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Original Issue

A Game Plan for America

If the lessons of sport—discipline, competitiveness, teamwork—are to have value in society at large, if indeed the path to the boardroom leads through the locker room, we had better change our priorities

Salt Lake City, Oct. 24, 1980: A South High football player, heretofore regarded as an exemplary youngster, pummels the referee during a state playoff game. Surgery is needed to repair the official's shattered cheek, and the boy is expelled from school.

Teton, Idaho, Nov. 7, 1980: The principal of Teton High is so angered by a referee's failure to call two pass-interference penalties against his school's football opponent that he goes to the sideline and confronts the offending official, punching him in the stomach and knocking him to the ground. The principal is subsequently fined $500 and banned from attending Teton High games for the remainder of the school year. The coach charges that the official was "verbally abusive," and the principal is partly exonerated when the referee's name is removed from the Idaho High School Activities Association's list of "approved" officials.

Miami, Nov. 28, 1980: A series of ugly incidents that caused the cancellation of one high school football game and erupted into fan violence at another continued in the Region AAAA championship game. With time running out, a South Miami High halfback fumbles a badly executed hand-off. The loose ball is picked up by a Columbus High player who runs 50 yards for the winning touchdown. Some of the halfback's teammates curse and taunt him, swing their helmets at him, try unsuccessfully to keep him off the team bus and call him every name in the book. During the bus ride back to South Miami High, the players, who are all black, call their white coaches "honkie crackers." The halfback, who is also black, needs a police escort to get out of the school parking lot.

Lake City, Mich., Dec. 11, 1980: The basketball coach at Lake City High is allegedly assaulted in his home by a father who is angered that his son isn't getting enough playing time. The coach isn't seriously injured, but the next day officials of Lake City Area Schools vote to suspend all sports activities. On the same day, Missaukee County Prosecutor Gary C. Hoffman filed charges of assault and battery against the father. He will stand trial on March 19.

Coral Gables, Fla., Dec. 20, 1980: Long after the day's matches in the Orange Bowl Junior Tennis Tournament have concluded, a father verbally assaults an umpire in the parking lot outside the Biltmore Tennis Center. "You cheated my son, you bum," the father says. The 10-year-old son, who stands nearby with tears in his eyes, cries out, "You tell 'em, Daddy!"


Competition can't serve a society if it's antisocial. Winning at any cost and true sportsmanship are incompatible. "You can win and still not succeed, still not achieve what you should." says Indiana University Basketball Coach Bobby Knight. "And you can lose without really failing at all." Dr. Thomas Tutko, a California sports psychologist, says, "Learning to compete is quite different from winning or losing. It's not the product, but the process that's good." We've gotten away from "feeling good about doing sports." he adds. We've made AP polls and being No. 1 and winning the Super Bowl the only measures of a successful season. Thus it becomes easy to rationalize any means used to win. "We say that if you win, you're dedicated, hardworking, altruistic," concludes Tutko. "If you lose, you're none of the above."

Which isn't the way it's supposed to be. The idea that athletic endeavor—win, lose or draw—is essential to the clearheaded, well-rounded individual is a very old one, extending back to the ancient Greeks. The view that sports competition—especially of the team variety, with its blend of cooperation and self-discipline for the good of the whole—is beneficial, even necessary, to building and maintaining a healthy, productive society is less venerable. It evolved in 19th-century England (see box on page 68) and quickly took hold in America. Lessons learned by young athletes on the playing field have served them and the nation well in battle, in boardrooms, in the U.S. Senate. General Douglas MacArthur said that the seeds of victory in World War I were sown on "the fields of friendly strife." Harvard sociologist David Riesman tells us, "The path to the boardroom leads through the locker room." U.S. Senator Alan Cranston of California, a former world-class sprinter, says, "I wouldn't be where I am today were it not for athletics."

And these men are not alone in espousing the theory that sports can serve an important role in molding youth and. therefore, the future of society. This belief is held by a wide spectrum of Americans, most of them realists who know sport has never been perfect but nonetheless feel it can—and. perhaps, should—show man in a better light than most other fields of endeavor. Former astronaut and Eastern Air Lines Chief Executive Officer Frank Borman says, "Sports taught me that if you want to reach a goal you have to sacrifice for it. Second, that the team and the institution are more important than the individual. Both of these lessons were reinforced for me by Colonel Blaik when I was manager of the West Point football team. Very few people have influenced my life in a more positive way than Colonel Blaik or my high school coach, Rollin T. Gridley." Dr. Benjamin Spock. 1924 Olympic gold medal-winning oarsman and expert on child rearing, says, "I was a chin-less mother's boy. Crew made me."

In recommending doctoral students for jobs, Riesman favors those who have "endured beyond endurance." Amid the welter of young people "frightened of risks, frightened of taking charge, frightened of pulling up stakes." he prefers those "who extend themselves. The best athletes know how to do that." In a word, they're competitors, their competitiveness having been nurtured in an atmosphere that tested their endurance, courage and skills, because that's exactly what sports at their best do.

Ideally, sport exalts fair play: You win only when you've made a superior effort, not because you've found a way to circumvent the rules. Games are meant to be waged in the open, according to the rules and firm standards of conduct. "Sport's the only place we have left where we can start even," says Alabama Football Coach Bear Bryant. At least, that's how it's supposed to be.

The vernacular of achievement in all areas of our culture is studded with references to athletics: "team man." "second effort" and so forth. And competitive sport tells us that it's O.K. to win. Even important to win. Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti, the president of Yale, says that winning in sports has "a joy and discrete purity to it that cannot be replaced by anything else." It is, he says, "something powerful, indeed beautiful, in itself; something as necessary to the strong spirit as striving is necessary to the healthy character."

But sport has told us it's O.K. to lose, too. That vital message seems somehow to have been lost. In team sports in America today, losing is no longer acceptable. There is a fanatical drive to win. Not for the Gipper or Old Blue. But for the gate receipts and TV money. And while you're at it, you'd better be one of the stars; if you warm the bench, if you merely try hard, you're a nobody, maybe even in the eyes of dear ol' Dad. Jim Lynch, the former Notre Dame and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, recently was introduced to the father of a K.C. rookie. Lynch told the father that he didn't know his son personally but that he'd heard nice things about the young man, that the son was well thought of by the Chiefs. The father was contemptuous. "He's not starting, is he?" he said to Lynch. "He's not Number 1. That's what it's all about, isn't it?" Lynch walked away, relieved that the man was not his father.

Sports, of course, reflect the society in which they're played. To expect them to be pristine in the era of Watergate, illegal corporate payments to foreign governments, Abscam and the like would be illogical. In fact, team competition, once so highly regarded as a positive force in the lives of the young, may now be a negative factor.


Competition is, of course, good, even essential for the individual and society. It provides much of our incentive to get things done, to make things better. But as good as competition can be, it also can be a detriment if it is wrongly brought into play. "I don't believe we suffer from a lack of competitiveness. If you're talking about the athletic virtues, what we really suffer from is a lack of teamwork," says Lester Thurow, MIT economist, avid mountain climber and former high school football player, who has studied competitive behavior in various societies.

"The basic values of sport have shifted," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil-rights leader and former college football and sandlot baseball star, who has a special interest in education. "Athletes used to operate on the theory of enduring short-term pain for long-term pleasure. You endured the short-term pain of getting into shape, you studied to get into college, you sacrificed early in life so you could prevail in the fourth quarter. All that has been replaced by a Quick-Six Generation that only wants the easy score.

"The great coaches were concerned about character. They taught quarterbacks, 'If you can't control yourself, you can't control the team.' When TV began to create more pressure on coaches to win, they began to make concessions. They put style ahead of substance. Kids were allowed to play when they should've been academically ineligible. That took away academic incentive. Kids were shot up with cortisone so they could play with injuries. Tutors were hired to keep the kids in school. The death of ethics is the sabotage of excellence. The concessions we've made lead the athletes to short-term pleasure and long-term pain."

Winning has become so paramount that other important values that should be inculcated by sports—teamwork, discipline and a sense of fair play—aren't much evident in American sports today.

The phony academic transcripts for athletes, the no-show classes for jocks, the sort of violence described in the incidents at the beginning of this article are symptoms of a "sickness of integrity," as the noted psychoanalyst Rollo May puts it. It's an illness that "clings to money as the proof of all the goals in life," that unduly elevates winning, that makes losers vile. Curing the malady won't be easy, because it means recognizing as destructive some things that have come to seem normal, even necessary, in sports today.

First, we must do something about the bigness at sports' upper level that's suffocating them at the learning level:

•The big money. Not just the huge pro salaries; they're only part of a whole system of megabucks that teams, pro and amateur, and players get from television and other sources. The costs of sport, in both monetary and human terms, are too high. Remember: The big winners get most of the big money.

•The big eye. TV isn't bad per se, but sport has allowed itself to be swept up by the tube. This fall, when archrivals Florida and Florida State switched their football game from Nov. 22 to Dec. 6 to reap a $300,000 fee for appearing on national television, State Coach Bobby Bowden succinctly stated the attitude of most major-college sports administrators when he said that his Seminoles would "play at 3 a.m. if television wants us." The custodians of our games think they're the winners in this; they believe they've made TV pay those big, happy sums. Actually what television has done is buy sports off. Remember: The big winners get most of the TV exposure.

•The big players. The 300-pound defensive ends and 6'8" basketball guards are merely the most visible examples of a specialization in sports that now begins—disastrously for many athletes—in the preteen years. It has made the three-letter man in college rarer than the whooping crane, and it could rob generations to come of the joys and character-building benefits of participation in team games. Remember: The big winners are often players who specialized early and let few other interests distract them.

•The big leagues. There are too many of them, both in the pros and among the colleges. Backed by big money, brought into the home by the big eye and manned by big players, these leagues have siphoned off interest in levels of competition that are closer to home and more essential to society's well-being. Among the hardest hit have been the high schools where in recent years there has been a widespread drop-off in sports participation, expenditures for athletics (when measured in dollars adjusted for inflation) and fan interest. Remember: The big winners are the leagues that attract the broadest public attention.

The effects of bigness are numerous—and not all bad. NBA telecasts featuring Magic Johnson, the prototypical outsized guard, are one of the minor delights of living in the U.S. But there's little question that bigness has had insalubrious consequences on the two most important figures in making sports serve society as a molder of correct competitive values: the young athlete and the coach.

These coaches and youngsters have been so infected by the exaggerated importance of winning in the upper levels of sports that they think it's O.K. for some kids to be turned into bench warmers at the age of 10 or 12, that it's all right to shut lesser players out of the learning process while their bigger, faster, more agile teammates get the job done.

That job is winning. Just ask the high school coach whose star player was knocked out of the lineup by appendicitis before a key game last fall. The game was lost. The next day the coach had the team physician determine which players' appendixes were intact and tried to get the doctor to agree to remove them when the season was over.

We've done this to the coaches at every level. We've told them that it doesn't matter how clean they keep their programs. It doesn't matter what percentage of their athletes graduate or take a useful place in society. It doesn't even matter how well the coaches teach their sports. All that matters are the flashing scoreboard lights.

The colleges provide us with the clearest examples of this madness. They easily keep pace with the pros in the annual firing of coaches, and for the same unholy reasons. But the colleges should know better. Some schools say they do. Early last November a spokesman for Northwestern, a university respected for its high academic attainments, said it was the opinion of the school's hierarchy that football coaches "should not be fired because they can't win." On Nov. 18 the Northwestern football coach, who had won one game in three years, and the athletic director who'd hired him were both canned.

Good coaches are special. Their influence on young athletes is considerable—"more so than teachers, more so than Dad, more so than anybody." says former Notre Dame Football Coach Ara Parseghian—and they're not blind to that fact. Most of them handle this trust tenderly. When a coach winds up on the seedy side of recruiting, promising money, promising grades, or is caught teaching playing techniques that might get somebody hurt, it's usually his fellows who come down hardest on him. But coaches are also fully aware of the essential flaw in the system: They're asked to be noble teachers, but because schools need to generate wins and cash, coaches in revenue-producing sports are given all the job security of migrant workers.

John Robinson, the football coach at USC, has won conference titles and a national co-championship. He has also seen his program racked by the recent academic scandals. "Since I've been at USC, I've had death threats every year," he says. "I have to have a police escort out of the stadium. You say, 'Hey, wait a minute, it's only a game.' Only a game? You've got to be kidding. But at the same time I'm responsible and I'm criticized if my players don't go to class. Well, I could live with that. But changes must be made.

"If coaches are teachers, they should be given faculty status. I should be paid what a faculty member is paid. No more, no less. I should be given tenure. I'm invited to give 100 speeches a year, and I accept most of those invitations to make extra money. If I'm going to function as a teacher, I can't give 100 speeches a year. I've got to say no. I'm not going to spend 35 days a year on the road recruiting. I'm going to stay home and behave like a schoolteacher."

By making insecure, even desperate men out of our coaches, we've diminished sports for the athlete. After what philosopher Paul Weiss calls the "normal pursuit of pleasure and competence, even excellence" early in a player's development, the demands of high-pressure coaching crowd out the "joy of sport" for the athlete. The exceptional performer seeks and finds other rewards for his efforts: athletic scholarships, acclaim, money. He discovers he gets special handling and unusual advantages for giving his all. Or, if he's talented enough, only some of his all. Then, says Weiss, comes the corruption, because the athlete soon sees what's really going on. The coach's desperation becomes the athlete's desperation: win and receive the fruits of victory now! So the coach and the player get about their business, not of competing but of winning. Their tactics may involve acts of violence that sometimes border on the criminal. Much more often they resort to off-the-field cheating.

Cheating defiles competition. If State pays its quarterback under the table and Tech doesn't, then State has created an unfair advantage for itself. The same is true if State bends its entrance requirements to get a player into school, or doesn't make him go to class, or allows him to take meaningless courses, or engages in any of the other corrupt practices that have been brought to light in recent months.

The NCAA now has more investigators than ever. This is called progress by some observers. It's not. It's an indictment of the system. When more and more cops are needed to keep competition clean, something is terribly wrong. Institutions that deal with youth should be so sensitive to rule bending, so repulsed by cheaters, so on guard against the athlete who "hears the cries of the crowd but never the rustling of a page," that cheating at such places would be rare.

But it's not. And the institutions don't always merely acquiesce in the corruption, don't always restrict themselves to saying to the coach, "Win, but don't tell us how you do it." Increasingly, academics and administrators appear to be taking a hand in tampering with grades and curricula, and alumni and other boosters have become bagmen for some athletic departments, delivering the goods to prized recruits. An Eldorado for signing a grant-in-aid. Twenty bucks a rebound. A hundred for a win over Tech.

This must stop. The time has come to realize that a stand for sportsmanship won't knock the planet off its axis. And such a stand won't just put the colleges and their coaches and athletes right. More important, it will also benefit the kid who wants to play for the joy of it, who will never become a varsity-level athlete but could carry the lessons of sports with him into other areas of life, who is most cheated by the emphasis on winning over competing.

Certainly the current system cheats good athletes, too, by beginning to pamper them when they're still in junior high and by offering 16-year-olds the preposterous long shot of being a pro draft choice as a reasonable goal. In Georgia this fall the state education department investigated the reportedly "common practice" among parents of allowing their sons to repeat eighth grade in order to be in a better position to win football scholarships five years later. The investigators found a total of 49 such cases in 14 Georgia school systems this academic year. Dr. Cal Adamson, associate state school superintendent, described the practice as "psychologically damaging." The damage isn't limited to Georgia; similar repeaters were also reported in Texas.

Bill Russell, the Hall of Fame basketball player, believes that the high financial stakes in sports, which have spawned an army of lawyers and accountants, have hurt the most proficient players. We've undermined team play, Russell believes. Forget fundamentals. Win now. "The only kids being taught fundamentals are the less talented ones," he says. "The talented ones are just being exploited. So from the beginning it's a bad relationship between coach and player—a dishonest one. We have evolved into an era of style over substance. The same as what happened to the automobile industry. Everything's style. No substance."

But as shortchanged as the good player may be, especially when" he leaves college as neither a draft choice nor a graduate, he's rarely as abused as the average or less-than-average athlete. When the role model for American sport shifted from the amateurs to the pros in the '50s and '60s, competition gradually swung to a new tack: the specialization of athletes. We came to believe that it was acceptable to take highly motivated, disciplined youngsters with ability and filter them through the athletic system toward a single goal: the pros. It would be all right for them to channel all their energies into one sport, to close off all other options, to be one-dimensional. And the success of the pros gave competition in sports a new end. One no longer played to learn courage or teamwork or to become a man. One played to continue to play. For money. For fame. Forever.

It can be argued that the excellence we enjoy watching in pro sports is an affirmation of that turn to specialization. New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, former Princeton Tiger, Rhodes scholar and New York Knick, says the pros represent the broadest participation in excellence that we now have in any area of life in the U.S. The result, says Bradley, is that you see feats in championship events "that you couldn't believe possible." Excellence that's uplifting. Not an opiate, but an uplift; one of the things sports does best.

Billie Jean King believes specialization is what makes champions. For her, any intrusion on the climb to the top was unwelcome. A boyfriend once asked her why she was in college, because all she did was rush to the library each day to read the sports page. "You're right," Billie Jean answered. "I hate school." College, she says, was her parents' idea.

But there's an awful tyranny in specialization, too. Dr. Spock was appalled while living in Cleveland to find parents bringing bleary-eyed little children to the ice rink at 5 a.m. to practice their figure skating. "That's not fun," he says, "that's a family conspiracy." The young competitive specialist who went on to become a national champ or an Olympic gold medalist wasn't alone. There were thousands of other preteens doing exactly the same thing, believing that dogged determination would get them to the top.

We have fostered a generation or two of young people whose main goal in life, for a while at least, has commonly been to become better competitive athletes. They begin specializing in the little leagues, in many instances at the expense of education and social life. The young man who walks off the Olympic platform with a gold medal or out of a front office with a million-dollar pro contract will tell you it was "worth it." But what about the thousands who went into this system and didn't make it?

The sine qua non of sport is enjoyment. When you take that away, it's no longer sport. Perhaps the worst creators of specialists are the little leagues in all sports. Although some observers believe there's much of value in them, the leagues have their critics. "Abolish the little leagues," says philosopher Weiss. "Forbid 'em," says sociologist Riesman.

To visit on small heads the pressure to win, the pressure to be "just like Mean Joe Greene," is indecent. To dress up children like pros in costly outfits is ridiculous. In so doing, we take away many of the qualities that competitive sports are designed to give to the growing-up process.

Sports psychologist Bruce Ogilvie laments "the sickening arrogance" of little-league coaches, too many of whom are unqualified. Some coaches, says another psychologist, Thomas Tutko, even "think sports is war." They make 8-year-olds sit on the bench while others play, learning nothing beyond the elitism of win-at-all-costs sport. Token participation—an inning in right field, a couple of minutes in the fourth quarter—can be equally demoralizing.

Adult-run little leagues can deprive children of the chance to grow naturally in sport, to learn for themselves about competition's ups and downs. Organizing games. Playing them. Being their own umpires—perhaps the best teacher of all. With adults around, kids often don't have a place in which to absorb the hard lessons of sportsmanship without the small, inevitable failures being blown out of proportion.