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Monday, April 8, 2013

Poor Sports

Let me preface my remarks this evening with a qualifier.

I really enjoy sports, as both a participant and a spectator. I earned varsity letters in three different high school sports and went on to play soccer in college. My son and daughter both competed in intercollegiate athletics as well. One of my sisters has twice been selected as the top high school Track coach in the United States while leading teams to twenty state championships in cross country.

With that as a backdrop, I want to question the perspective of sports in our society.

Despite being a life-long loyal fan of the Detroit Tigers, I had to wonder about the juxtaposition of the news that their star pitcher, Justin Verlander, had signed a contract extension that will net him over 200 million dollars at a time when our school district approaches the final and anxious phase of earning enough public support to approve an annual operating budget of just under 7 million dollars. Put in another way, our public school system could nurture the dreams and sustain the hope of our 320 learners for over two decades (even accounting for inflation over that span of time) with the money that Verlander will receive over the life of his contract. Shortly thereafter, the San Francisco Giants signed all-star catcher Buster Posey for 189 million dollars. It's mind boggling and it will likely continue as teams exert their resources in the quest for championships.

Why am I ranting? Not just because of the extraordinarily large and obscene contracts provided to athletes, not just because in too many public school districts sports remains immune from the same financial threats that have pinched academics, and not just because the heritage and tradition of sports (and their mascots) have interrupted attempts of school districts seeking to avoid fiscal fatalities through merging systems, but, because the latest scandal and cover-up of a large Division I sports program has highlighted the wavering and situational ethics that misguides amateur athletics in college.

Although credible film and print journalists have indicated that the officials of Rutgers University (the flagship of the state university system in New Jersey) had reviewed the film clips of their men's basketball coach, Mike Rice, verbally and physically assaulting players in practice in December, they did not act to fire him until they were shamed when the video was aired on national sports channels. The athletic director of Rutgers has resigned, and he will receive over a million dollars in a pay-out - how long will you have to work to earn a million dollars?). The legal counsel representing the university in the process after the film was first reviewed by college staff in December also resigned. There is an ongoing investigation into the manner in which the attempted cover up incident was handled at Rutgers.

This incident occurs while the terrible experience at Penn State University still lingers over the college sports landscape. You will likely recall that an assistant football coach of the mighty Nittany Lions, serving on the staff of the legendary head coach Joe Paterno, was found guilty of a number of charges involving inappropriate sexual relationships with boys. As the story unfolded, it was revealed that there were apparently a number of Penn State staff members (including Paterno) who were alerted to the allegations, with rather strong evidence, but did not initiate the proper authorities. It seemed that the need to protect the famous football program (and maybe the revenue it attracted) overwhelmed the need to exercise moral courage and address the issue and prevent additional boys from being victimized.

The Penn State fiasco was followed by the "confession" of seven time Tour de France champion bicyclist Lance Armstrong in which he finally admitted what had long been suspected - he used performance enhancing drugs to ride to victory after victory.

The list of such moral losses could go on and on.

When will it stop? What will we learn from these incidents? What can be done to refocus attention on the integrity of sports and the benefits that can accrue from competition, the collaborative team efforts, the goal orientation, and commitment, and many other positive attributes of sports?

One of my favorite quotes regarding athletics comes from John Wooden, legendary basketball coach of UCLA, (the University of California at Los Angeles):

"Sports don't build character, they reveal character."

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