Every now and then, one of my sons gets into a philosophical mood and wonders aloud why humans care so much about spectator sports. After all, what is it about watching people chase, swat or shoot a ball that not only captivates people but makes them develop loyalties that can, at times, cause grownups to behave like infants?
It’s a dangerous question — sort of like asking someone to define patriotism or explain Einstein’s theory of relativity. The answer might either be too difficult to understand or it could destroy Saturday afternoons as we know them.
So we drop the subject. Frankly, we both enjoy watching sports too much.
Two recent stories, however, come about as close to providing an eloquent answer as I have ever heard.
The decision by BYU to suspend star linebacker Spencer Hadley on the eve of a game with the team’s top rival and the almost unthinkable decision by football coach Matt Labrum, at Roosevelt, Utah's Union High, to suspend his entire team were more than just anecdotes about rules. They were lessons about redemption and the role teamwork can play in acquainting people with their better selves.
And, unfortunately, they are about as common in the modern American sports landscape as graciousness on comment boards.
To recap: BYU suspended Hadley after he violated the school’s honor code by drinking alcohol. But the story doesn’t end there. In a moving piece in Sports Illustrated, Jeff Benedict described how he watched the team visit the state prison to speak to inmates before the big game. In a spontaneous move, Hadley gave an emotional confession and spoke about mistakes and redemption. Benedict wrote that both inmates and guards were in tears.
It won’t get him back on the field any quicker than his five-game suspension, but that clearly isn’t what matters.
In Roosevelt, Coach Labrum was confronted with reports that someone on his team was bullying a student through the Internet. He also heard reports about team members showing disrespect toward teachers and skipping classes.
So, after last Friday’s game he told everyone on the team to turn in his uniform. To play again, each athlete will have to prove himself through a tough regimen of community service, dedicated schoolwork and taking a class on character development.
News reports were filled with photos of players raking weeds and working at a senior citizens center, looking happy and satisfied.
These stories hit about the same time the latest issue of The Atlantic landed on my desk. Two stories caught my eye. One was Amanda Ripley’s report on “The case against high school sports,” in which she found that American schools often spend more tax money per athlete than per math student.
The other, written by Gregg Easterbrook, was a detailed look at how the National Football League “fleeces” taxpayers, taking advantage of everything from publicly funded stadiums to a unique nonprofit status and exemption from antitrust laws. Despite a bad economy, no politician apparently has the guts to stand up against this affront to the free market because it would be political.
Even if I can’t fully explain it, there is no sense in denying it; Americans are sports obsessed. As I’ve written before, the drive to win at all costs is not a new phenomenon. There is evidence colleges were enrolling good players and pretending to put them in classes as early as the late 1800s.
I don’t know the answer to these larger problems, but I have a hunch.
Grown athletes who abuse steroids or cheat in other ways are said to influence similar behavior in the young people who look up to them, but why can’t influence work from the bottom up, as well? Why can’t the few coaches willing to teach integrity, honesty, good behavior and the ability to rise above mistakes have just as much, or more, influence on the nation’s future than the bad examples?
Young athletes, after all, end up in all walks of life, where the lessons they learn about fairness and second chances are even more important.
Maybe Labrum and BYU Coach Bronco Mendenhall have started a movement that reaffirms the meaning of games and puts the philosophical discussion to rest.