Building Character

July 02, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

I didn't need O.J. Simpson's history of beating his wife, tennis Wunderkind Jennifer Capriati's marijuana possession, Mickey Mantle's admission to alcohol abuse and family neglect, the Tonya Harding caper or any other humiliation of the sports world in 1994 as evidence that athletic achievement doesn't build character.

I've known it since I was in school -- and so have you. Who were the bullies, the cut-ups, the guys whom other boys learned not to cross and whom girls learned were best not to get involved with? The star athletes. Yes, some top prep players are honor-roll students, but not the majority and their success in the classroom likely comes from factors off the field. At the college level, athletic departments continually pressure their institutions to lower standards for athlete admissions. And in the rarefied air of pro sports, many a new sports reporter feels great disillusionment after some time spent inside a big-league locker room.

All this buncombe about sports building character, it's a deceit, yet we keep buying it -- and then selling it to the next generation.

More children than ever participate in organized athletics, often at their parents' urging. A recent series of articles by Cox News Service suggested that baby boomers, weaned on sports culture and fearful about the future of the workplace, are pushing their offspring into sports as a ticket to popularity, competitiveness and maybe fame and fortune.

Indeed, Little League has never had more members: 2.8 million youngsters playing in 81 countries. The Williamsport, Pa.-based organization this year is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the cream-of-the-crop Class of '54, which sent five players on to the majors, including former Oriole and current barbecue king Boog Powell. If you ask the Little League people why participation has climbed consistently since the group's founding in 1939, they'll talk about baseball's ''lessons of life . . . leadership training, teamwork, how to win and lose with dignity.''

But anyone who's seen a coach chastise a player or a parent scream at a coach at a neighborhood rec league knows that dignity and sports often don't go hand in hand.

Moreover, children learn early that athletic ability is celebrated in way that brain power or other forms of creativity are not. An undertaker in eastern Baltimore County, for example, gives box seats and on-air recognition prior to Orioles broadcasts to a Little Leaguer of the week. While the act is well-intentioned, one wonders whether the child who just threw a no-hitter or swatted a game-winning homer needs the pick-me- up as much as the kid who warms the bench or who just misplayed a fly ball in right field.

You can't simply blame modern society for expecting sports to develop and define character. That's how the ancient Greeks viewed their Olympic games (bloody and deadly though they were) back in 776 B.C. After 2,000 years of examples to the contrary, why do we still embrace athletics as an exhibit of moral strength as well as muscular strength? Why do we view a ball field as a foundry for the soul?

Probably because there is nothing else like it. To be a supportive spouse, a loving parent, a reliable provider, a solid worker, a good person -- you can't measure that in a couple of hours. The achievements of most lives' work are difficult to quantify. And one's perception of having succeeded or failed at a task can look different in retrospect.

Sports isn't like that. There's a winner and a loser. Someone made the clutch play or did not. The newsreels of great moments in sports look as they did the day we saw them happen because they're frozen in time, the result never metamorphoses into something else.

I was a typically average athlete as a boy, and I'll always cherish my handful of small glories: My picture on the front of the local paper after a tackle in the town's big Thanksgiving Day game; a standing ovation from my football team after another victory; the award of a baton for a camp track meet. But I'll also never forget that a pee-wee baseball coach admonished me never ever to smile in the batter's box (which confused me, because it ran counter to my parents' lessons on how to win friends), nor the teen-league coach who berated me for losing the basketball in the closing seconds of a game and costing my team a win.

Sports is a fertile humus for emotion. It's a source of excitement, camaraderie, challenge and intense devotion. But don't expect to grow character in it: That comes from somewhere else.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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