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A Game Plan for America
John Underwood
February 23, 1981
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
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February 23, 1981

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

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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.

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