Life Lessons From Sports

I must confess to my weakness in loving to watch Division I football (basketball, not so much), despite the fact that I am fully aware that what I am watching has nothing whatever to do with education and is almost certainly antithetical to the goals of education.

Having said that, I was watching the Army/Navy game on Saturday, December 8th when I was witness to one of those rare moments when one begins to think that there may be some sort of justification for sports in our colleges — even at that level. And I am aware that the service academies are a special case of Division I sports since those men and women are not vying for a spot on a professional sports team roster.

Army was working its way down field with just over a minute to play in the game, behind by 4 points, They had been hanging on to a 3 point lead until just minutes before when Navy scored a touchdown and took the lead. Now they were in Navy’s “red zone” on their way to a score. It appeared as though Army might be about to beat Navy for the first time in ten years. Not only has Navy dominated Army during that time, they have usually trounced their arch-enemies from the banks of the Hudson river. But this time it appeared things would work our for the Black Knights. Not so.

The Army quarterback muffed a hand-off to his halfback and the resulting fumble allowed Navy to run out the clock. The Army quarterback sat on the sidelines, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably — which teaches us two things: (1) American TV loves to see car crashes, horrible hits, and grown men cry (the cameras lingered long and close to the sobbing man), and (2) important lessons can be learned from sports. Life isn’t always about winning; it’s also about losing — and when we lose we need to figure out how to deal with it. And in learning how to deal with we grow.

These are important lessons — trite as they may seem — especially in a culture where everyone is told he or she is a winner and there are no losers. Those lessons, repeated often in school and at home, on the TV, in songs, and in books on the shelves, have convinced us all that we deserve only the best. Ironically, this attitude leads to frustration and disillusionment when the person so informed comes face to face with reality. It can even lead to violence we are told. This is why sports are still very important in this culture: for the most part they are more honest than the rest of what is going on. There are winners and there are losers. The losers have to learn to “suck it up”  and move on.

Because of this, those who would turn sports into just another exercise in self-esteem should shut up and find honest work. The trend in kids’ sports to keep no score and award all participants a trophy of some sort is dishonest. It’s more of the same old Bullshit. In team sports kids learn about cooperation and working hard to achieve a goal. There are rules and penalties for breaking the rules. Kids also learn about competition which is perhaps not a good thing in itself (the jury’s out on that topic), but it is the way of this world. And if kids don’t learn about competition early on and also learn that winners are rewarded and losers are not, they will eventually come face to face with the harsh reality of the workplace and the world “out there” where that’s simply the way things are. And that can be traumatic.

In the real world we do lose occasionally and hopefully we learn from those losses. That’s how people grow. To maintain the fiction that everyone is a winner and there are no losers is telling kids lies that will hurt them deeply later on when they learn real-life lessons.  Sports are one of the few places left where kids can find out for themselves what life will be like later on, though they do need reminding that these are only games (as do we all).

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Debates As Theater

Now that the second of three debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is over and the dissections have begun it is time to either join the fray or turn one’s back in disgust and wish the whole thing were over. I confess I am of the second opinion for the most part, but a recent article on Yahoo News piqued my interest and invited another comment or two on a topic on which far too much ink has already been spilled. I do think the debates are theater and they should not have anything whatever to do with who wins the highest office in the land. But they do, apparently: what I wish were the case really doesn’t count.

Apparently, Obama “won” the second debate according to recent reports. But in political correspondent Jeff Greenfield’s opinion it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It’s all about the first debate which Obama “lost.” As Greenfield says, if Obama had performed as well in the first debate as he did in the second the election would be virtually over. Consider:

When the evening began, one observation dominated the conversation: “If President Barack Obama has another debate like the last one, the election’s over.”

When the evening ended, I was struck by a different thought: If Obama had performed this way at the first debate, the election would have been over.

In every debate, whatever the format, whatever the questions, there is one and only one way to identify the winner: Who commands the room? Who drives the narrative? Who is in charge? More often than not on Tuesday night, I think, Obama had the better of it.

Moreover, apparently Romney gained ground from the first debate which he will not lose from his performance in the second debate in Greenfield’s opinion. But note the criteria Greenfield cites as keys to who “wins” and who “loses” the debates: Who commands the room? Who drives the narrative? Who is in charge? What on earth do these things have to do with running the country? Nothing. They are about theater, period. And in Greenfield’s opinion, Obama’s performance in the second debate was better theater than Romney’s (give him a 9.6 to Romney’s 8.3) and considerably better than his performance in the first debate (7.4). Aldous Huxley had it right in the 1950s when he predicted that Americans would one day elect an actor as president!

Historically, viewer interest in the debates does fall off after the first one. And in that regard Greenfield is probably correct in saying that Obama’s performance on October 16th was of little consequence. But again one must ask why on earth the voters of this land hadn’t made their minds up about who could run this country best long before the two men stood before TV cameras and played the roles required of them as performing clowns in that first debate? Where have people been for the past months that they have to listen to a TV debate to decide who will get their vote — given that these two men sit on opposite sides of the political fence on every important issue? The answers seem clear: an astonishing number of people in this country are simply too busy to follow the news, pick up a newspaper, visit web sites, or read carefully argued blogs in order to determine where the two men stand on vital issues that impact all our lives.

But as they say it’s “academic.” The second debate is now over and apparently Obama performed much better than he did in the first debate. But it will not make much difference because apparently watching TV for 90 minutes is all many people can spend making up their minds whom they will vote for as president of these United States, and those 90 minutes took place two weeks ago. As Greenfield said, making clear what arena these debates are held in: “That opportunity [for Obama] vanished that night. While it’s clear that Obama’s performance will revive the enthusiasm of his supporters, it seems unlikely that it will cause those impressed by Romney to reconsider. Like they say in show business, timing is everything.”