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THESE GUYS ARE LEADERS?
Ron Fimrite
May 23, 1988
Those in charge in sports often don't control themselves
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May 23, 1988

These Guys Are Leaders?

Those in charge in sports often don't control themselves

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Maybe, in the final analysis, we would be better off if the inmates ran the asylum. In sports, at least, how could they do any worse? Or do you get the impression, as I do, that the so-called leaders of our various athletic enterprises are just a bit shy of that elusive quality known as character? This isn't going to be a recitation of the most recent atrocities attributed to some of our more celebrated commanders. One need only whisper the names Bobby Knight and Billy Martin to conjure up images of the kind of deportment that would get the average nine-year-old propelled into the principal's office. But Pete Rose? A fiery competitor, you bet, but a "nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, ya-wanna-make-something-of-it" bully? And who would ever believe that a hockey coach could behave worse than his players? This, in a sport in which assault and battery is considered a tactic? Nevertheless, I give you Jim Schoenfeld of the New Jersey Devils.

No, there is in sports and, heaven help us, maybe everywhere, a leadership crisis. One doesn't see any gentle-but-forceful, tough-but-fair Knute Rocknes out there discharging the best of our youth onto the fields of friendly strife. Instead, we seem to have, clutching desperately to the helms, a sorry collection of aging juveniles who are about as qualified to direct and inspire young people as was old Fagin himself.

Granted, some of these coaching and managing delinquents are as technically brilliant as they are emotionally retarded. Nobody ever said that Knight wasn't a good basketball coach. And it may be true that Martin has no equal running a baseball team on the field. But are they worth the price? Indiana University has quietly endured all the humiliations heaped on it through Knight's behavior for lo these many years, apparently concluding that victory on the court has been more important than dignity and respectability. And George Steinbrenner? Who's to say the Yankee owner is even a cut above his manager when it comes to maturity? His own impulsive behavior scarcely marks him as a man of reason. Martin has been getting into fights since he was old enough to toddle after the first nipper who looked at him the wrong way, and there is no reason to believe he won't still be slugging it out from his rocking chair.

These are, admittedly, extreme cases. They are also role models for people who are coaching, managing and otherwise calling the shots at all levels of sports. Anyone who has ever seen a Little League game can attest to the influence the tough guys, the old kids, have on sports. At these affairs it is not the youngsters who get fighting mad, but the Martin simulators among the parents. Behavior that would lead to the hoosegow if conducted on the streets is condoned, encouraged, even cheered in sports arenas. What team owners and college administrators now seem to require of their coaches and managers, first and foremost, is aggressiveness. Aggressiveness has been taken up as a cause by spectators as well, so much so that some major league baseball grandstands are no safer than subway platforms or hockey rinks. Those who have condemned National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti for penalizing Rose too severely are missing the point. What Rose did—and, frankly, his actions were surprising—was set off a riot, and in criminal law that would get an offender a lot more than 30 days on the sidelines. Rose stopped being a leader when he bumped the ump: He became an unruly child.

No doubt he'll wise up, but what about the rest of these characters running our teams, both amateur and professional? Who told them you can't be a respectable citizen and win games? Should we blame Leo Durocher and his nonsense about nice guys finishing last? Or maybe Woody Hayes, who on the one hand preached all the homely virtues and then behaved publicly like a monstrous brat. Perhaps it's that we have come to accept childishness as a kind of virtue in sports. All those bench-clearing brawls in baseball, all those punch-ups in basketball, all that jeering at the opponent in football, all of hockey—nothing but kid stuff.

The old saw has it that only losing coaches build character. How, then, do you explain Rockne, Eddie Robinson, Joe Paterno, John Wooden, K.C. Jones, Walter Alston, Dick Howser? Pretty good guys, and winners. Character builders, all of them. Surely their kind is not in such short supply today that they can be brushed aside by the brutes. Or maybe the so-called sports world is the last refuge of the adolescent, the only place where an adult can behave like a perfect fool and not only get away with it but also be applauded and rewarded with a position of authority. If that's true—and let's hope it's not—then all those hypocrites who profess to be worried about influencing future generations had best put a lid on it.

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