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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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And if the administrators of sport, from the high schools to the pros, want to show a greater sense of responsibility, they must drill into young players—especially black ones—the hard facts and figures about their dim chances for careers in the pros. (For example, of the 569,228 boys who played high school basketball last winter, about 50—or 0.009%—can expect someday to play in the NBA.) That's just one of the ways in which coaches can put the players' interests first. Another way would be to adopt a more laissezfaire attitude toward youngsters' competitive interests, to allow them—even encourage them—to reject specialization.

And for preteen athletes there should be clear limits on specialization. In the past couple of years baseball's Little League and Pop Warner football have made positive changes in their "mandatory play rules." In Little League, for instance, each child must now play at least two innings in the field and get one at bat in every game. Unfortunately this curtailing of specialization was not always welcomed at the grass-roots level. Some 1,800 teams pulled out of Pop Warner after the organization made rule changes requiring that each participant be given a minimum amount of playing time. If other little-league and age-group programs don't make such changes in their rules, then we should withdraw our support of them, let them wither and die.

The complaints can already be heard: If we do that, how are we to beat the East Germans in swimming? That's the whole point. Beating the G.D.R. may be nice, but it's not worth it if our 12-year-old girls become nothing but swimming automatons. That's not beating the East Germans; that's joining them. This is true in all international competitions, including the Olympics. They shouldn't be viewed as tests of national virtue. To that end, all the nationalistic trappings should be removed from the Games. Americans should remember that any competition, including the Olympics, is a test of individuals and teams in specific sports, not countries. The measure of U.S. success as a sporting country comes in how fairly its Olympians and other athletes play their games and in how well they apply the lessons they've learned in sports competition.

Most important, we must address ourselves to the task of putting big-time sports in a more reasonable perspective. That job cannot be left to the professional leagues; after all, they're the ones who profit from the emphasis on bigness. Besides, they only represent the upper end of the win-at-all-costs ladder that begins with little league.

We as a people must act. We must make it clear that we don't find a millionaire leftfielder worthy merely because of the numbers on his paycheck. That we don't much care for loudmouth owners. We must show that the competition on all levels—not just the commotion at the top—is what we enjoy. And what serves us best.

How is such a subtle, elusive goal to be attained? It can't be legislated or otherwise imposed. It's a matter of altering attitudes, mostly by performing actions that are apparently small. Try applauding the next time you're at a baseball game and the other team's starting pitcher gives way to a reliever. On the tennis court, tilt your line calls in your opponent's favor, play the serve that might be an eyelash long. If we do enough of these little things, especially when our children are around, we can make competition a better, healthier thing. This is no dream. People have seen pure competition work. One of them is Pete Dawkins.

Dawkins is now a colonel in the U.S. Army. In the late 1950s he was a Heisman Trophy halfback at West Point, the First Captain of the Corps of Cadets and the most impressive young athlete of his time. Impressions, however, were then being made on Dawkins, too. The key words he remembers from MacArthur's exhortations to the Corps are, Dawkins believes, lost on most people. From "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory," Dawkins considers the key words to be "friendly" and "seeds."

He remembers that when he was a rugby player while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, opposing players—"tired, often sutured, half of them sorely disappointed"—gathered after every game to share a cup of tea and a beer or two and then, more often than not, the evening together. Friendly strife. What a contrast, Dawkins says, "to the sad tableau of Woody Hayes viciously lashing out at the personification of his enemy—some opposing player with the audacity to obstruct Ohio State's path to victory." The occasion for competition, says Dawkins, is more important than the outcome.

Sports, he adds, must go beyond the formalities of good sportsmanship. They must reach all the way to "fair play." The essential difference, as Dawkins sees it, is that fair play involves taking a stand beyond the rules of the game—a stand that places your winning at risk, but "a stand that preserves the dignity and value of sport." It is a moral issue and is based on an inward conviction that, in Dawkins' words, "to win by cheating, by an umpire error or by an unfair stroke of fate is not really to win at all."

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