The lessons of sport

Contemporary sport, at all levels, has a lot to teach us. Sport provides a lens through which we can see ourselves, and assess our collective values. To arbitrarily reject the chance to look through that lens erases the opportunity to utilize yet another basic, human activity as our classroom.

Unfortunately, many of the lessons we now learn from sport are negative. Check out professional sport; the clearest lessons concern human weakness, pride and greed. Salaries are grossly out of proportion with the nature of the activity; many professional athletes make more in a year than most workers make in a lifetime. Professional ball players — men who play games — make more money than the schoolteachers to whom we trust our children’s education. More than nurses. The news is full of stories about athletes who cheat in order to amplify remuneration and the adulation shown them by fans.

In college sport, claims of recruiting violations and under-the-table payments to athletes mar the scene.

In school kid sports, two things continue to grow that tarnish what should be a healthy, memorable experience for participants: the emphasis of sporting activity over and against academics, and the pressure brought to bear on young people and sporting programs by parents intent on living through their offspring.

But, there are also moments of beauty, moments in which a positive lesson is too obvious to ignore. Take last weekend’s state wrestling tournament, at which two young men from Pagosa won state championships. Wrestling is a rugged, unforgiving sport — one in which there are no excuses, in which one competitor is, in the end, better than the other, with the loser left with no one to blame. It is a pure example of the truth that, even with talent, the only chance for success flows from persistence and disciplined effort over many years time. And not just on the part of champions — on the part of any youngster who takes the activity seriously. It is a sport that reveals character and in that revelation, as it is with other sports, there is something valuable for spectator and athlete alike.

Sport, however, must be reformed and reined in at all levels. Positive values should be retained, but we need to alter the role sport plays in our personal and collective lives. Only the consumer can stimulate change in professional sport — by refusing to pay and watch, by waking up to gross injustices, to the obliviousness of sporting organizations to the ultimate heath and welfare of athletes, and to the indecent overpayment of said athletes when they are useful.

At the high school level, change in sport can first occur in scope. Sport must become less expensive. The day is coming when the great spectacle of state competitions will have to go. The day is coming when high school athletic teams will curtail travel, reforming league associations in line with cost, not geographic lines. The day should come soon when school districts have the nerve to terminate travel, aside from championship events, that involves overnight stays. Junior varsity high school and junior high school teams should have a travel radius restriction of 100 miles, with no overnight stays; C team sports should be discontinued in favor of intramural sports.

At the pre-prep level, take sport back to the sandlots and front lawns. Keep the pressure off.

As to how to deal with overzealous parents, fans and coaches … who knows? But, by reducing the scope of sport programs, perhaps that will follow. And, some day, we can devise systems that encourage the noble aspects of character, the values of hard work, dedication … and uncontaminated fun.

Karl Isberg