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physical and psychological impact that parents, coaches, and administrators can have on children, while providing effective solutions to each of the problems covered.
Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice once wrote, "When the Great Scribe comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game." Those eloquent words have endured for nearly a century as a monument to the true ideals of sport. But in recent years, they have been replaced by a different ethic. Legendary professional coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." So now the mentality is not "how you played the game," but whether you won or not.
You see, the ideals of sportsmanship, fair play, and simply doing your best have been traded in for the far less noble pursuits of today's ultra-competitive, high-pressure, do-anything-it-takes-to-win world of athletics. Accompanying these dangerous attitudes has been the physical and emotional abuse of children, violence, cheating, and the total disrespect for the opposition. It is these disgraceful behaviors that have polluted the youth sports landscape, poisoned the fun, distorted child development, and left behind a legacy of children with broken hearts, crushed dreams, and shattered psyches.
Sadly, simply doing your best is no longer good enough. The Vince Lombardiphilosophy reigns supreme in the sports world. The result? A few years ago a New York Times article proclaimed the death of sports, as Robert Lipsyte wrote: "Sports are over because they no longer have any moral resonance."
WHERE HAVE ALL THE ROLE MODELS GONE?
America has plenty of good sports to play, but we don't have nearly enough good sports to play them. Over the last decade, there has been a serious deterioration in the conduct of athletes, both on and off the field. We've certainly moved a long way in the wrong direction since the days of Christy Mathewson, the star pitcher of the New York Giants back in the early 1900s and the unofficial "Father of Sportsmanship."
Mathewson arrived on the professional baseball scene from Bucknell College, and he was soon embraced by the public as a true gentleman of the game. Umpires so strongly believed in his integrity that if they missed a play, they would ask the Giants' pitcher what the call should have been. Umpires throughout the league had full trust that Mathewson would call it like he saw it, even if the call would go against his own team. His teammates and devoted followers of the Giants not only tolerated his behavior but accepted it because it had value in his era.
Let's look at some other role models. Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, led their baseball team during a period of intense racial disharmony. Robinson is legendary for his ability to endure racial taunts, derogatory comments, and death threats from opposing players and fans, and still continue to play the game superbly. But people forget his teammate, Reese, who was also a true gentleman. One day when the Dodgers were playing in Chicago, Robinson was being abused unmercifully by the Cubs and their fans. Pee Wee Reese, nicknamed "The Kentucky Colonel," asked for time, trotted over to first base from his shortstop position, placed his arm around Robinson's shoulder, and quietly said a few words of encouragement to him. The crowd was quieted by this display of sportsmanship by the man from Kentucky, and the game continued without incident.
There are other examples. Althea Gibson wore her Wimbledon tennis championship with class. Bob Cousy, of the Boston Celtics, would rather get an assist than a basket and led his team to five championships. Gordie Howe, the legendary Detroit Red Wing star, played into his forties simply because he loved the game. Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts quarterback, was always known as a gentleman, a sportsman, and a champion. Babe Didrickson-Zaharius was an Olympic champion who excelled in three sports in an era when women champions were the exception, but she played sports the way they were meant to be played.
Speaking of the Olympics, let us look for a moment at the Olympic ideal. Pierre de Fredi, Baron de Coubertin, the "Father of the Modern Olympics," described the Games this way: "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part. The important thing in life is not to triumph but to have fought well." There is an echo of Grantland Rice in that ideal, is there not? Also note that he makes the connection between what happens in sport and what happens in life, a connection not always made these days, unfortunately.
The Baron, Mathewson, Reese, Robinson, and Didrickson-Zaharius would certainly be out of place these days where sportsmanship has become an off-the-wall concept. The Simon and Garfunkel verse that wonders where Joe DiMaggio has gone, seems fitting. Where have all the true heroes of sports gone? What has happened to the ideal of sportsmanship?
The seeds of poor sportsmanship were planted early on in professional sports and have flourished ever since. In fact, if you look closely at the history of sports, it's overflowing with legends who have made an indelible imprint on the American consciousness despite a penchant for unsportsmanlike words and actions. Knute Rockne is one of football's most revered coaches, but his infamous line, "Show me a gracious loser and I'll show you a failure," has turned out to be the warped measuring stick for the way games are played today. And guard Jerry Kramer said of Vince Lombardi, "He treats us all the same way-like animals," establishing the true nature of the Lombardi ethic.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, prowled the base paths. He was one of the five original inductees to the baseball Hall of Fame, but "The Georgia Peach" may also have been the worst sport to ever play professional baseball. Cobb was well-known for flaunting his ego, taunting his opponents, threatening them with his bat and fists, sharpening his spikes, and intentionally sliding into bases looking to hurt anyone who got in his way. He had a well-deserved reputation as a bigot and a hothead. Were it not for his extraordinary talent, Cobb would have been run out of baseball. He was everything Christy Mathewson was not.
Throughout the century, unsportsmanlike behavior has been a fixture of sports; it's just that it has been camouflaged by different athletes or ignored by the media. Athletes of various eras have always "talked trash," but back then, it was disguised as charisma. A cultural icon like Muhammad Ali entertained the public with his flashy words and engaging personality as much as he did with his left hook. While his habit of taunting and embarrassing opponents in the ring entertained fans, it hardly qualified as the epitome of sportsmanship.
It's apparent that by the time we reached the 1970s, this type of unsportsmanlike behavior was slowly carving out its own niche in nearly every sport except golf, which has remained virtually unblemished throughout history.
Tennis is a perfect example of how professional sports can be led astray. The mid-1970s and 1980s marked the arrival of the "bad boys" of tennis. Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe ushered in a new era with their court antics of swearing at opponents, yelling at linesmen, and throwing rackets. Amazingly, this type of behavior actually sparked the public's interest in the sport of tennis. These players were viewed as personalities who brought a face-lift to a sport that, prior to this, was seldom covered on the front page of sports sections across the country. Sports fans suddenly flocked to events in the hopes of seeing a profanity-laced tirade against a linesman. A McEnroe temper tantrum became even more appreciated than a backhand winner. The public was entertained by these sorts of behaviors, taking another chunk out of what had been a solid foundation of American sportsmanship.
The past few years alone have provided enough evidence of how sports, the people who play them, and the public that watches them have all changed for the worse. We could spend a lifetime running down the list of professional football and hockey players who would do literally anything to win a game. Even trying to injure an opposing player was never out of the question. In 1965, for example, Juan Marichal turned around in the batter's box and attacked catcher John Roseboro with a bat. It was a reprehensible act that may well have been a warning flare that the behavior of athletes was beginning to take a turn for the worse. Since then, we've watched as basketball player Kermit Washington shattered the face of Rudy Tomjonovich; Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes slugged an opposing player who had intercepted a pass; Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear; Latrell Sprewell attacked his coach, P.J. Carlisimo; Michael Westbrook beat up a teammate; and Lawrence Phillips beat up his girlfriend. The list goes on; we need only mention the names of players Albert Belle, Bryan Cox, Charles Barkley, Bobby Knight, and Dennis Rodman to recall unpleasant incidents that hit the headlines. We have seen overseas soccer matches turn into deathtraps for fans; each team in the National Hockey League needs to have at least one "enforcer" to match the other team's bully; and even the national pastime now has "basebrawls."
Good sportsmanship may actually be a contradiction in terms. It may not have played as significant a role as we'd like to think it did, and it may not have ever been an influential part of sports to begin with. For example, the outrageous actions of Roberto Alomar spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck, and Bill Romanowski spitting in the face of San Francisco wide receiver J.J. Stokes were crude and unacceptable, but they're no more vile than many of the behaviors that have become a fixture in competitive sports through the years. The only difference is that with the proliferation of media today, the actions of Alomar and Romanowski were captured on tape and have been branded into our memory banks as we've been bombarded with replays over and over again.
THE INFLUENCE OF THE MEDIA
These sad distortions of sportsmanship did not happen in a vacuum. A great deal of the blame must be put at the door of the media for popularizing such actions. And we the public must also take some blame because we have not always condemned such behaviors. Let us take a look at the role of the media in this area, especially in recent years.
Before World War II, radio was just beginning to fill the airwaves, and television was still a few years away. Consequently, the men who wrote for newspapers played a very influential role. They were the only link the American public had to its sports heroes and the games they played. Writers revered the athletes they wrote about, and much of the fame and popularity that continues to surround legends such as Babe Ruth or Jesse Owens today endures in large part to the newspapermen who documented their exploits. Athletes were looked up to and admired by the public, and writers of that time contributed to those feelings by extolling their on-field performances. Nevertheless, they largely ignored the private lives of the athletes they covered.
As radio emerged during the 1940s, listening to ballgames on a summer night or football games on a Saturday afternoon became a popular form of entertainment. For example, in her memoir, Wait 'Til Next Year, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalls walking down the streets of her Rockville Centre hometown, listening to the Dodger game and not missing a pitch because every home was tuned to the game, and every window was open. The names of Red Barber, Curt Gowdy, Vin Scully, Keith Jackson, Mel Allen, and Harry Caray found their way into the national vocabulary. Ronald "Dutch" Reagan got his first paying job as a teletype operator and announcer for a broadcast baseball game.
Later, as television inched its way into America's living rooms, the way sports are played and watched slowly began to change. The fights and arguments that had infiltrated sports were being seen for the first time on television screens across the country, and they raised the public's interest in seeing the unusual. It was different, it was exciting, and it added a new flavor to sports.
Of course, during the days of Mickey Mantle, Bobby Orr, Dick Butkus, and Bill Russell, there were only three television networks. Cable stations, sports highlight shows, and twenty-four-hour sports programming were non-existent. ESPN was nowhere to be found. The radio dial featured the "big band sound," not sports talk shows. If a football player bit someone under a pile or spit in an opposing player's face, there was little chance the incident would even be reported, let alone endlessly replayed and talked about the remainder of the season. The nation was stunned to learn how New York Giant linebacker Sam Huff actually made his living when his story was broadcast, complete with blood, violence, and sound effects. The ratings soared, and television executives took note.
Nowadays, this violent behavior has filtered into the public's mindset, and the visual images flashed in front of them every day have had a desensitizing effect. Violent behavior is all around us. It's ingrained in society; it's just another part of sports. Bloody fights in hockey move us; bench-clearing brawls in basketball excite us; and vicious, bone-rattling hits in football draw our loudest cheers.
Many broadcasters have fallen into the trap of believing that the only worthy performance is the one given by the winning team, whether or not they abided by the rules. For example, broadcasters openly admire the cleverness of a team that is able to confuse an official and send a better free-throw shooter to the line instead of the player who was actually fouled. They praise the players who get away with an illegal push, block, or elbow. They glamorize coaches known for skillfully "working" an official in an effort to get favorable calls. These days, disrespectful behaviors receive a shrug, a smirk, and a wink of the eye. It's all part of the game, they say. And the youngsters take notice.
Certainly, there have been numerous athletes who have been models of sportsmanship throughout history, but the media magnet seems to be attracted to the ego the size of Montana, the nasty action, and the bizarre behavior. Especially in this era driven by ratings, the story has become not about who hit a ninth-inning homer last night, but who purposely hit another player with a pitch to ignite a bench-clearing brawl. Most sports do involve varying degrees of violence, and the media are frequently attracted to the physical conflicts inherent in the games people play. Sports stories and color commentary contain metaphorical language that glorifies and promotes physical contact. The result is that the viewing public has, over time, became enamored with the violence.
"If it bleeds, it leads," says the old television adage. The media are often criticized for leading their telecasts with footage of the latest fight, argument, or scandal. But aren't they providing the public with what it desires? So these broadcasts have become a double-edged sword: The more the public embraces this violent behavior, the more the media reciprocates by showing it. The media moguls argue, "We're just giving America what it craves. If they didn't want it, they wouldn't watch it. But look at the ratings." And they are right.
Today, we live in a world of instant information. Television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet intensely scrutinize games and the athletes who play them. Everything gets reported. Athletes' lives are dissected and laid out at the public's doorstep for careful examination. There is no longer a right to privacy for the athlete in the modern fishbowl.
It's ironic that competition among the media for stories is as fierce as the games they cover. And to insure the ratings or the readership, the stories seem to gravitate toward the most violent, the most salacious, the most outrageous. In that sense, "the good old days" are gone.
Excerpted from WHY JOHNNY HATES SPORTS by FRED ENGH Copyright © 2002 by Square One Publishers . Excerpted by permission.
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