Life Lessons

I wrote a blog recently about Phil Mickelson and the admirable things he is doing with his money to help those in need. In passing, I made reference to “The First Tee,” a charity it has become fashionable for obscenely wealthy golf pros to support — in their way. To be sure, one should applaud any attempt to help others, but a charity that is designed to teach young people how to play golf seems to be nothing more nor less than an excuse to promote golf, maybe have a photo-op, and take a tax break in the process. To be sure, the “charity” also claims to teach “life lessons” and that’s when things get interesting. Consider the following description of the charity.

The First Tee curriculum focuses on teaching character education and it’s “Nine Core Values” (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment). The First Tee chapters use a teaching curriculum developed by experts in the field of positive youth development, and delivered by coaches. Through this experience, participants learn to transfer the values of golf to everyday life.

I have no idea what an “expert in the field of positive youth development” is, but let that pass. The nine “core values” that are “delivered by coaches” are certainly worthy values. But one must wonder aloud why it falls to coaches to teach “character education” when that would appear to be the job of parents, if “character education” is what I think it is — the phrase is somewhat opaque.

True, during recent years the job of teaching virtue has been shunted onto teachers and coaches because apparently the kids’ parents are too busy “making a living” to spend time raising their own children. They leave that to teachers and TV — and apparently to coaches as well. I will set aside the discussion of whether or not it is even possible for anyone except those in the immediate family to teach virtue (which Socrates insisted could not be taught at all, by the way). But the notion that it is the job of sports coaches to teach “core values” and “character” is absurd. Coaches teach athletes how to perform at a high level of skill in a sport. The “life lessons” are nothing more than affirmations of lessons the kids should have learned at home. If they haven’t been learned at home, they are certainly not going to be learned on a golf course. Let’s look at an example.

One of the core values is honesty. When a player grounds his golf club in a hazard he is supposed to “fess up” and take a stroke penalty. There are cases, even at the highest levels, where golfers actually do precisely this, and it is admirable. But I would argue that any golfer who does this is an honest person and that person learned to be honest by watching the way his or her parents and/or loved ones behaved and copying that behavior. We are talking about character here, and character is molded at home at an early age — not in later years at the local Country Club. The most a sports coach can do is reinforce that behavior and applaud the child when he or she behaves in an honest way. Coaches can teach kids golf; they cannot teach “life lessons.” And this would be true for all the nine “core values.” These values must be learned at home and, at best, reinforced in school and on the golf course. This is a worthy effort, but hardly justifies the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are spent on the effort by wealthy golf professionals that might be better spent on something worthwhile — like the preservation of the earth, for example, or saving the wolves. My guess is that the golf pros like to think they are “giving back” to the game while they take a nice little tax break. That’s what made Mickelson’s charitable works so praiseworthy: they seem to be genuine and not in the least self-serving. In any event, the pros who support “The First Tee” are certainly not teaching “life lessons.”