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An open letter to Bud Wilkinson:
November 12, 1962
Ever since President Kennedy first coined the phrase in these pages (SI, Dec. 26, 1960), the concept of the Soft American has been a matter of national concern. According to the President's last "progress" report (SI, July 16), more than 10 million of our 40 million school children are still unable to pass the very minimum of physical fitness tests—and European youngsters are still far ahead of us. In 1961 George Munger, director of physical education at the University of Pennsylvania, offered a challenge to Bud Wilkinson, the Presidents Special Consultant on Youth Fitness. Professor Munger, using his own comparison of European and U.S. athletic activities (SI, July 31, 1961), concluded: Americans are too varsity-minded. "What we need," he said, "are more mediocre scatbacks having a bang-up time on the seventh team." This week, a Michigan housewife, mother of three (two boys, 15 and 4, and a girl, 12), presents a second challenge based on similar and, we think, even more meaningful findings right from her—and our—own backyard.
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November 12, 1962

An Open Letter To Bud Wilkinson:

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This practice is not confined to the boys' gym. Many a girl develops a loathing for sports in the fifth and sixth grades because of an overzealous, bullying teacher. Another highly regarded method is called "group control." The teacher gets the class to bring pressure on the "offender" by encouraging sarcasm and ridicule. This is most effective and should develop a lasting hate in the ill-coordinated boy for his body and for all sports.

This kind of thing is unjust to the point of stupidity. In the classroom, because the required work is gauged to meet individual needs, any ordinary child, with an honest effort, can memorize the spelling words or trace the maps at a given age. Similarly, we should recognize that no two children have the same muscle control and coordination. They are being punished and ridiculed for something they have no control over. And what child wouldn't try his heart out to avoid such a situation?

With so much emphasis on skill, we have made childhood athletics a grim business. We have replaced the fun with hard work, the enjoyment with furious determination. We have made achievement of excellence the only goal. Thus when we fail (and it is inevitable that most of us do) we withdraw ashamed and embarrassed. Businessmen on the golf course have made the game of golf into a deadly affair. My neighbor broke a $65 putter over his knee and threw it in the river because he wasn't playing a consistently good game. In a women's bowling league I observed the captain of the first-place team padding the score because it was losing that afternoon. A friend of my husband wished he were in better condition. He added, however, that he would be so "poor" at any sport now he'd feel like a fool getting a workout in the gym.

This is the crux of the whole matter. We must decide what it is we really want—a few champions or a nation of healthy, fit citizens. If only the Beethovens were allowed to use musical instruments, only the Van Goghs paints, the Rodins clay, the Hemingways typewriters, this would be a sad world indeed. Yet in sports we have lost our perspective and our sense of humor. It has become a cult for the dedicated few while the rest of us worship from the bleachers.

Give sports back to the rejects, to the imperfect and the ill-coordinated. As Webster says: "sport That which diverts, and makes mirth; pastime; diversion."
Ann Arbor, Mich.

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