Players As Captains

Now that the United States Ryder Cup golf team has lost the cup once again questions abound as to why this group of talented golfers doesn’t seem to be able to win a team competition against a patch-work team of players from Europe and Great Britain. Phil Mickelson has again put his foot in his mouth and made disparaging remarks about the team captain, Tom Watson, who (it is generally agreed) botched the job. Mickelson simply said what the others wanted to say but had the good taste to keep it to themselves: Watson just wasn’t up to the task. He did a couple of things right, such as putting two first-time players together who made an excellent team — only to leave them out of competition on the second day when their twosome might have won a much-needed point for the U.S of A. Also, he forgot to mention to them that they weren’t going to play.

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tom Watson (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

It seems Watson was too autocratic, too “stand-offish” and uncommunicative. He didn’t involve the players themselves in the decisions he made, and several of those decisions raised eyebrows around the golfing world — like the one mentioned above and the decision not to play Mickelson and his partner Keegan Bradley on the second day when they have shown themselves to be one of the most successful teams the Americans have ever put together. In any event, the golfing world is resounding with the second-guessing of experts and want-to-be experts and they all seem to agree that Watson simply did not get it done.

This raises an interesting question: why is it that outstanding players like Tom Watson so often make terrible coaches in sports of all types? Bill Russell springs to mind — one of the greatest basketball players ever to play but a mediocre coach, at best. The European Ryder Cup team was captained by a very good, but not outstanding, golfer by the name of Paul McGinley who seems to have had the magic touch, taking the same types of self-absorbed, wealthy, spoiled golfers from Europe and melding them into a winning team. Again, why does this sort of thing happen?

My guess is that the outstanding athletes don’t know what it is that makes them outstanding at their sport. They play largely by instinct. I once watched Marty Riessen give a tennis lesson to a middle-aged woman on the tennis courts at Northwestern University. Riessen was a perennial Big Ten tennis champion, played on the Davis Cup team, and later turned professional — once beating Rod Laver for one of his professional championships. But as a teacher he was tongue-tied. He had no idea what to say to his pupil. He became increasingly frustrated and she got correspondingly tense as the lesson went down hill. This is an extreme case, but it is graphic evidence of the inability of at least this great player to communicate to someone else what it is they needed to do to be successful — like the brilliant physicist who can’t teach entry-level physics.

And that seems to be the key: communication skills. Anyone who listens to Tom Watson will be immediately struck by the fact that he has difficulty saying what he is thinking. Couple that with his determination to stand away from his players and call the shots from on high and you have a formula for failure. A good coach is frequently one who has struggled himself or herself to learn the basic skills of the game and who has the ability to communicate with the student just what they must do to be successful. I dare say that golf came very easily to Tom Watson. And he apparently can’t pick up on the chemistry that does or does not exist between people.

I was not an outstanding tennis player. I played a good deal of competitive tennis and won a number of small tournaments, but I wasn’t in a class with folks like Marty Riessen, to be sure. But in taking the game apart and putting it together again at a boys’ camp in Maine years ago with a friend of mine, I learned what it took to produce tennis strokes and was able to explain the mechanics of the game to people trying to learn it. I spent 35 years teaching tennis and another fifteen years coaching at the collegiate level. Whatever success I had was due to my own struggles with the game coupled with my sympathy for those who found the game to be difficult — and my ability to communicate with them successfully. I also learned quickly the delicate art of keeping quiet when necessary. I have seen that formula repeated again and again. The formula the U.S.A. has for picking captains is doomed to failure: a famous player who has himself achieved greatness in the sport. It works on occasion, as it did with one of the few successful American Ryder Cup captains, Paul Azinger (not himself a player in the class of Watson, but an outstanding payer none the less), but not as a rule. The Paul McGinleys of the world will usually trump the Tom Watsons when it comes to coaching — even if they couldn’t beat them head-to-head on the golf course.

Cheap And Mean

I have remarked in previous posts about a pet peeve of mine, to wit, the tendency of wealthy athletes to keep a tight grip on their money and rarely give any of it away to worthy causes.  I  noted exceptions to the rule. But I also made mention of Phil Mickelson’s outrage when confronted by the fact that the state in which he lives — California — had the audacity to pass a law requiring the wealthy to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. He even threatened to move. Heaven forbid that the money should go to things like education, health care, and police and fire protection! That would be a dangerous precedent indeed.

There are exceptions, as I have noted, though they do tend to target causes that are close to the athlete’s heart — such as Ernie Els’ devotion to the cause of autistic children because he has one of his own. There are also those who seem to be able to see beyond their own noses, such as young Rickie Fowler, the golfer who looks like a cartoon character with flat-brimmed golf caps color-coordinated with his entire outfit, which is almost always in a garish colors, such as bright orange. The young man does seem to want to call attention to himself. But he also wants to do good with his money as he did recently at the Crowne Plaza Invitational in Ft. Worth, Texas when he pledged $100,000 of his own money for tornado relief in Oklahoma. At the time the announcement was made we were also told that a group of five golfers (who will remain nameless out of a sense of decency) pledged $100.00 for every birdie and $200.00 for every eagle they collectively scored at the tournament.

Two things bother me about this latter “pledge.” To begin with, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Birdies are extremely rare and eagles are as well. This pledge is not unlike a person promising $1,000.00 to a charity predicated on his winning the lottery. These five golfers are playing the odds. The chances are very good this “pledge” will cost them nothing. But even if it did, the dollars they have pledged amount to petty cash. For men in their income bracket this is small change, something they could easily reach into their pockets and peel off without blinking an eye. Why would anyone make such a hollow pledge in the face of genuine human suffering? When there are people in real need so many of those who could help seem to turn the other way and check their bank accounts to make sure it hasn’t been diminished in any way by some foolish gesture they might have made after a couple of martinis. It does give one pause, since one might argue that those who are in a position to help others in need have a responsibility to do so. Indeed, I would argue this, which is why this sort of thing is a pet peeve of mine — as you may have guessed.

Alongside the generous, caring athletes like Fowler there are those who seem to have no conscience whatever and who even seem to be mocking those who genuinely care — in a world where and at a time when we need those who care for others more than ever.

Social Conscience

Not long ago I made passing reference to the apparent fact that a great many athletes who make millions of dollars playing a game and getting endorsements seem to lack any sort of social conscience. I realize that there are notable exceptions — such as Billie Jean King, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Adrian Peterson — to name a few. But on the whole, many athletes are reluctant to speak out about the problems around them and to lend their considerable weight, money, and reputation to movements that might actually help rectify many social ills — such as poverty and the lack of opportunity for so many people. The medieval thinkers would have called this the “sin of omission,” the failure to act when an evil is clearly perceived. The problem is that many of these athletes simply don’t perceive the ills that surround them in this society.

Billie Jean King(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Billie Jean King
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Indeed, when many athletes retire the best they can think of is to open an academy or a school where they will teach youngsters to play the games that made them famous. I blogged about Andy Roddick not long ago in this respect. That is not a bad thing and it is nice to see these people “giving back” to the games they play, but they are after all just games. There are more serious problems  that need attention, to be sure. This simply shows us how small the world the world is in which these people live.

But when you think about it, what are we to expect? Take golf, for example. Sports Illustrated does a poll every year among the American male golfers, and except for David Duval (who has recently been relegated to golf’s minor leagues), there isn’t a single American golfer who would be caught dead voting for a Democrat. This is not to say that only Democrats are socially responsible; that is surely not the case. But so many of those golfers are simply concerned to make sure they keep a tight grip on as much of their money as they possibly can, and they seem convinced that the best way to assure that is to vote for Republicans. If they do get involved with charities it is usually ones that touch them in a close, personal way. God forbid the state or country should take some of their money and do some real good with it.

These men tend to identify the Democratic Party with Socialism and while they have no idea what that means, they know they don’t want to have  anything to do with it. But again, what are we to expect? They fly all over the world, but they have no idea what is going on in that world. They live in gated communities; fly in private jets or first class accommodations; stay in high-priced hotels or rent a condominium during their current tournament; play at the world’s poshest golf courses and are taxied back and forth in the latest expensive SUV;  and they engage in conversation only with like-minded, wealthy Republicans. They are the pawns of their corporate sponsors — as suggested by their clothing which is covered with corporate logos. In fact, the only people with more logos on their clothing are the Nascar drivers and they aren’t really athletes, as George Carlin reminded us years ago: they are rednecks driving around in circles.

In any event, golfers resemble so many of the other wealthy athletes living in a shrunken world talking only to others who think as they do, and worried that “the government” is going to take away some of their easy money (witness Phil Mickelson who recently threatened to move out of California because they passed a bill taxing wealthy citizens at a higher rate. Goodness!)

But, while we can only regret that socially aware athletes like Arthur Ashe are no longer around, when all is said and done we really should be thankful for the handful of wealthy athletes who do give some of their money and time to deserving causes — such as children’s hospitals and hurricane relief, for example. It’s remarkable that they rise above the level of awareness that seems to be the norm in the sports world where narcissistic men and women are chasing their dream in the form of a palatial home, expensive cars, and safe investments. But as they would be the first to tell me: it’s their money. Who am I to say what they should do with it?

Miss America Conservatism

I am borrowing Mark Schmitt’s delightful and descriptive phrase from a blog I recently read by SaltyPoliticalMusings. The phrase suggests the tendency of conservatives to embrace only those causes that affect them directly, to smile and pretend that everything is hunky-dory until events are so rude as to slap them in the face. As it happens, this is not necessarily a conservative tendency: we all share it. But the case in point is that of Senator Rob Portman who has recently come out in defense of gay marriage — after discovering that his son is gay. Matthew Yglesias, in a column quoted at length by “Musings,” notes that Sarah Palin also embraced the cause of disabled children because she happens to have one. In sports Ernie Els the golfer promotes aid for autism because he has an autistic son and Phil Mickelson began to raise money for cancer research after his wife came down with the dreaded disease. In a word: when it is about us we take notice. Congress and the wealthy who support this Congress ignore the plight of the poor because as Yglesias says “Congress does not have poor children.”

In this regard, I read on Yahoo News about the terrible drought affecting Somalia where we are told that:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Global warming may have contributed to low rain levels in Somalia in 2011 where tens of thousands died in a famine, research by British climate scientists suggests.

Scientists with Britain’s weather service studied weather patterns in East Africa in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.

But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of “the systematic warming due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Peter Scott of Britain’s Met Office, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview.

People are dying in that part of the world, but it isn’t us and therefore we really don’t care. And those deaths can almost certainly be connected to global warming. So many people in our part of the world, including many of those in Congress,  go about their business denying the obvious and embracing fossil fuels as the solution to all of our energy problems and will continue to do so until the drought that is also affecting large portions of this country starts to drive the food prices upwards and makes some foods unavailable to us. When it is about us we will pay attention.

We thus have a complex moral issue here. To begin with there is the convenient attitude that ignores the plight of those in need until someone close to us suddenly becomes one of those in need. Closely related is the moral failure to make ourselves aware of human suffering that requires our attention. Jean Paul Sartre insisted that we are defined by our freedom and said freedom implies a responsibility for everything that happens anywhere on the planet. If we are not aware of a problem, we have a responsibility to find out. While this may seem a bit extreme, he makes an interesting point.

We are clearly caught up in love of self and the determination to deal only with those problems that affect us directly, forgetting that we are part of a human community and as such have obligations to all who suffer, which requires — at the very least — that we not ignore the plight of others.  The moral imperative that seems to weaken as time rolls on is the one that directs us to take action to prevent evil whenever and wherever we see it and also demands that we take notice even when it doesn’t happen to affect us directly. Awareness of a problem coupled with the ability to address the problem implies a responsibility to act. It all begins by opening our eyes to what is going on around us.  Our active concern shouldn’t have to wait until the problem is in our back yard.

Dodging Taxes

A recent story in Yahoo News caught my eye. Apparently there is movement afoot among the very wealthy to renounce their citizenship and skip the country to protect their filthy lucre. The story reads, in part:

According to a 2012 study published by the Research Institute of Industrial Economics that examined the mobility of billionaires over the past two decades, “70% [of those billionaires] have migrated from a higher to a lower capital gains tax country … One-third of the billionaires that moved went to small countries defined as ‘tax havens,’” including Switzerland, Bahamas and Singapore.

Presumably these billionaires are all Americans. In any event, we can infer from this that the exodus has been going on for some time. But apparently with the new tax increases  that have raised the taxes among the very wealthy a huge 4.6% the number of people from this country who are seeking asylum elsewhere in places where their money is safe from the IRS has increased. In the state of California where Proposition 30 has added to the tax burden of the very wealthy — and where millionaires like Phil Mickelson can be heard crying poor — the number of people thinking about leaving the country is even larger.

There are several interesting ramifications of this exodus. To begin with, one must question these people’s patriotism, which involves both rights and responsibilities. They obviously see taxes simply as a burden — as though the state and the Federal government are stealing their money; they recognize no obligation whatever to the state and country that have provided them with the opportunity to accumulate this huge wealth. Nor do they see themselves as part of a larger inter-dependent community. Rather, they see themselves, on the whole, as self-made men and women who didn’t need anyone’s help along the way. We noted that when Romney was running for President. It is apparently an affliction which the vast majority of wealthy in this country are stricken with, a kind of moral blindness. We might call it the “self-sufficient syndrome” (S.S.S.) They are blind to their obligations to others.

But this tax money can do so much good in the states and the country at large to improve the infrastructure, assist the poor to get back on their feet, improve the schools which are near the bottom of the world’s educational heap, and improve the lot of those who are in need of proper health care. None of these things seems to factor in with those whose lives are focused entirely on the effort to accumulate and protect their (often) ill-gotten gains.

The hope of the founders was that the Republic would encourage public virtue, the desire of all people to place the common good above self-interest. Their hope was that this form of government, of all the kinds the world has ever known, would involve its citizens in the effort to build a community of kindred spirits who would pull together to make the country strong and vibrant. Instead, many U.S. citizens see nothing but the opportunity to gain wealth and continue to do so until they die  (“the one with the most toys when he dies wins”) — at which point they will hand as much of it as possible over to their children to give them the same sort of head-start they almost certainly had themselves. So those lofty ideals of apparently naive thinkers in the eighteenth century who founded this nation have been replaced by the reality of greed and self-interest (the very things they feared). And those of us who will be left behind after the exodus is over will have to clean up their mess.

Phil Is Troubled

I was struck by the following story on Fox News about golfer Phil Mickelson’s tax problems:

For golf legend Phil Mickelson, the low 60s makes for a great score on the links — and a lousy tax rate in his home state of California.

Mickelson said “drastic changes” are ahead for him due to federal and California state tax increases that have pushed his tax rate to what he figures adds up to “62, 63 percent.” The left-hander will talk more about his plans — possibly moving out of California or even retiring altogether. . .

I must confess I didn’t read about this problem at Fox News. I don’t make a habit of watching that TV “News” program or reading their drivel. But I had heard about Phil’s problems and checked it out and was (not surprisingly) directed to the Fox News item. It is being carried there, I suspect, because it is a story about an American icon who is being burned by the terrible tax burden he is now under as a result of the recent events in both Washington and California. Fox’s readers and viewers are expected to sympathize with Phil. Phil’s taxes are going up and he is distraught. Poor Phil.

Consider the fact that Phil makes an estimated $48 million a year, $43 million in endorsements alone. This puts him in a very high tax bracket indeed, not only from the Fed but also from California which recently passed Proposition 30 that raised taxes on the wealthy — which Phil certainly is. In any event, Phil will now be left with a meager $18 million to somehow try to get along on. I must say, I think I could manage, but then I am not accustomed to living the lifestyle Phil undoubtedly lives. I suppose he may have to buy a smaller plane. But, seriously folks, doesn’t that still seem to you to be an incredibly large annual income?

I heard about Phil’s plight on the Golf Channel while I was watching “The Morning Drive.”  The talking heads on that show were disappointed that Phil would drag out his dirty laundry in public. They didn’t comment on the obscene amount of money Phil would still be left with, but they thought it would have been best if he had kept this sort of thing between himself and his wife or his accountant. Good point. I give them high marks for that — though as you can imagine I would have gone a bit further. They did point out, however, that the average bloke out there who is  having trouble putting food on the table probably doesn’t want to hear a millionaire piss and moan about the fact that he has to pay higher taxes this year. Indeed.

But the larger point here is the lack of perspective of the very wealthy — which we saw in many of Mitt Romney’s comments during the recent campaign. They just don’t get it. Most people would have no idea what to do with $18 million in a lifetime, much less in a year. And yet Mickelson is now threatening to leave California or retire from golf because he is miffed about the fact that he will have to share a great deal of his money with those less fortunate than himself. After all, that’s what taxes are about: promoting the “common good.” And it might be wise to remind ourselves (and Phil) that this country enjoyed its greatest prosperity right after the Second World War when the wealthy in this country were paying taxes at the rate of around 90%. It might also help if we all think about the fact that Norwegians are taxed at a rate of 45% of their income and according to a recent study they are the happiest people on earth. Be cool, Phil.

Lacking Perspective

Andy Roddick is retiring from professional tennis at the age of 30. This is big news on the tennis scene, though it has been apparent for some time that he cannot compete with the three or four top players in the world. His game is one-dimensional: it’s all about power. In any event he is reportedly going to build a tennis center and that will be his focus in the years to come. This is what the world needs: another tennis center. Andre Agassi and John McEnroe have tennis centers as does Vic Braden and heaven only knows who else. One notes that it has almost become a cliché for the retired athlete to build an athletic center — in his own name, of course — to teach the skills (and “life lessons”) to younger players.

The bothersome thing is that the world really does not need more tennis centers! It needs people with excess money to think about real human needs and attempt to address some of them. Think of the good that Roddick, for example, could do with the money that will go to another tennis center to teach kids how to play tennis. 45 million people in this country go to bed hungry; the number of homeless people who live with their kids in a cheap motel or sleep in their cars grows daily; the planet itself demands our attention since, as Diane Keaton (of all people) has noted “climate change, like gravity, doesn’t give a damn whether you ‘believe’ in it or not. It’s happening regardless.” Now there’s a woman with perspective.

I have commented in a previous blog about the apparent lack of perspective of so many wealthy professional athletes, specifically Billie Jean King who did remarkable things to help give women a foot up in women’s tennis but also seems to be unaware that there are things besides tennis that really matter. As I noted in writing about Billie Jean’s appearance before a Congressional Committee to promote tennis: “Billie Jean King is on my rather short list of sports heroes, along with Phil Mickelson and Magic Johnson — folks who are keen to do the right thing, not just their own thing. But I have always thought Billie Jean stands too close to the trees to see the forest. Like so many professional athletes, she lives in a small world, though she is admittedly an exception in exhibiting any social awareness whatever. She has repeatedly spoken out for tennis and for women’s rights — important issues, to be sure, especially the latter. But despite her “platform” she has also been silent throughout her life on the larger issues that affect us all, issues that take priority over even women’s rights and especially the success of this country’s tennis programs. One must applaud her for wanting to “give back” and promote worthy causes. But one must also question her perspective and lack of a sense of priorities.”

It might be asked: this is their money why shouldn’t they do whatever they want with it? This is true, of course. But the question is whether there is something they should do with their money. There’s a moral principle involved here: when we know there is a wrong being committed and we are in a position to ameliorate that wrong we have an obligation to intercede. The wealthy — athletes included — are in a position to do great good given their wealth and their position in this culture. They cannot claim ignorance of the wrongs that are being done on a daily basis all around them. Therefore they have an obligation, as do we all, to intercede and try to rectify that wrong. These people travel the world but they don’t seem to see what is going on around them. Their world is the size of a tennis court or a golf course or a football field — with a few exceptions, as mentioned. The world could be such a better place if all of us could see the wider canvass — but especially those with tons of money they apparently don’t know what to do with!

Random Acts

There is a part of me that gets very angry when I read and hear about the failings of my fellow human beings, their tendency toward self-absorption and lack of concern about the world around them or about other people. But every now and again I tumble across random acts of human kindness and genuine love and I take heart. I have mentioned Phil Mickelson who shares some of his immense wealth with others less fortunate than himself. That is certainly admirable. I am also aware that Magic Johnson has been tireless in his efforts to help the people in the inner city in Los Angles. He is certainly one of my heroes, especially when we read about so many professional athletes who spend their money on more cars, larger homes, piercings and tattoos, and so often seem to be violent and abusive.

I recall with special fondness the sight on TV of a man reaching up in the stands to catch a foul ball at a baseball game. His 4 or 5-year-old daughter is sitting next to him and after he catches the ball he hands it to his daughter — who promptly tosses the ball back on to the field! Rather than toss the little girl onto the field after the ball in anger and frustration, as one might expect, the man reaches down and embraces the little girl, who seems so pleased with herself, and gives her a big kiss. A lovely moment indeed, and shown repeatedly on ESPN for several weeks thereafter — as it should be.

But I have friends, we all do, who take time out of their lives to give to others, to volunteer in soup kitchens, or the hospital, or even at the golf course. It helps out, it involves sacrifice and giving of time and effort to make the lives of others more pleasant — or more endurable. I have a blog buddy, Jennifer, who takes time out of her busy life not to regale us with personal anecdotes, as so many bloggers seem to be doing, but to share news with her readers in an effort to make them more aware and get them thinking about some of the more pressing problems in our world — because she cares. I also have a close friend who has had his own terrible times and spends hours now counseling others who face the same traumas and fears he has managed to work through himself.

Indeed, there are good people on this planet along with those who simply don’t see beyond their own noses and who ignore others in their pursuit of pleasure and wealth. The latter group is the larger one, I am convinced. But they share this increasingly crowded planet with others who really care and who are given to acts of random kindness. I must keep reminding myself.

Tennis Everyone?

Billie Jean King appeared before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., as reported recently by Yahoo sports, and asked for help promoting tennis around the country. The story reads as follows:

WASHINGTON (AP) Hall of Famer and women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King is asking members of Congress to help the U.S. Tennis Association with community outreach efforts. King is in Washington to meet with lawmakers and further the USTA’s efforts to develop local partnerships around the country. Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, the owner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles and 27 more in women’s or mixed doubles said: ”Tennis has given me my platform … to continue my lifelong quest for equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, men and women.” King says the USTA ”is more committed than ever to make tennis more accessible,” and has built or refurbished more than 25,000 courts in public parks or schools since 2005.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have always been a fan of Billlie Jean King and tennis has been a big part of my life. But, seriously, doesn’t she realize that these people are supposed to have important business to conduct? Making America more tennis friendly doesn’t seem to me to be a high priority with a Congress that has a full plate — though they do seem to lack the silverware to tackle what’s on it. I readily confess I share the opinion of many of my fellow countrymen about the abilities and skills of members of Congress. Most of them seem to be small-minded, preoccupied with their own reelection, and taking advantage of their golden opportunity. Where else, for example, could you find a job where you vote yourself a raise whenever you feel the need; you make contact with corporate moguls who can get you a high-paying job as their lobbyist after you leave office; and you can pretty much waste your time and the taxpayer’s money because the taxpayers themselves are too busy trying to make a living to pay any attention whatever to what you may or may not be doing? Be that as it may, one would like to think rebuilding America’s dominance in tennis cannot be high on the to-do list, whether or not this group will ever get around to doing anything.

To be sure, the story doesn’t say Billlie Jean is asking for money. It says she wants Congress to help with the U.S.T.A.’s “outreach efforts.” I dare to say that this is simply a polite way of asking for funding. In any event, if Congress were to offer the U.S.T.A. some money, I suspect they would be only too happy to take it. But let’s face it, the growth of tennis, or any other sport for that matter, is not a problem the U.S. Congress should be asked to worry about. Really, Billlie Jean, though I hate to say it, there are more important things than tennis.

Billlie Jean King is on my rather short list of sports heroes, along with Phil Mickelson and Magic Johnson — folks who are keen to do the right thing, not just their own thing. But I have always thought Billlie Jean stands too close to the trees to see the forest. Like so many professional athletes, she lives in a small world, though she is admittedly an exception in taking any stand at all. She has repeatedly spoken out for tennis and for women’s rights — important issues, to be sure, especially the latter. But despite her “platform” she has also been silent throughout her life on the larger issues that affect us all, issues that take priority over even women’s rights and especially the success of this country’s tennis programs. One must applaud her for wanting to “give back” and promote worthy causes. But one must also question her perspective and lack of a sense of priorities. After all, the state of tennis in this country won’t really matter if we don’t begin to control the population, address the energy crisis, and take the necessary steps to preserve the environment in which tennis is played. Neither will the legal rights of women.

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.”