June 07, 1993|By TIM BAKER

The living room in our house is a little unusual. A basketball hoop hangs on the far wall over the door.

I take a pass and cut to my left. The sofa sets a perfect screen. Behind it, I go up for my jump shot. The ball hits nothing but net. I purse my lips and make that sweet sound. ''Swish.'' The crowd goes crazy.

Actually, the hoop exists only in my imagination. So do the goal posts. I drop back to pass . . .

These slow-motion fantasies are all that now remains of my modest high school athletic talents. I day-dream about them whenever Bruce Springsteen sings ''Glory Days.''

When I was a teen-ager, athletic ability seemed like such a big deal. In fact, in my high school, success in sports won a boy more status and prestige than any other accomplishment.

To some extent, of course, the prominence of sports reflected age-old competitive male adolescent priorities. But at my high school the institution itself added its own imprimatur to the importance of athletics. Attendance was compulsory at games but not at any of the other extracurricular activities. At lunch, the varsity teams sat at special training tables. At commencement every year, most of the silver bowls and plaques were awarded for athletic achievement.

It wasn't unusual. In the 1950s, every high school emphasized athletics and lavished honors on the athletes. In that ancient era, it seemed natural. Maybe it still does. Count how many athletic trophies are handed out at award days and graduation ceremonies this month. Can you explain why it's still such a big deal?

The Duke of Wellington had a theory: ''The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.'' But these days victory rides on laser-guided fire power and highly trained soldier-technicians. Desert Storm was won in America's high-tech laboratories and classrooms, not on West Point's playing fields.

Contemporary sports apologists, however, would still agree with the duke. Athletics teaches a boy character! Courage. Determination. The capacity to perform under pressure. Teamwork and leadership. Commitment and the pursuit of excellence. These qualities of mind and heart are still important. They lead to success on the battlefield and in every other human endeavor!

Of course sports aren't worthless. They're fun, and playing on a high school team can teach a kid important lessons. But the truth is that high school sports cannot provide as effective or relevant an arena for character development as other school activities. Many non-athletic programs now do a better job at it and therefore deserve more respect, recognition and financial support.

Take the school play, the school newspaper, the band, or the debating team. They demand cooperation, determination, commitment, leadership and high standards. Which requires more courage -- sliding into home plate or remembering your lines in front of a packed auditorium? You want to develop the capacity to perform under pressure? Try playing a trombone solo in front of a high school audience!

These non-athletic school activities develop character in arenas that are much more relevant to the challenges young people will have to face in their adult lives and careers. The reason is simple. In today's world, brain power and the capacity to use it effectively are infinitely more important than physical prowess.

But sports build self-esteem, the apologists argue. That's a bootstrap justification: Athletic success builds self-esteem only because schools and television delude kids into believing sports are so important in the first place. Ghetto gang members have high self-esteem, too, because in their environment gang membership is considered prestigious.

Young people need self-esteem that's based on a more relevant foundation than sports. They need the kind developed by Jaime Escalante's Hispanic students, as portrayed in the movie ''Stand and Deliver.'' All of them persevered through his rigorous math program and eventually won high honors on the Advanced Placement exam.

The continued priority accorded high school athletics rests on two pervasive but fallacious images. The first is electronic. Television bombards us with pictures of home runs and shattered backboards. But only a minuscule number of high school athletes will ever make it to ''The Show.''

The second image is less obvious but more powerful because it is psychic, mythological. It is the archetypal image of the youthful Greek god, the handsome hero winning the race at the foot of the Parthenon.

Listen to the cliches. The scholar-athlete. An officer and a gentleman. The poet-soldier. It's the same image. Over and over again. The civilized warrior. It's a fiction laced with fallacies. A healthy body and good physical conditioning do not require you to tackle a halfback or hit a fastball.

The continued over-emphasis on high school athletics beguiles some boys into an irrelevant dead-end. It teaches the rest of the student body that they aren't good enough because they're not hero-warriors, ''scholar- athletes.''

What about the scholar-actors, scholar-journalists, scholar-musicians? What about scholar-nice guys? They are all lesser breeds, diminished because they don't live up to an empty, destructive and archaic fantasy of what a boy must do to become a man.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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