Why Sports?

I have a number of friends who tend to look down their noses at sports and those who “waste their time” viewing or participating in sports. What’s the point, they ask? Why so much fuss about hitting that ball back and forth over a net or rolling that tiny white ball into the small hole in the ground?  Clearly, they cannot see it. And many who do see it are unable to see much of anything else. But there are reasons, good reasons, for participating in sports and while watching athletic events in person or on television might not be the most productive way to spend time, it beats such things as drinking or smoking pot — though, perhaps, it’s not as much fun. (I wouldn’t know [wink, wink]).

In any event, I do think there is a defense that can be made for participating in sports at all levels, from the lowest to the highest.  As others have pointed out, they tend to develop “character” and that is something that seems to be on hold pretty much anywhere else. I’m not talking about Division I sports at the University level, especially football and basketball. We know that character is the least of the concerns of those involved in those activities. The scandals that break out almost daily drive home the point that those sports are corrupt at their core and leave many former athletes dazed, discarded and wasted on the sidelines, victims of alcohol or drugs, out of work, frequently penniless, and full of pain.

But at the junior levels, in the schools and even in college at the Division III level where sports are played for the fun of it — for the most part — character is developed through self-denial, discipline, and the frequent experience of failure.  In no other walk of life these days, least of all in the schools, do we allow kids to fail, ignoring the well-known fact that failure is a very valuable life-lesson. In this regard, I hasten to add, the strange new practice of awarding trophies to all young participants and refusing to keep score defeats the purpose of sports — those aspects  of sports that are worth preserving.

Sports are also one of the few remaining places where it is not only appropriate but encouraged to discuss “greatness.” Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever to have played the game? How about Bill Russell? And is Rod Laver the greatest tennis player to have ever wielded a tennis racket — or is it Federer (or, perhaps, Martina Navratilova)? And so it goes. The Commissars of Culture who dominate the scholarly citadels have disallowed the notion of greatness in the arts, literature, and even behavior since it is now the case, apparently, that it is all a matter of taste. Period. There are no great writers, only those we prefer. There is no great art because it’s “all in the eye of the beholder.” We cannot talk about Great Books because there are no such things. They have been tossed into the bin waiting to be burned by professors who prefer to hold forth about postmodern theories and discuss the latest tome by a minority figure who has been wrongly ignored.

I have held forth on this topic many times because it seems to me to be so intellectually lazy and wrong-headed. There are clearly great writers, painters, and sculptors as there are great dancers and musicians. Not only can we discuss over a beer (or two) whether Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, but also can also discuss over a glass of wine (or beer) whether Mozart was a great composer, perhaps the greatest ever, and whether or not Elizabeth Wharton was a great writer. I’m not saying that the discussion won’t get heated at times, or even that there is an answer that we would all agree upon. But the issue can be discussed, because there is greatness in our common world. It is rare, but it is there along with real beauty, ugliness, fear, spitefulness, and generosity. Indeed, our world is full of richness in all shades and colors. And we can talk about that world and come to some sort of agreement about the things that go on in it, even with those who see things entirely differently. Out at least we used to be able to do so.

In any case, the argument in favor of pursuing sports at all levels has to do not only with the fact that it does build character through self-denial and discipline, and, of course, acceptance of the lessons of failure. But it also teaches us about greatness. It opens our eyes to things going on around us and prepares the field for an intelligent discussion not only of greatness in sports but anywhere else as well. Furthermore, it helps participants to develop coordination and strength, a healthy body to accompany our healthy minds. The Greeks knew it, like they did so many other things. But many of us seem to have forgotten it, or are determined to look away and snigger at the horrible waste of time on the part of those who participate as well as those who simply watch and marvel at the beauty sports sometimes display, the sheer magic of what the human body can do, and the vicarious release of passions that might otherwise lead us in the wrong direction.

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Deflate-gate

Unless perhaps you live in Ecuador, where such trivial incidents are rightly ignored, you have probably been aware of the controversy surrounding the footballs used in the AFC Championship by the New England Patriots. Eleven of the twelve footballs used in the game were found to be under-inflated by about two pounds, making them easier for the quarterback, who selects the balls before each game, to grip and throw, especially in wet and cold conditions. Each team uses its own footballs, so this apparently gave New England an edge — though they clearly didn’t need one, stomping the Indianapolis Colts in the game by some forty points.

In any event, there has been endless discussion about the incident, making the Super Bowl itself a bit of a sideshow while pundits discuss endlessly the pros-and cons of what they like to call “deflate-gate.” In itself, it’s a tempest in a teapot, but  it became interesting when both the coach and the quarterback denied any knowledge of the fact that the balls used were below the pressure specified by NFL rules. Most experts, including a number of former professional quarterbacks, admit that the coach might not know about the balls, but they all agree that the quarterback must have known, because he handles each ball before the game to make sure it is as he likes it. In a word, the issue has now shifted to the more interesting moral question: who’s lying? It appears to be Tom Brady, the New England quarterback. Indeed, according to many, it must be.

I recall an experiment conducted by a writer for Sports Illustrated years ago with Rod Laver, possibly the best tennis player to have ever lifted a racket. Laver told the reporter that he could detect any changes to his rackets and the reporter challenged him to a test. The reporter placed a small piece of lead tape weighing less than half an ounce on the frame of one of Laver’s rackets and, blindfolded, Laver picked it out of a group of a half-dozen. His rackets were his livelihood. He knew exactly how heavy each one had to be and how tight the strings were as well. Similarly, Brady knew full well that the balls he was using were to his exact specifications. And those specifications were under the limits set by the NFL. But things don’t stop there.

Soon after Brady’s press conference where he denied any knowledge of the fact that rules were broken (no matter how trivial they seem to us) ESPN took a nation-wide poll and it revealed that the vast majority of fans in every state, except Nebraska(!), believe that Brady is telling the truth. Seriously? Is it possible that the majority of people in this country are that blind? It appears so — assuming that the poll was a reliable indicator. Despite the testimony of a number of people of unquestioned credibility, including John Madden, whom fans have always loved and trusted, the majority of people believe that the only man who could be responsible is, in their minds, not responsible. Which now takes us to the next stage of the issue, namely, the stupidity of the average American football fan.

This is therefore no longer about footballs and whether or not they meet NFL specifications. It’s about the willingness of vast numbers of people in this country to believe what they want to believe and ignore the facts that have been clearly set before them. Brady is the only one who could have under-inflated those balls — or had someone do it for him. But this fact does not penetrate the minds of those who cannot open them. Please consider that these are the same people who vote on our next president and the members of Congress. In my mind, that is what makes this issue especially disturbing. It’s not about football. It’s about the inability or unwillingness of so many people to see beyond what they want to see.

 

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.

Histrionics and Honesty

The tennis player breaks serve to even the match and drops to one knee, pumps his fist four times and turns to his player’s box and gives out a primal scream that makes the birds for hundreds of feet around leave their trees in a panic. The defensive end makes a routine tackle, leaps up, raises his head and points to the skies after thumping his chest like a great ape. The golfer makes a three-foot put that places him in a playoff with another golfer and he pumps his fist like he’s trying to start an imaginary lawnmower and turns to the gallery with a look of triumph as though he had just discovered penicillin.

And so it goes. In every sport and at all levels it seems the athletes act like fools every time they make a relatively routine play. One longs for the days of Johnny Unitas who  threw a touchdown pass and casually trotted off to his bench. Or one waits, in vain, for another Rod Laver who always gave credit to his opponent, even if his loss was due to an injury that he never mentioned to anyone but his closest fiends and his trainer, and who celebrated his record number of Grand Slam wins with a trot to the net and a smile and a handshake.

But those were the days before the JumboTron, the giant TV screen on nearly every playing field and court which shows the player his greatness in high-definition. No sooner is the play or the point over then all eyes go to the big screen and the player waits to see if his feats of athletic prowess have been captured in full color. Perhaps they will be played again on Sports Center’s “Top 10” tomorrow! All of this, the TV and the replays on the field and court, have contributed to the histrionics that now must be regarded as a necessary part of sports. We are told it shows us raw emotion, the athlete being totally honest. And it seems to be the thing that “sells” the sport these days. If one dares to suggest that this whole thing is a sham and even a bit sickening one is considered something of a jerk. So the TV cameras get close-in and show it to us again and again…and again. In super slow-motion. (Can we get a close-up of the tears, or the look of agony on the face of the halfback with a torn ACL?? Show that hit again and do a close-up on the celebration afterwards! Play it again!)  We love this stuff!

Raw emotion in our culture has become identified with honesty of character, the more the better. But if we stop and think for a moment, we realize that as a whole we are not all that honest, and a show of raw emotion may have nothing whatever to do with honesty. Honesty is not about what we see on TV or the JumboTron: it’s about telling the truth. It is about character which is formed in the home by parental example, for the most part. And we know that professional (and semi-professional, i.e,, collegiate) sports are just like everything else in this culture: they are a diversion that shows us what we want to see. Nothing more. Sports, at least at the highest levels, are not a breeding ground for honesty and character-building. (Think: Johnny Football.)

Just consider the cover-up culture: the college campuses across this country where it is a matter of course that coaches and administrators tell the public little or nothing about what really goes on in order to keep the big stars eligible to play the game on Saturday. We don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the institution, after all. But despite the cover-ups, the word occasionally leaks out — as it did at Penn State not long ago. But, they say, “everyone else is doing it” (which may indeed be true). In ethics this is called the “two wrongs fallacy.” It’s quite common. But the felonies that are committed are still wrong, no matter how  many people commit them. And the cover-ups can hardly be considered “honest.”

So let’s not hear all that nonsense about how honest we are as a people. We aren’t. Next to politics and the local used-car lot, sports are only the most obvious place where our dishonesty shows itself — from the big-college cover-ups to where the athlete takes out a pen from his sock and signs an imaginary autograph after a touchdown, or pounds his chest just after the routine tackle.  It’s not honesty, it’s pretense, putting on a show. The emotions may not even be honest. At times they, too, seem staged.

It might be wise to stop and think for a minute about what honesty really means. It’s not about cover-ups and keeping a lid on things. And it’s not about chest pumping and letting it all hang out on the field or the court. It’s the little boy who admits to his Mom that it was him and not his friend who threw the rock through the window; it’s the golfer who tells the umpire that he grounded his club in the sand trap even though it costs him a stroke and the match; it’s about the tennis player who tells her opponent that her shot was in, even though it costs her the game; it’s about the woman who admits to herself that the lump in her breast is something she needs to tell the doctor about; it’s about the baseball player who “goes public” and admits that he took performance enhancing drugs, even though he knows it could cost him a place in the Hall of Fame; it’s about the college sophomore who insists on writing the term paper herself rather than buying it off the internet like so many of her friends. It’s about facing up to things and telling it like it is — and accepting the consequences, which are frequently unpleasant. It is often very private and it requires courage. And, sadly, it will never be replayed on the JumboTron or on “Sports Center’s” Top Ten, even though it is well worth shouting about.