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The vacant lots other generations played on as kids may not be there now. But the fields our tax money has provided for organized play are there, and modification of the programs conducted on them isn't impossible. We might even consider turning the fields and the equipment over to the children, providing a qualified teacher or two (one coach, say, for every four teams) and then stepping back.
Specialization from the little-league cradle to the pro-sports grave and the other failings of athletic competition in America must be corrected. To do it, a kind of moral renaissance in sport is needed, a rebirth of appreciation of the value of athletics as a teacher. We can start by rectifying a big mistake. Much of our competitive sports system—win at any cost, style over substance, money over achievement—has grown out of the pro-sports model. The time has come to abandon that model; to reestablish what competition in sports is all about. One thing it's definitely not about is preparing athletes to become professionals.
The colleges must quit toadying to the pros, quit compromising their standards by coaxing subliterate jocks through the system on the basis that it's good business—good for the schools, to win and fill the stadiums, and for the athletes, to make it to the pros.
When that's done, an interesting side effect may well develop: The high schools will have to go back to educating their athletes instead of just shuttling them up to the colleges. And then a whole generation of better-prepared players—for life, not just sports—will emerge.
Colleges should reemphasize the humanist qualities of competition in their sports. They should acknowledge the value of good coaches by giving them tenure or some other form of job security not so tightly tied to the numbers in the stands and on the scoreboard. That could well set up another chain reaction: secure in their work, less desperate to succeed, the coaches would stop cheating so much.
The time has come, too, to release the death grip recruiting has on coaches. It is a ritual akin to bribery and it distorts the competitive process. USC's Robinson is right. Coaches should first be teachers, not brokers and agents. There should be tight limitations on the amount of time coaches may spend on recruiting and on the distances they are allowed to travel for talent. We might even examine possibilities as visionary as creating a sphere of influence, based on the number of high school athletes available, around each NCAA Division I school. Each coaching staff would have to confine its recruiting trips to its designated area. If an athletic prospect living outside the area is under consideration, coach and athlete could exchange letters or phone calls. It would never be necessary for Robinson to show his face in Boston.
As such burdens are lifted from college coaches, they will be free to resume their traditional roles as teachers of athletes and molders of teams, their most useful service to society. By stressing team play above all, by requiring self-sacrifice from all players, by insisting that athletes strive for excellence in their performances, not just victory on the field, coaches would imbue their charges with the lessons sports teach especially well. Says former UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden, "Those who have the team concept will be better able to step into other areas of life and contribute very effectively, both for themselves and society."
COMPETITION, TEAMWORK AND SOCIETY
Although there is no precise correlation between trends in sports and those in the economy or in society at large, there is a link between these activities (see box on page 79). And certainly indications are that the non-sporting competitive instincts of young Americans are strong, very likely stronger than they've been in some time. Robert H.B. Baldwin, former three-sport man at Princeton, father of five and president of New York's Morgan Stanley investment bank, says, "In the late '60s and on into the '70s there were a lot of kids who went up to Vermont, saying, 'We're going to get away from it all.' Now youngsters are coming to New York and other cities, saying, 'Hey, the action's here.' Not long ago college kids seemed to want only to spout a lot of rhetoric. Now when you go on campus [as Baldwin often has in recent years to visit his children and to chair meetings of the Stanford Business School's advisory council], you find that the students are looking for careers. They're interested. They're competitive." Maybe too much so. According to several recent studies, the battle for good grades has led to a shocking increase in cheating on campus.
But these highly competitive young people aren't as strong on teamwork. MIT's Thurow is all for competitiveness, but he points out that people's willingness to work together can have startling effects when applied to a nation's economy. A greater cooperative spirit, not a sharper competitive spirit, is what has made Japan and West Germany strong commercial rivals to the U.S. "The intriguing thing in Japan is that the boss—or team manager, if you like—gives few orders," Thurow says. "They have this idea of the team deciding what the strategy is rather than just the manager. The argument is: If the team has decided something, everybody's gung-ho and will work at achieving the goal. If the team manager alone decides everyone should run through a stone wall, the team members won't do it because they haven't agreed that it's important."