Lately the age-old maxim that sports builds character has been under attack by internal forces — namely the depressingly high number of athletes caught behaving badly.
Lance Armstrong, who, until recently, was one of the most revered athletes of our time, the paragon of how an athlete can use his skill to benefit humanity; has fallen from grace and the once-invincible Michael Jordan — who is still my favorite athlete of all time, with the possible exception of former Kansas State basketball star Jacob Pullen — has been ushered down from Olympus by a combination of marital infidelity, gambling issues and the exposure of some of the darker aspects of his alpha male persona.
Given the abundance of evidence that athletes are just people, with the same weaknesses and idiosyncrasies as the rest of us, it would be easy to find the idea that sports is especially well-suited to churn out solid citizens as hopelessly naive. And, while any lawless transgression by today’s athletes is a disappointment, cheating scandals like the one involving Armstrong are particularly discomforting for fans because, as famous sports writer Frank Deford sagely points out, such scandals poison our faith in the game. Yet, the unwholesome activities of some athletes, whether they be well-known or obscure, shouldn’t erase the work and dedication exerted by countless athletes and coaches on an everyday basis from the public memory.
Sports, despite the ugly character traits they occasionally bring out (tribalism, worship of the physically superior, that one mean teammate who everyone wants to either hide from or punch in the face) do play an important — and mostly positive — role in society, although probably not to the extent of the most ardent proponents of the “sports-makes-you-a-man theory” suggest. While athletes are inclined to indulge in the same sinful activities as the rest of us mere mortals, there are still some important lessons that can be gleaned from sports such as teamwork, learning to deal with failure, learning to be a good winner, dedication, self-discipline and competition — except when it claims dominion over every other human emotion.
Of course — and this isn’t emphasized near enough — these same lessons can be learned from activities non-sports related: Theatre, band, church groups, volunteer groups and debate. The notion that sports is somehow superior to other organizations at producing upstanding, goal-oriented citizens has always struck me as a bit arrogant, even though my own life has certainly benefited from an involvement in sports. Non-competitive girls and boys shouldn’t be inoculated with the idea that they will somehow be less desirable — or less glamorous or less valuable — to society if they don’t engage in activities that don’t jibe with their basic nature.
That being said, sports, aside from shielding young people from the hazards of idleness, does provide people with both definition and direction. In addition, it provides an outlet to release all kinds of repressed energy that could certainly be unleashed in far less wholesome ways; especially for those living through those turbulent adolescent years.
The positive elements of sports were illuminated for me as I watched the Class 2A bowling meet Tuesday at the Plaza Lanes in Des Moines. Both Ottumwa teams were totally locked in to the excitement of the moment. The electricity that pulsed through the bowling alley resembled an atmosphere that, at least to bowling novices like myself, seemed more fit for a football game than a bowling meet.
Looking back on that spectacle, it occurs to me that there aren’t many other avenues available for girls and boys to get that kind of adrenaline rush that adolescents crave while learning and developing important character traits at the same time.
While both bowling teams competed admirably — they both finished second — the boys were especially fired up.
Braxton Coble, Anthony Roberts, Jordan Mitchell, Joey Lee, Austin Palmer and Isaac Goodman harnessed all the energy and electricity in the building and used it to pull off one of their best performances of the year. And they had a blast doing it. Not to take anything away from the performances of Cybil Lennie and freshman sensation Bailey Palmer — both girls finished in the top 10 — but the boys were totally in sync with each other that day. The admiration, camaraderie and utter joy they exhibited towards one another during the tournament was a treat to watch.
The love Roberts, who more than anyone embodied the Bulldogs team spirit, was illuminated by the tears he shed after the meet was finished.
“I put all my heart and soul in this team,” he said. “These guys are family. We’re all best friends. We’d rather have fun with everything we’re doing, rather than taking everything so seriously.”
With all the ugliness and scandals that have tainted sports as of late, it was therapeutic to view an event that exposed the medium’s true value to society. For sports are more than just a game, but how that more is defined is what will determine whether sports will serve as an asset or an albatross for our culture.
If the boys’ performance at the bowling meet is used as a role model, the answer will be the former.
Got a sports challenge for Courier sports writer Andy Heintz? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.