoriate the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall of Fame as soon has he was eligible! It was an astonishing example of inconsistency bordering on outright contradiction. And inconsistency can be so obvious that it amounts to a contradiction, a violation of what Aristotle thought to be the first “law of thought.” To be logical and indeed to make sense, we must avoid contradiction — especially in these days of false news and alternative facts. A square cannot be a circle at the same time and in the same respect. That is a law of thought. One cannot logically begin by saying that he is not going to criticize the sports writers for their egregious mistake and then go on to do just that!

We ignore the laws of thought, and indeed the common-sense notion of consistency, at our peril because it behooves us as intelligent creatures — more intelligent one would hope than the evidence suggests we are — to think clearly and cogently in order to find our way in the dark to something that we can accept as true. Not that we can ever be certain that we have happened upon the truth, but there are claims that simply are evidentially true and if we group them together they must be consistent, one claim cohering with another.

In the end, it would appear, we must avoid consistency of the foolish variety, fiercely embracing claims that are mutually exclusive, and insist upon consistency of the ordinary kind, making sure our claims fit with one another. Emerson was surely right: it is foolish to cling to claims once they have been shown to be false. But I would add that it is equally foolish to lay claim to “truths” that conflict one with another when such cannot possibly be the case. We must think our way through the maze and seek to be coherent and consistent throughout. That would appear to be the first rule of critical thinking.

 

This Time With Feeling!

I am reblogging a post I wrote several years ago that still retains its relevancy — I hope. In our day the mantra seems to be “Do what feels right!” This contrasts sharply with the Victorian Age (which has always fascinated me) when the mantra was “Do your duty!” We talk so much about rights and ignore the correlative issue of responsibilities, it does seem we have lost sight of the moral high ground. Many deny there is such a thing. In any event, my point here is that the notion that we should go with our feelings and ignore altogether the tougher task of trying to determine with careful thought what is the right thing to do is a mistake. I have made a few minor revisions and clarifications.

The president of the Baltimore Ravens, Stephen Bisciotti, recently held a press conference to rebut allegations that his organization had the Ray Rice CCTV tape long showing him beating his wife in an elevator before it was released to the public and should have acted much sooner then they did. I won’t go into the details of his talk or the reasons for it — the subject has been “out there” for weeks and is getting tiresome. Domestic violence is just plain wrong and the song and dance the NFL engages in to skirt the issue is simply embarrassing. But what interested me was the general response to Bisciotti’s talk, which was held to be in sharp contrast to an earlier press conference held by Roger Goodell who struck many people as too remote and lacking in emotion.

Bisciotti was received with much greater enthusiasm: he showed “feeling,” and “emotion.” He “seemed sincere.” Goodell, it was said, seemed robotic and lacking in any real sense of remorse for failing to deal with the Ray Rice case in a quick and summary fashion. The implication here is that Bisciotti is more credible because he showed more feeling. Say what?? Strange that so many folks (and I admit my sample is not very large) weigh feelings as the most important criterion in determining credibility, when, in fact, feelings can (and do often) go awry. They are, after all, what brought about Ray Rice’s attack on his wife in that elevator. Have we come to that point as a culture, where we dismiss reason even though it is what enables us to approach truth as best we humans can — at times crawling and at other times blindfolded? I’m not saying that Goodell is a reasonable man (on the contrary), but just that his appearance as “robotic” and “unfeeling” puts people off. We don’t want cold hard facts; we want folks like Goodell to show deep remorse, and doubtless a bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth would be in order. Quick! Get a close-up!! Maybe tearing his hair out and perhaps a handful of mea culpas thrown in for added effect. Then we would believe him.

In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has an image of a chariot pulled by a black horse and a white horse. The black horse represents the passions that are always struggling to gain control; the white horse represents the gentler emotions, like remorse, sympathy, and compassion; the chariot is directed by reason that seeks always to keep the others in control. The horses provide the energy to pull the chariot, but reason is required to give the chariot direction. What Plato was going for, it seems, was some sort of balance — a notion that was precious to the Greeks going back at least to Homer. And it is precisely this sort of balance that is lacking in our culture today. The charioteer is asleep at the reins — or watching his iPhone.

I suspect the emphasis on emotion and feelings — even passion, as when Oprah Winfrey urges us to “follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose” — came about as a result of the general conviction that reason has given us such things as science and science, in turn, has provided us with the Bomb, pollution, and industry, which is poisoning our air and water. And this is natural; to an extent there are some grounds for this concern. But reason is a small candle that is absolutely necessary if we are to find our way out of the dark morass we have gotten ourselves into as a people — and, assuredly, we are not facing serious global problems because we have been too reasonable!  The rejection of reason and reliable, verifiable facts (as opposed to opinions or “alternative facts”) is certain to lead us deeper into the darkness. Bear in mind that feelings include not only compassion and love but also fear, envy, rage, and hate. They are not always the best of guides to conduct, or to the truth — as we can see if we pay attention to what is going on around us these days

This is not to say that feeling and the emotions (the white horse) should be ignored. On the contrary. Fellow-feeling, compassion, and a lively conscience are necessary if we are to build bridges toward the rest of the human community. But raw emotions, especially passion — as suggested by Oprah — are not the answer. Balance, as the Greeks saw so clearly, is the answer. Balance between reason and the emotions. It matters not whether Goodell or Bisciotti show us real “feelings.” What matters is that they tell us the truth and that they act in such a way that the violence in the NFL, and elsewhere, decreases and players and spectators — not to say all human beings — show respect for one another.

Domestic violence is a cultural phenomenon that, like any other serious problem, is not going to be solved by making passionate speeches and weeping in public. If it is to be solved at all, it will be by means of a carefully considered program that informs and, when necessary, punishes those who are guilty of such things as child abuse and wife-beating. Feelings alone can be totally unreliable, just as reason alone can be cold and calculating. What is required is a bit of both.

On Being Successful

In a recent professional football game involving the Pittsburg Steelers, one of Pittsburg’s defensive backs suffered a spinal injury because of a head-on tackle in which he exhibited poor technique. He lay moaning on the ground for minutes until he was carted away and sent to the hospital. As of this writing he has had back surgery and is still being observed by the medical experts to see if there is any permanent damage. If there is, it certainly wouldn’t be the first such case. And it will almost certainly not be the last.

This set the networks abuzz with talk about how brutal a game is football — at all levels — and had many a talking head on television wondering what more could be done to prevent further injuries. The NFL is already concerned about concussions, which have had serious consequences for many retired football players; equipment has been improved and there is a great deal more caution after a possible head-on collision than there once was.

In any event, one of the Steelers was interviewed on ESPN and defended his sport despite its violence — trying to calm the waters and assure people that the game is not “brutal” and it would go on. I will not mention his name (because I can’t remember it!) but it matters not. His somewhat disjointed comments defended the sport which he loves because it has enhanced his “family legacy,” i.e., it has made him an immensely wealthy man. There was more to his comments than this, but this was the gist of what he said. And it raises a number of questions.

To begin with, it is a non-sequitur because the violence of the game cannot be dismissed because it makes a number of men very wealthy. In addition, of course, the comments were all about the player himself with little mention of his teammate who lay in a hospital bed trying to recover from a very painful injury. But, more to the point, we heard once again the All-American mantra that identifies success with wealth (his “family legacy”). To be a successful person in this country one must be  tremendously wealthy. Those who dedicate themselves to the well-being of others and make sacrifices every day to make sure that others are healthy and happy, or perhaps simply better informed, are not regarded as successful — unless they can brag about their bank accounts and show you their expensive cars and their overpriced, palatial homes. This is absurd.

In his lectures on sincerity and authenticity, Lionel Trilling points out that the West has struggled for many years with the concept of authenticity, the notion that human beings are truly human when they have achieved not wealth but authenticity: when they are who they truly are. Trilling  focuses on Jean Paul Sartre who spent many pages in his Being and Nothingness talking about “Bad Faith,” the tendency of people — all people — to play roles, to pretend to be someone they are not.  To an extent, Sartre would insist, society demands that we do so. But this does not alter the fact that we wear masks.

Trilling points out that true authenticity has to do with being, not about having. He quotes Oscar Wilde who insisted that “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has but in what man is.” We are truly human when we achieve autonomy, when we are self-directed, not when we become wealthy. In fact, money has nothing whatever to do with it. He notes that this popular misconception, this false identification of wealth with success, stems from the confusion of having with being: it is a type of inauthenticity. We are not what we have; we are what we are within ourselves and in relation to others.

It is not likely that our notion of success, insisting that success is identified with what we have, will change. But it is quite likely that the storm over the violence in America’s most popular sport will quiet down and there will be more injuries in the future. Is it just possible that this is a good thing because it allows Americans to get vicarious pleasure from a violent sport that releases some of the pent-up frustration resulting from lives spent pursuing wealth which they identify with success — though they sense dimly that there is something terribly wrong somewhere?

The Wagging Tail

I have blogged (endlessly some would say) about the tail that wags the dog in Division I athletics. I promised myself I would not go there again  (but I may have had my fingers crossed!).

A recent editorial in Sports Illustrated requires comment. It addresses the ripple effect of the decreasing use of cable TV on college athletics. Because fewer people are using cable since moving to digital technology which will allow them to watch those programs they want to watch and not pay for those they will never watch in their lifetime — or that of their children — the cable companies are hurting in the pocketbook 😢. The sports network giant ESPN, for example, has been seriously affected by the change in viewer preference. While a few years ago they could count on $8.00 per month from everyone who watched sports on their network  ESPN is now in 12 million fewer homes than it was in 2011. In a word, the number of viewers has dropped considerably and the income from cable has dropped accordingly. ESPN recently laid off 100 of its people in a move that had remaining folks on ESPN crying crocodile tears as they breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them — yet.😥

All of this impacts on college sports, which, as we know, is Big Business. As Sports Illustrated tells us:

“College athletics departments spent lavishly [in recent years because of the huge influx in cash from ESPN and other major TV networks], especially on football. At Texas new lockers were installed at a cost of $10,500 apiece and include individual 43 inch TV monitors instead of the traditional nameplates. Auburn added a $14 million video board at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson’s training complex included a bowling alley and nap room. Even position coaches were making six figures. . .”

Nick Saban, head football coach at Alabama, can be seen crying all the way to the bank as he gets ready to deposit some of his $11.1 million annual  salary; he worries that this trend spells the end of collegiate football as we have come to know and love it. Armageddon is at hand. This, of course, is nonsense as the universities will find ways to support their athletics programs — including raising student fees even higher — most of which (by the way) operate at a deficit. But they all see the big bucks the big guys make and hope that some of it will come their way. The problem will not go away just because figures must be juggled. It’s still a business and it is a HUGE business.

Oh, and speaking of big business, Jay Paterno, son of the infamous Penn State football coach and an assistant coach during the Sandusky era, was recently named to the Board of Trustees at that University. So much for cleaning house. The tail will continue to wag the dog. (But, seriously, a “nap room”??)

Mean What You Say!

I was watching ESPN’s “Sports Center” yesterday morning and found one of the topics especially interesting. The four regulars were asking a sports guru off-site what he thought about the fact that the University of Richmond has suspended five baseball players for playing “Fantasy Football.” This game is regarded by both the NCAA and by the University as a form of gambling because it involves the winning and losing of money. The guru, and later the four talking heads, insisted that this punishment was a case of overkill. The KIDS (the words emphasized by the guru) were just having fun and if the NCAA and the University want them to stop gambling they should pay them for playing baseball instead of encouraging them to gamble in order to make more money (!).

As you can see from they brief synopsis, the discussion frequently went off-topic. The guru had a difficult time staying on-point; his mind jumped around like spit on a hot griddle. But I daresay he was paid well for his appearance. In any event, I tend to agree that all Division I NCAA athletes should be paid and then use some of that money to pay for their education if they want one. I have been saying this in print for years. But that was not the issue. Nor was the issue whether the rule made any sense.  The issue was whether or not those five players should have been punished for gambling. The answer — despite the unanimous opinion of the well-paid people on “Sports Center” — is a resounding YES! They should be punished.

Why?

Because there is a rule at the University and coming down from on high from the NCAA — king of all intercollegiate sports — that gambling is a no-no. It’s against the rules. The rules are clearly set out and the students, we must assume, were told ahead of time that they were not to become involved, no matter how innocent it may seem and whether or not we agree that “Fantasy Football” is gambling (which I think it is, by the way). In a word, if they broke the rules then they should be punished. Otherwise the rules mean nothing. And it seems to be coming to this, doesn’t it? It’s a cultural problem. We draw lines in the sand — at home, at work, in college, wherever — and then we are busy doing something else when the kids cross that line; we then redraw it somewhere else. It’s small wonder the kids lose all respect for authority and seem to be in a fog much of the time. And, recall, according to Christopher Lasch, this loss of respect for authority is at the heart of our narcissistic culture.

When I worked as a camp counsellor for five summers in Maine many years ago the camp director (who was a wise man indeed) told us at the initial meeting: “if you tell the kids you are going to punish them for doing something wrong, you must do so. If you threaten to kill them if they don’t stop fighting, then you must kill them!” Obviously he wasn’t urging its to kill the kids. (Or was he??) He just wanted to make a point: mean what you say*. I took that to heart as a counsellor and later as a parent — and as a teacher. If I made rules for those people to follow I expected them to follow them. And in the case of  my kids whom I loved dearly or good students who had a legitimate excuse for turning in a late term paper, believe me it hurt me to penalize them, which I did anyway. I suppose it’s what they call “tough love,” but whatever they call it, it makes perfect sense and the fact that five people on television all agree that those baseball players should not have been punished simply attests to the sad demise of basic ethics from which those glued to the television take way the wrong sort of message.

Now, if only the punishments made sense and were consistently applied it would be easier to make my case. The talking heads seemed to be more disturbed about the seriousness of the punishment than the punishment itself and with that I agree. The rules should be clear, consistent, and consistently applied to the stars on the team or the kids in the living room watching R rated movies after being told not to do so. And the punishment should fit the crime. But to say that those who break the rules should not be punished is simply wrong-headed.

 

*And as Alice learned in Wonderland, this is not the same thing as “say what you mean.” But perhaps that is a topic for another time.

Like It Is

In a recent interview on E.S.P.N. a very articulate black N.B.A. athlete was dismayed by the fact that “a majority” of Americans had spoken and it is now more clear than it ever was that racism is the order of the day. I paraphrase, of course, but his resentment over the fact that a “majority” of Americans had exhibited their racism struck me as a bit out of order.

I realize that those in a minority in this country have just been slapped in the face, and very hard at that. I can understand their anger and frustration even though I do not share their minority status. I can only imagine what it must feel like today to be a Muslim or an African-American in this country after Trump’s victory. But let’s set the record straight. We got in this mess because we confused facts with factions — not to say outright lies. And the fact is that almost half of the eligible voters in this country didn’t even vote. And of those voting Hillary Clinton won the majority of those votes. Thus, to say as this man did, that this election proves that a majority of Americans have exhibited their racism is simply not true.

It is possible that a majority of Americans are, in fact, prejudiced against blacks and minorities. But this election didn’t show us much of anything except for the fact that there are a great many people in this country — hardly a majority — who are proud of their prejudice and racism and were eager to support a bigot who is openly biased against any and all who are different from himself. But we knew that going in.

Our disappointment must be over this fact and this fact alone, because it doesn’t help heal the wounds to cast aspersions against a majority of Americans who may, in fact, have few or no prejudices against minorities. We simply don’t know how or what “the majority” of Americans feel about much of anything. Since a great many don’t bother to vote and of those voting voted against the bigot, the claims are cloudy at best. Thus, we must remain focused on what we do know: racism is a problem and it must be addressed. This election was a wake-up call, but it did not prove that a majority of Americans are bigots.

Among the other comments in the interview I refer to were a number that expressed hope that we would, as a nation, come together. This is also a sentiment echoed in a recent blog post by my blogging buddy Keith. These were the comments that I found most encouraging. A result like the one so many of us feared and now are depressed by may well help to bring people together. To begin with, it is clear that racism and bigotry are huge problems in this country — though it remains unclear just how big they are. And they need to be addressed. They will not be addressed until they are recognized as serious problems. Such recognition has just been forced upon us. So let us hope that it does bring a bit of light that can now be shed on problems that have been thus far kept in the dark closet of despair.

A great many people stand to lose a great deal as a result of this election. It makes perfect sense that some, if not all, would resort to exaggeration and hyperbole to express their feelings. But, again, we have learned how easy it is to be mislead by feelings and what consequences face us when we do not attempt to separate fact from fiction and use our minds as well as our hearts to search out the best path to the truth and the resolution of difficulties.

In any event, now is indeed the time to come together and to open lines of communication with one another, to seek solutions to complex issues rather than to simply stand by and wring our hands and cry crocodile tears because things didn’t turn out as we had hoped. So let’s not resort to hyperbole and self-pity to make a point that will not withstand criticism. There are a number of scenarios that could evolve in the days to come and none of us knows which is the one that we will actually experience. Let us continue to hope that things cannot possibly be as bad as they seem and in fact that the test we now face will make this nation stronger, not weaker. History has shown that nations and people can do extraordinary things during hard times. And we are indeed facing hard times.

Wanting It

Relax. This post is not about sex. Nor is it about the political race, which has become tiresome. It’s about sports psychology, which is something I find most perplexing and even at times interesting.

Recently the Minnesota Vikings travelled to Philadelphia, city of Brotherly Love, to play the Eagles in football. The Eagles had lost two games in a row on the road whereas the Vikings were 5 and 0 and had just had a bye-week. I suspected going into the game that Philadelphia would have the edge and indeed they did, winning 24-10 — and the game wasn’t even that close. I watched the first few minutes of the game and then turned off the television: the Eagles clearly wanted the game more than did the Vikings. It was that simple. And yet, none of the talking heads I watch on Mondays even mentioned the psychological dimension of the game. They talked about how Minneota’s young offensive line couldn’t handle Philadelphia’s excellent pass rush, their weak running game without Adrian Peterson, and other elements of the game that were supposed to explain the embarrassing loss the Vikings suffered (coach Zimmer’s words).

I have been around sports for years and have coached football, basketball, and (mostly) tennis for years. I have always thought about the psychological problems my players might have going into a game or a match and I attempted to head off any jitters or loss of nerves the players might face. In tennis, especially, I always told my players that as long as they played their best that was all anyone could ask. I looked for effort. Period. I never talked about winning or losing. I figured if they played their best they would probably win and if they lost their opponent was simply better than they were on that day. It happens. By not criticizing them after a loss and getting them to focus on their own games my teams had pretty good success. It helped raise their self-confidence, which is essential to good performance.

The psychological element in sports is fundamental and a key to how a player performs on the field or the court. If two players, or teams, are facing each other and they are of equal, or nearly equal, ability levels, the team that wants the win will win. It is the power of positive thinking. The golfer who knows he will sink the 6 foot putt will almost always do so. The basketball player who knows he could make the free-throw will almost ceretainly make it. It is all about wanting something and having the confidence that one will attain it. But beware cockiness! A coach must keep an eye on that possibility. Confidence is a good thing; over-confidence is not. In golf a bogey often follows a birdie; in tennis a double-fault frequently comes on the heels of an ace. Watch out for P.B.F. —  post-birdie-foul-up.

I suspect the Vikings went into the game in Philadelphia a bit cocky. After all, they were 5-0 and their opponent was 3-2 with two losses in a row. The media had hyped up the Vikings and the players doubtless watch ESPN and may even read the newspapers — who knows? They came in figuring all they had to do was show up. But that sort of cockiness, an over-abundance of confidence, is a danger to a good performance. P.B.F. Balance is the key: knowing that one can win if he or she performs well but not taking it for granted. After all is said and done the mental aspect must translate into excellence of performance.

I suspected that Mike Zimmer would have a difficult time getting his players ready for that game, getting them into the mindset that would prime their engines and make them want to win more than their opponents. It was apparent form the start that this had not happened. The Eagles players were “pumped.” They wanted the game more than their opponents. And wanting it, once again, gained the upper hand.

Coaching is an art more than an science. And getting players motivated, keeping up their confidence, and convincing them that a game somehow matters in the grand scheme of things is something very few men or women seem to be able to do. (On the other hand, if a player is too keyed up, the coach must convince them that the game really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. After all, it’s only a game. The key is to know the players and to know which “buttons to push.”) But in the end the one who wants it more, given more or less equal skill levels, will win.

Play For Pay

Nick Weiler is a kicker for the football team at the University of North Carolina. A week ago, with 4 seconds to go against Florida State, he kicked a 54 yard field goal to win the game and was therefore raised in the eyes of the Tar Heel faithful to the level of hero. Throughout his four years at North Carolina he has been an extraordinarily talented kicker and will assuredly be drafted into the NFL after graduation — if he graduates. Graduation doesn’t seem be a high priority for those who play football in Division I of the NCAA.

In any event, after the game-winning kick ESPN decided to send one of their reporters to visit with Nick for a day and do a “piece” showing their viewers what it is like to be the Big Man on Campus. As it happens, Nick doesn’t spend much time on campus, preferring to keep a low profile in his off-campus digs and just “hanging” with this friends — when not on the practice field. As far as I could tell from the brief piece very little of his time, if any, is spent in class or the library. In fact, if this young man’s experience is typical of athletes in Division I football, going to class is not much of a priority. It’s all about the game and about emerging as a star in order to have a chance to play in the NFL.

The sense that the sport is of primary concern at the Division I level was driven home to me personally not many years ago when a transfer from the University of Minnesota played tennis for my team for one year. She told me that as a Freshman she was told at that Division I school to take her classes before noon. After noon she “belonged to the tennis team.” This is women’s tennis, folks!! In contrast, we practiced two hours each afternoon and played most of our matches on weekends in order not to miss classes.

But, back to football. There are other stories like Nick’s. I had a good friend years ago who attended the University of Illinois back in the day of Dick Butkus who, it was said, hung out in the student union until, in his words, it was time to “go to work.” He was there to play football and he did that very well — well enough to become a Hall of Fame NFL player. And he also made movies to entertain us all!

These are anecdotes, of course, and don’t allow us to draw reliable generalizations. But, none the less, they give us a glimpse into the life of the semi-professional football players in Division I football — who are, reportedly, also given to violence off the field, especially toward young women. But, again, we must be careful about generalizations. I am sure there are a great many young men out there who actually respect women, go to class, and end up with a degree in hand at the end of four years. A few at any rate. Division I football programs are not famous for their high graduation rates.

In fact, I recommended years ago in an article I wrote for the Montana Professor (http://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html) that the athletes in Division I football — and basketball — be paid to play and not required to attend classes at all. Folks don’t care about these young men and what they might or not do after college — unless they go on to play for the NFL or the NBA which is apparently their dream. If they were paid a salary to play football or basketball then they could, if they wanted to do so, pay for some classes and actually earn a college degree just like their fellow students. And they would graduate without the huge debts incurred by their classmates!

In any event, let’s stop calling them scholar-athletes and going through the rigamarole of making them attend classes just for show. So many are in college for just one thing: to make it into the pros. So let’s be honest and admit that these are semi-professional athletes in what are, in effect, the minor leagues of their sports simply working to achieve a level of proficiency that will make them attractive to the professional teams.

In a word, what we do at present, in addition to exploiting these young men, is a sham and dishonest to boot. Let’s pay these men — even let them join unions — to play the games they love and wear the uniforms of their respective colleges and universities. But don’t make them go to class at all, even to take underwater basket-weaving and other non-challenging courses designed to make their lives as easy as possible while they maintain their NCAA eligibility to play games. If they really want a college education, they can pay for it like everyone else. If not, they can simply “go to work” each day and hope to land a huge salary playing at the professional level after a few years at the Division I level. At the very least, it’s more honest than what we do at present.