A DEFINITION OF COURAGE
As the mother of four boys, 10 to 14, living in a difficult neighborhood (are there any others?) in the borough of Manhattan, New York City, I would like to express my appreciation for an important job your magazine is doing, intentionally or otherwise: giving active, yearning-for-adventure, starved-for-nature boys a broader vision of the world of sport than they can get from watching baseball on television and collecting picture cards from bubble gum. The thoroughness with which you go into a subject, the impact of your excellent photographs do much to catch their attention and encourage further reading.
I would like to ask, however, how thoroughly you may have tried to think through your (please stick with me) "moral philosophy" on sports? Frankly, because my boys are not avid readers I have to date been able to pick carefully myself many of your longer articles for reading aloud with them (yes, they like it even at these ages) and have been able to find excellent pieces that emphasize the conscientious application, the skill, the striving, the informed caution that is essential in many of even the most reckless-appearing, hell-for-leather sports. (Your series on the job of the jockey—although beyond the boys, who have no interest in horse racing as yet—was a revelation to me, who thought a skinny little guy just got aboard a horse to egg him on and see that he kept running in the right direction. One of your much earlier pieces on the thinking involved in running a mile was similarly illuminating to this product of brotherless family and women's college.)
To come to my point, here is what has prompted this letter: in the Oct. 14 issue there is a letter from—what a shock to me!—Roger Bannister, proposing as Sportsman of the Year Stirling Moss, a racing driver. I have no objection to that, but what in God's name (and I mean exactly that!) is the meaning of Dr. Bannister's recommendation that "apart from mountaineering, no other sport courts death or affords the vision of your friends and rivals mangled, burned or dead." I'll tell you another sport that affords this vision, one quite commonplace on the streets of New York: gang warfare.
It is this occasional odd, completely-beyond-my-understanding note that offers my only basis for questioning your "moral philosophy." At times when I read of the thrill involved in killing a magnificent animal, from a safe distance, with a technically superb weapon and with the aid of a guide who did all the hard work, planning and tracking, I wonder how this may differ from the thrill of juvenile warfare in the spreading jungles of New York. We have the comment of a teen-age assassin that he asked to be allowed to strike the first blow in a recent ambush because he wanted to feel "the thrill of a knife going through flesh and bone." (Perhaps the cure for juvenile violence lies in organizing for great groups of these kids an African safari or—if Dr. Bannister is right—a sort of J.D. Indianapolis speedway. Certainly it has been proved that baseball won't hold them.)
I don't expect for a minute that you will—or could—turn anti-killing, but is the real excitement, the real satisfaction, a matter of dealing death? If so, and we can accept it in the well-heeled sportsman, how can we decry it in the street boy? Perhaps we should buck for the return of city dumps so these kids could exercise their skill with a zip gun and switch blade on rats and stray cats.
An excellent job has been done in recent years in pointing out to interested Americans that the appeal of the bullfight is not—or at least not primarily—the death of the bull or the possible death of the torero but the skill, the discipline, the courage of the man and the bravery of the brute.
Glorification (as I assumed it from Dr. Bannister—doctor!) of the courting of death and destruction sickens me. Are we expected to be comforted by the fact that Moss has "expressed his private optimism" by becoming engaged to be married?
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has done a magnificent job in trying to improve the basic situations which interfere with physical fitness in American youths and adults. You have a tremendous job to do. Please don't let up. But can we not have a mens sana in that corpore sano? Are sports an end in themselves or are they meant to build for greater life and growth?
I am not anti-hunting, anti-shooting, anti-mountaineering, anti-race driving or anything else, but I am opposed to the "courting" of death being cited as a virtue. Being willing, in the fullness of adult judgment, to risk death in the pursuit of an important aim—test-piloting, exploring the depths of the sea or the caves of the earth—this I can see. Even the pitting of skill against a reasonably well-matched adversary in a dangerous game such as racing is not beyond my comprehension. But, at the extremes of the scale, to emphasize the thrill of inviting death or of dealing it—this is in my opinion sick, sick, sick.
DOROTHY B. THOMPSON
New York City
•In direct reply to Mrs. Thompson's challenging letter, Dr. Bannister cabled SPORTS ILLUSTRATED his definition of thoughtful courage as follows: "I do not believe that there is separate sports morality. The philosophy that governs life should govern sport as well. There is no simple answer to this particular problem and I do not pretend to have made up my mind completely. A bachelor presumably has the right to risk his life in some difficult and dangerous enterprise which he finds satisfying because of the mental and physical demands it makes on him. But whether a man has the right to hurt his family by causing endless worry, if not actual disaster, is questionable. Certainly he cannot do so without a consent which his wife may give but which his children are unable to give. There is a distinction between the foolhardy weekend sportsman who without sufficient skill or sense risks his life and a driver like Moss who really understands his sport. It would be insane to engage in any sport in order to see friends 'mangled, burned or dead.' Moss, however, shows thoughtful courage in the face of danger, a courage essential not only to sportsmen but to the human race."—ED.