Rewards And Such

As one who did time in academe — hard time in fact — I have always wondered why those in charge are so reluctant to give out awards and rewards for exceptional work. Those of us who taught, for example, knew who the hard workers and good teachers were. Everybody knew. But those folks were seldom, if ever, acknowledged in any way  — except by the students who tended to turn the whole thing into a popularity contest. I worked very hard, for example, and when I retired I received a framed certificate signed by the governor of Minnesota (or one of his toadies) thanking me for 37 years of loyal service. It was the same certificate that was handed out to all of us who retired at the same time throughout the state system, including one of my colleagues who taught the same courses with the same syllabi for years — only in the mornings, so he could spend the afternoons in his office downtown making real money. Eventually it occurred to me that this is because a reward draws attention to those few who are rewarded and is resented by those who might feel slighted.

That is to say, in fear that someone will take umbrage at the fact that they were passed by, those who deserve to be noticed are ignored. The sentiment here is clear and in some ways admirable: we should do nothing that makes a person feel bad. I suppose this is why so many who teach are reluctant to fail their students — though a friend of mine who taught in our small school in my town once told me he passed poor students along because he didn’t want to have to teach them again! In any event, the outstanding students and teachers who deserve to be noticed are ignored out of a somewhat distorted sense of justice that leads many to the conclusion that it is a form of discrimination.

But let’s give this a moment’s thought. Discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. We discriminate all the time when we choose the red wine over the white, or the steak over the hamburger, the Rembrandt over the Rockwell, Joseph Conrad over the latest pot-boiler. Discrimination used to be a sign of a well-educated, “discriminating” person. That person can choose good books, music, and art and avoid things that might have little or no real value, things that will surely rot his brain. It was supposed to be a good thing. But now, in our postmodern age, we insist that there is no such thing as a “good” book or a “good” paining or composition. There are just things that are written, painted, and played, things people like. It’s all relative. With the absence of standards and the push to greater equality, including the refusal to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color (or ability), we live in a world awash with confusion about what is and what is not to be selected as worthy of our attention and effort. Anything goes. Words like “great” and “excellent” are no longer allowed in the name of political correctness which insists that it’s all a matter of opinion.

Interestingly enough, this hasn’t happened in athletics. Though there is a push among those connected with youth athletics to avoid keeping score and to give every participant a trophy at the end of the season (!), by and large those few who stand out in sports are recognizes and praised for a job well done. Perhaps this explains the craziness of those in our culture when it comes to collegiate and professional sports. At last, they seem to think, we can point out the outstanding athletes and discuss over a beer (or three) who were the GREAT ones! We don’t have to worry about political correctness, because everyone knows that some athletes are better than others. There are winners and there are losers and in sports we side with the winners and stand by the losers hoping that they will soon become winners — or because they are our sons and daughters.

My point, of course, is that we have a double standard. We are willing to recognize and talk about greatness on sports — and even allow that losing may teach vital lessons — but we refuse to do so in every other walk of life because we might hurt someone’s feelings. It never seems to occur to us that the “hurt” may become a motivator to push the one who fails to be recognized to work harder in order to become recognized sometime later. Losers who hope to become winners, if you will. It applies in sports, and it most assuredly applies in life as well.

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P.B.F.

The initials in my title stand for the words: “Post-Birdie-F%$kup. They are words taught to me by a friend I play golf with and they describe a pattern one finds in a great many sports —  not just golf. But in golf they describe the tendency of players to score a birdie and then, on the next hole, to get a triple boogie. “Can’t stand success,” they say. It happens a great deal. In tennis, for example, I noted that many of the people I played with (never me, of course) double-faulted after an ace. Great shot then PGGFFFFGH.

The saying goes: “Pride goeth before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.” This is usually shortened to “Pride Goeth Before a Fall,” which is a lazy way of saying the same thing. But whether we are talking about pride or a haughty spirit, we are referring to the tendency which has been around for a great many years apparently, to blow a lead, choke in a crisis, get a big head, get cocky after a good shot. Take your pick.

One of the aspects of this phenomenon is the tendency of highly rated players — say a top seed in a tennis tournament — to choke under the pressure (the air is thin at the top). When I coached tennis and used to take my players to the National Tournament in the Spring after the regular season I realized (years later) that the players I managed to get seeded never did well. The ones who did well, including three All-Americns, were always unseeded. They “flew beneath the radar.” If I had noticed it early on I would never have allowed my players to get the seed in the first place. It put undue pressure on them and they felt it and had difficulty making their bodies obey they commands of their minds. In a word, they choked. As all athletes know, it is easier to play when behind than when ahead — or favored to win.

Arthur Ashe once said that all athletes choke. The great ones learn how to play well even under the pressure. This is what separates the great athletes in every sport from the average to good ones: they handle the pressure better. This would include people like Tiger Woods in his prime, Jack Nicklaus, Chris Evert in her prime, Rod Laver, Roger Federer, and teams such as  the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, the 1950s Yankees, the current Golden State Warriors, and other teams and players noted for their winning ways — regardless of the pressure. No P.B.F. for them, though even the great ones have problems at times.

As an example of this is Dustin Johnson the golfer was recently named the #1 player in the P.G.A.  In a recent W.G.C. match-play tournament he built a large 5-hole lead in the final match and then saw it whither away and had to hold on to squeak out a win by one hole. Even the great ones feel the pressure.

So what do we learn from this — those of us who aren’t involved in athletics at the higher levels? We learn that it is best to remain silent and fight the tendency to get smug when things go well for fear that it “will come back to bite us.” A president, for example, who is convinced that his personal prestige and bullying tactics are sufficient to move a bill through Congress may discover that his smug attitude is the very thing that turns those very Congressmen against him and he may lose the fight. P.B.F.

Beware the bug that comes back to bite you. Beware of P.B.F. It can strike anywhere and at any time!

The Life of Reason

The American philosopher, George Santayana, wrote a book with the title of this post. In that book he famously said, among many other things, that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But it is mainly an attempt to trace the development of reason in the human mind from birth to old age. The book is complex and somewhat technical, but it draws on the fact that reasoning in humans is developmental and natural, though certain prompts are required at certain points along the way. This notion was later fostered by the French psychologist Jean Piaget who started the school of “developmental psychology” that stresses the various stages of mental development in children and adults.

In any case, the conclusion of these two men is clearly stated: reason is not something that just “happens,” it develops in stages and requires the right kind of encouragement along the way. And in an alarming number of cases, as is evident in the current race for the presidency, reason remains undeveloped altogether. This thesis has been verified by recent tests that show the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain, which is the “analytical” side, requires that parents read to their very young children and tell them stories — and keep them away from television and electronic games. Now, while analysis is only a part of our reasoning capacity, which also includes synthesis (the ability to make connections) it is critical for the ability to think one’s way through complex issues. Reason must be developed and nurtured along the way and it begins with reading and telling stories, but it goes well beyond that.

Santayana gives us a hint at what might be required in developing reason in young people:

“The child, like the animal, is a colossal egoist, not from want of sensibility, but through a deep transcendental isolation. The mind is naturally its own world and solipsism needs to be broken down by social influence. The child must learn to sympathize intelligently, to be considerate rather than instinctively to love and hate; his imagination must become cognitive and dramatically just, instead of remaining, as it naturally is, sensitively, selfishly fanciful.”

This is an example of the close, compact — and somewhat technical — way Santayana writes. But his point is worth unpacking and taking to heart. He suggests that children are, at the outset, much like other animals. The development not only of reason but also of sensitivity and human sympathy come with socialization. It is the job of the family, the church, and the schools — not to mention the many people whom the child will encounter outside those specialized institutions — who help him or her to develop into a mature human being. Interesting in this regard, is the role that sports might play in the development of the whole person. As Santayana outs it,

“Priceless in this regard is athletic exercise; for here the test of ability is visible, the comparison [with others] is not odious, the need for cooperation clear, and the consciousness of power genuine and therefore ennobling. Socratic dialectic is not a better means of learning to know oneself.”

Thus, in this man’s carefully developed opinion, we seem to be on the wrong track today in rewarding children for little effort and handing out such things as participation trophies. The young need to learn from failure and we must all, in turn, acknowledge the growth that such failure can prosper. The things that young people need to learn, to come out of themselves (“egoists” as we all are as very young people) come with age but especially with nurturing and education. Age comes naturally; development of the mature person comes with guidance and support from family, friends, and institutions such as schools and churches. The tendency to turn on the TV, hand the kids an iPhone or a video game, emphasizes their instinctive, strong sense of living in a fantasy world, fosters further “isolation,” keeps them within themselves and prolongs childhood well into the later years. This is a serious problem not only for the survival of our democratic system (if that horse hasn’t already left the barn) but also for the survival of the planet. We desperately need people who have a sense of duty to the community, a strong sensitivity to the needs of others, and the ability to reason if we are to survive. Santayana was a wise man and his words are well worth careful consideration.

 

Enough Already!

I write this a few hours after Tiger Woods was forced once again to withdraw from a golf tournament because of pains in his lower back. Indeed, we have been given a detailed description of Tiger’s problems, including the fact that his “glutes” tightened up because fog delayed his tee time and he hadn’t had time to warm up properly when he had to actually hit his first shot — something the producers thought America needed to know. I suppose if those producers discovered what brand of deodorant the man uses they would determine that this is something America needs to know as well. Anyway, the whole withdrawal thing has been covered ad nauseam in the public media since the moment it occurred, including uninterrupted coverage on the Golf Channel of his long trip from the golf course via golf cart, his change of shoes, a closeup of his woebegone expression full of self-pity, to his eventual disappearance in his expensive rental car — the hell with the golf tournament and the fact that the rest of the players were still on the course! It does make one wonder.

After Tiger failed to make the cut in his last tournament, turning in a score that would suggest he was a moderately good amateur club player, the TV airways have been filled with endless analyses of his golfing problems, which focus on the fact that he has lost confidence in his stroke and is worrying too much about the mechanics of the game, etc. etc. To which I say two things: (1) Enough already! The man is over the hill and there are other good golfers out there who deserve a little TV time, and (2) Tiger’s problems have nothing whatever to do with his golf swing. They have to do with his utter confusion about just who the hell he is.

Tiger Woods is the reductio ad absurdum of the self-esteem movement that has swept the country and dominates our schools. He has been told since he was old enough to swing a golf club (on national TV at an age when most kids are still sucking their thumbs) that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Growing up he became convinced by doting parents and an adoring public that he could walk on water. After seeming to fulfill the hopes and expectations of all and sundry by winning stacks of golf tournaments while making an obscene amount of money, marrying a beautiful wife and having two lovely children, he was discovered to be an inveterate adulterer. His wife found out about his infidelities and chased him out of the house with one of his golf clubs (reportedly). Then came his total humiliation, including a very public divorce and a stay in a rehab center where he was supposed to learn how to keep it in his pants, after which he tried to come back to the golf course and win a few more major tournaments. It didn’t happen. He actually won a few minor tournaments, but it was clear that he was a shadow of his former golfing self. Why were we surprised? His self-concept had been shattered. He suddenly found himself up to his ears in the very water he had been told for years he could walk upon.

Though, doubtless, there are some who watch to see if Tiger still has some of the magic that made him one of the best golfers ever, I suspect that much of the golfing public continued to follow him with something akin to morbid curiosity: after all, how often does one get to watch the gradual meltdown of a major star, a superb athlete who could no longer “bring it” the way he had done for years? But those “fans” are like buzzards picking at the innards of a dead carcass; thanks to the entertainment industry the sporting pubic has been fascinated by the man’s demise, refusing to just let it go. Enough already! Let the poor man try to put his self back together, if he can — though a good psychiatrist would be more to the point than another swing coach. But, in the end, we assuredly can learn a valuable lesson from his fall from on high.

As I say, though an immensely talented athlete, he is a prototype of the spoiled child who has been told all his life he was exceptional. Reeking with self-esteem, he suddenly learned he had feet of clay. His sense of who he is has been severely damaged and no amount of stroke correction and no change in coaches can repair the damage that was done by doting parents and an adoring public who apparently never let him learn about failure. He is today a tattered shell of his former self, complete with numerous physical problems to go with a middling golf game. Just listen to his press conferences and read his body language!

Thus, those who think that we do our kids a favor by telling them how terrific they are until they feel entitled to have whatever they want should take a long look at Tiger Woods and reflect on the damage we can do to young people when we lead them to think they are superior beings and forget to remind them from time to time that, like everyone else, they are flawed. We need to let our kids fail so they can learn how to deal with failure. And we need to reserve our praise for those moments when they actually accomplish something noteworthy. Otherwise, they might fall from the heights we place them upon — like Tiger Woods.

Ignorance Is Bliss?

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Racism and Fried Chicken

You may (of may not) have heard about the brew-ha-ha between the professional golfers Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods. They don’t like each other. That much is clear. After Tiger recently won the Players Championship Garcia complained that Woods had made noise drawing a club from his bag during Sergio’s back-swing — as he was about to hit his drive. Woods later said the Marshalls had told him Garcia had finished his stroke, though the Marshalls later denied having said anything (indeed, why should they say anything?). In any event, Woods complained that Garcia was “whining,” and when later asked if he had given any thought to picking up the phone and suggesting to Sergio that the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot and they should have done with petty quarrels. Woods simply said, “No.” Soon after, Garcia was asked if he was going to have dinner with Woods and the following exchange took place that is now causing a bit of a storm:

COMMENTARY | Sergio Garcia crossed a line Monday he never should have toed.

At the European Tour’s annual gala dinner ahead of its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship in England, Garcia responded to a question asking if he would have dinner with Tiger Woods at next month’s U.S. Open at Merion.

His reply, according to The Guardian: “We will have him round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”

The comment about “fried chicken” is universally regarded as racist, since it alludes to the preference for fried chicken that is stereotypically associated with African-Americans. Fuzzy Zoeller, a lesser player than Garcia, had made a similar comment in 1997 following the Masters Tournament and is still apologizing for it. It is hard to live such a thing down, and Sergio is now busy attempting to back-track, though one suspects we have not heard the last of it. The media will keep it alive as long as possible — perhaps even longer!

But it is hard to like Tiger Woods, despite the fact that he is perhaps the greatest golfer who has ever played the game. His life is an embarrassment, given his sexual preference for a variety of women other than the one he happened to be married to — who also happens to be the mother of his children. All signs suggest that he is a typical self-absorbed American athlete who cares about nothing but himself. He lives the grand life-style so many Americans identify with success and would love to emulate; this may explain his immense popularity, though, here again, we must wonder how people are able to separate the man’s wealth and athletic ability from his character and adulate a man whose every action suggests a dwarfed consciousness limited to self with little or no awareness, much less concern, for his fellow humans. His psychic makeup may be explained, I suppose, by his doting father and mother while an only child growing up and the attention that has been heaped on him subsequently — not to mention the millions of dollars he rakes in each year with his putter and his winning smile. But, again, America’s fascination with this man, who appears almost daily on sports shows even when he is playing badly, defies adequate explanation. In fact, America’s ability to separate an athlete’s on-field behavior from his off-field shenanigans and indiscretions does give one pause. Here again we come back to what makes a person worth admiring: do we really forgive a man or a woman anything if he or she happens to be good at hitting a ball, skiing downhill at breakneck speeds, or dodging would-be tacklers? It appears we do.

In any event, I’m not black, but I like fried chicken and would be happy to join Sergio for a meal. However, I have no desire whatever to sit down to a meal or even a casual chat with Tiger Woods. I don’t like what the man is even though I admire what he can do with a golf club. And it has nothing whatever to do with his race: it’s because of something Martin Luther King spoke about long ago; namely, “the content of his character.”

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).

What’s It Worth?

I used to watch “Antiques Roadshow,” one of the very few shows on public television that people actually watch in great numbers. But its popularity as well as the nature of the show itself are worth consideration. The former depends on the latter. But what is the show about? What does it mean? What are the subtle, hidden suggestions the show passes along to us? These are questions worth considering.

People bring family heirlooms and treasures to a city where cameras are set up and experts evaluate the worth of these treasures in dollars and cents. In a word, the “value” of things is translated before our eyes from delight, sentiment, and aesthetic appreciation to filthy lucre. It is a sign of what has been called the “commodification” of culture. In such a culture everything is turned into a commodity — including human labor — and a price is put on it which determines its value. Without the dollar sign attached to it, it has no value. We are so used to the process we no longer think about what has been lost in the translation. What things are really worth has given way to what price they can bring. “I love that painting, but is it worth anything?” This is absurd.  If you love the painting it has real value. You don’t need to attach a dollar sign to it.

The same sort of thing happens in “sport” which is the reduction of athleticism from something beautiful and valuable in itself for participants and spectators alike into a money-making proposition where television and promoters call the shots and the athletes are valued for what kind of market they create with their skills. The better ones make more money, and vice versa. Just think about what the commercialization of the Olympics has done. It has turned a series of athletic events that should amaze and astound us for the remarkable skill shown by the participants into a competitive spectacle where every medal earned is rewarded with dollars and carefully counted; winning has become not the main thing but the only thing that counts. It really isn’t: I don’t care if Vince Lombardy did say it. It is the event or the performance itself that should be valued, not wins and losses.

When I played and coached competitive tennis I loved to win. Don’t get me wrong. But I never fell into the trap of thinking that winning is what it’s all about. I played because I loved to play: to hit the good shot or to “be in the moment” when you know every shot will go where you want it to and nothing else matters. When I coached I always stressed performance. Let winning take care of itself; just give it your best effort. And I certainly would never have thought to put a price on winning or losing.

In a commodified culture something important is lost when these sorts of reductions take place. In reducing the value of heirlooms and family treasures to dollars and cents we lose the aesthetic and sentimental value of the objects themselves which has nothing whatever to do with money. In reducing athletics to sports we lose the thrill of watching another human being perform extraordinary feats of strength, skill, and movement as we worry about whether they will win or lose. Our three-dimensional world is hammered into a sheet.

We seem to have lost sight of why things are truly important to us in our urge to measure everything in terms of money. But how do we measure in this way the value of a child’s smile, a sunset, the trust the blind man has in his dog, or the love of another human? We can’t — certainly not in terms of dollars and cents. The important things don’t have a dollar value, they are valuable in themselves.

Curiouser and Curiouser

I met a good friend of mine yesterday at the University where I once taught and where he still teaches. We often meet at the local watering hole to have a drink and catch up on the week’s events. I have a very high opinion of him and regard him as one of the brightest and most interesting of my friends. Yesterday we attended the last volleyball game of the season where our team, ranked #1 in the country in NCAA Division II volleyball, was to meet the team ranked #2 in the country for bragging rights and the conference championship. My friend is an avid supporter of the team and attends every home game and has for years. We arrived early and as we were waiting for the game to start we were discussing topics of the day as we usually do. I happened to mention how delighted I was that Minnesota had voted down the dreaded “marriage amendment” to the state constitution — defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. I hit a nerve!

My friend became rather excited as he explained that he had no problem with homosexuality but that marriage was supposed to be a binding contract between men and women for the purpose of having children. Familiar though this argument is, it struck a chord with me as I am convinced that the major problem confronting humankind today is overpopulation. I was already upset to hear that day that a young woman I am fond of was about to have her sixth child. The subject of marriage and children registers differently with me than it does with my friend. I am an advocate of zero population growth. I often disagree with this man: our friendship does not hinge on our agreement with one another.  But in this case my opinion of him went down a notch. This was not because he disagreed with me, but because the grounds for his disagreement seem so weak: the purpose of marriage is to have children. This struck me as question-begging: curiosity #1.

We didn’t have an opportunity to pursue the discussion further because the crowd became increasingly raucous as the match began. But as I watched the match on the uncomfortable bleacher seats I started to read the faces and body language of the players on both teams. Our team looked grim and determined; their team looked relaxed and loose. They were not expected to win; we were.They were grinning and laughing; we were glowering and sputtering. We lost in straight sets (as they mistakenly call them). The outcome was predictable. A team or an individual who is expected to win a sporting event has tremendous pressure on them and often presses and beats themselves. When I coached I used to take my tennis team to the national tournament on a regular basis and when I was able to get one of my players seeded in the tournament they never had any success. I would have been wise to let them play the tournament “under the radar.”  When they were seeded they were expected to win against unseeded players. It never happened. When they were successful invariably it was when they were unseeded. The pressure of expectations seems to be a debilitating factor in sporting events where the players usually (but not always) tighten up and find themselves unable to do the things they do every day with no effort whatever. Curiosity #2.

But this whole thing became even curiouser as I went to bed with no idea whether I would have a blog to write today; nothing has struck my interest of late since the elections and I had run out of the two or three drafted blogs I usually have on hand. But overnight this blog wrote itself, for better or worse. Curiouser and curiouser.

Easy Peasy

Any pretense that this country values academics more than sports was exposed by the closing of University High School in Florida not long ago. The on-line school charged $399.00 to high school athletes who were in academic difficulty to help them graduate. As it happened at University High School there were no classes or instructors, tests were open-book, and A’s and B’s flowed like water over a dam. But the athletes graduated and many went on to college: the colleges and the NCAA accepted those grades without question until the scam was blown open and became public knowledge.  As the New York Times reported on the Florida debacle:

Twenty-eight high school athletes sent University High School transcripts to the N.C.A.A. eligibility clearinghouse in the past few years, according to a University of Tennessee report. The New York Times identified 14 who had signed with 11 Division I football programs: Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Rutgers, South Carolina State, South Florida, Tennessee and Temple.

Photo: Kate Gardiner/Medill

This is only one of numerous instances of skewed priorities. For example, the Chicago public schools recently discovered that one of the schools in their district (which shall go unnamed) was doctoring the grades of high school basketball players in order to help them get into the colleges of their choice — to play basketball. Then there’s the suspension of the “no pass, no play” rule in Fairfield, Alabama recently where we are told that “The Fairfield Board of Education, at the urging of its new acting superintendent, voted [4 to 1] this morning to formally suspend a controversial no-pass, no-play policy for athletes and other students in extracurricular activities.” This suspension allows students to participate in extra-curricular activities whether or not they are passing their courses. The suspension was demanded by parents who thought their kids were being denied a chance to participate in sports.  (I thought this was a joke since it has been the subject of several panels of the comic “Tank McNamara” recently. Sad to say, it’s not.)

But the problem goes deeper than a determination to look the other way in order to let the kids play sports. It begins in the home: I trace the basic problem to parents and teachers at all levels kowtowing to the whims of the kids themselves, most of whom don’t have any idea about what they need to be successful in a complex and changing world. The idea is to grease the skids, to make things as easy and painless as possible for kids who would really rather be playing video games. The undue emphasis we place on sports in the schools is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is generally known that there are troubling problems in the schools — at all levels; it is especially disturbing to realize that there are folks out there in the schools who have decided that academics really aren’t all that important (or they bow to parental pressure). I am not dissing sports. On the contrary, I feel that sports are one of the few places in this culture where young people learn discipline by being asked to do things they don’t want to do, where failure is part of the deal (just like life), and young people are actually encouraged to place something ahead of themselves — at least when sports are properly conducted. But the exceptions to the rules are disquieting as are the deeper problems in the schools where coherence seems to be lacking and rigor and excellence in the classroom have been replaced by a dumbed-down curriculum that allows no child to be left behind — and athletes to slide by.

If we are ever to right the ship and get education back into its proper place in this culture, we must expose such violations of principle whenever they occur and we must make a determined effort to place education at the top of our list or priorities instead of near the bottom where it sits at present. That means paying the teachers what they are worth, ridding the public schools of bogus certification requirements from outside agencies, and turning able teachers loose to teach as they see fit while asking them to demand that their students deliver their best performance — as we do our athletes. In a word, sports can provide a paradigm for excellence but they cannot be allowed to displace the things young people need to know in order to succeed in life.