A League of Fans Special Feature
Chuck Wilson has been a long-time national radio host for ESPN and also has done national radio with Sirius/XM Radio. He was named runner-up for best national radio host of the decade (2000-09) by Sports Illustrated and was picked one of the 100 most influential sports educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He’s hosted well-known ESPN shows like SportsCenter Tonight, SportsCenter Sunday, Football Tonight and Baseball Tonight.
Wilson describes himself as a “frustrated and undersized high school athlete.” As such, knowing he had a limited future as an athlete, Wilson began to focus on a career in sports broadcasting. He got his start in sports talk radio in Rochester, New York and after a long and successful career is now a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame.
His newest venture is launching a nonprofit organization called Even Field, which will focus on sportsmanship and character development in youth sports.
Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Wilson.
Ken Reed: Chuck, Jim Donaldson of the Providence Journal once called you the perfect talk show host for the mature sports fan. Why do you think he described you that way?
Chuck Wilson: I’ve always gone with the respectful model in terms of dealing with callers. If I disagree with you I’m going to do it respectfully. I’ve always felt a caller might have a better perspective on an issue than I do. We get into a lot of different issues on my shows and I’m open to listening to other ideas on those issues. I just believe in having conversations in which everyone – host, guests, callers, and listeners – might learn something. It’s not about yelling and screaming, it’s more about having some intelligent conversation and everyone sharing some insights and maybe learning something.
Ken Reed: Throughout your career, you’ve shown an interest in talking about the important sports issues of the day, not just game analysis, who should be traded for who and which coach should be fired, etc. How did that style evolve?
Wilson: I think that if somebody is going to take the time to listen in, they’re going to want to be entertained and informed. I knew that I wasn’t going to be an entertainer by the force of my personality. I was smart enough to realize that. So, I went down the route of having really great guests. I think the other part of it is that we focused on effort and attitude. Those are the two things in life over which we have complete control. I think if you take personal pride in trying to do something very well – whatever it is – that’s an important part of the equation. How each of us does what we do really matters.
Reed: You’ve talked and written about our winning-obsessed sports culture and how that’s damaged the world of sports, especially at the youth level. Talk about that some, if you would.
Wilson: We’ve gotten so caught up in the outcome in our society. Everything’s about the outcome. Everything’s about winning. If you don’t win, you’re a loser. It doesn’t matter how you played the game. I think that sends a terrible message and is just absolutely wrong. I don’t buy it for a minute. I don’t think that type of attitude is good for business. I don’t think it’s sustainable. It doesn’t promote respect, responsibility, fairness, trust and integrity. Those are win-win values that the win-at-all-costs mentality doesn’t promote. On the other hand, if you play the game the right way, with those values as a foundation, everybody wins.
Reed: You’re obviously really passionate about this subject. Is that why you decided to start a non-profit focused on sportsmanship and character education called Even Field?
Wilson: Yes, I think kids especially need to understand the value of how you do something, not just the outcome. If all you talk about with kids is “You must get on the honor roll at school,” or “You need to win this game,” instead of approaching the challenge with “do your best with a great attitude,” you’re going to end up with kids that are willing to cheat, cut corners, copy homework, plagiarize from the Internet, etc. We as a society need to start stressing it’s important how you do something rather than just focusing solely on outcomes.
Doing your best and competing honorably is going to make you feel better about yourself, you’re going to have better self-esteem, you’re going to gain the respect of your peers and you’re going to be somebody who is trustworthy. And that’s important in all relationships and every aspect of life.
Reed: What’s Even Field going to be all about?
Wilson: We’re still massaging the mission statement somewhat but this is what we have right now: “Even Field is a nonprofit organization that uses sports to cultivate respect, responsibility, fairness, and integrity, and inspires young adolescents to infuse these qualities into their daily actions, behaviors, and peer relationships.”
We’re going to target the 9-14 year old age group. Basically, we’re going to try and help young people think and act more ethically.
Reed: How do you think we can move the youth sports culture in this country from win-at-all-costs to an ethic of “striving to win with integrity and character”?
Wilson: The key is going to be our ability to help coaches and parents to understand that winning is going to be easier to attain by focusing on developing skills and values rather than tactics and outcomes. The idea that you need to put more pressure on kids to win at early ages because “we gotta make sure they’re going to be competitive in life,” is to me ludicrous. It makes no sense at all.
We are losing close to three out of every four kids in organized youth sports by the age of 12 or 13. These kids give three basic reasons for quitting in surveys: They say that 1) they’re not having fun; 2) they’re not getting better at their sport; and 3) they feel to much pressure to perform. Now, none of those reasons is driven by peer influence. They’re all coming from adults.
If, as adults, we started focusing on skills and values and not tactics and outcomes, I believe we’d develop not only better athletes but also better young adults. And I think you’ll actually win more! And you won’t lose the late-bloomers, the athletes who develop physically later in adolescence. How many great athletes have we lost in this country because nearly 75% of young athletes quit by 12 or 13?
Reed: Let’s switch topics and talk a little about journalistic ethics and integrity. ESPN recently dropped out of a production partnership with PBS’ Frontline on a special report on concussions in the NFL. They also moved their highly-acclaimed Outside the Lines show to a time slot that will attract fewer viewers. At this point, does ESPN have any credibility left as a journalistic entity?
Wilson: Well, I think they do, but we’re talking about huge amounts of money here. I think the only thing that surprised me was that ESPN, at the very beginning of the process, actually started to go down the path with Frontline on this investigative report. They had to know where it would lead and they had to know it would make their key business partner, the NFL, unhappy.
ESPN still does some good investigative reporting. They still do. But the economic model is certainly the driver.
Reed: What do you think is the biggest issue in sports as a whole these days?
Wilson: I think the concussion problem is a huge issue. We have a lot of information and we’re getting more all the time. Anybody that thinks the concussion issue is limited to football simply doesn’t understand the issue. For example, girls soccer is number two to football in terms of concussions in young athletes. This isn’t just an NFL or NHL issue. The younger you are, with a brain that’s still developing, the more dangerous concussions and subconcussive hits to the brain are. It’s a huge issue and it has to be taken seriously. Sticking your head in the sand on this topic, as some people are still doing, is a huge part of the problem. We’re talking about cognitive function here. We’re talking about long-term issues.
Reed: Do you believe the win-at-all-costs mentality is the primary problem in youth sports?
Wilson: Absolutely. There’s a difference here in the States than across the pond. Over in Europe they practice much more than they play in order to develop skills. Here we play more than we practice in the quest for outcomes, for wins. And in Europe, coaches in the youth ranks are evaluated on how much better their kids are getting, not what their team’s record is. It’s totally different and that’s the mindset we need to get here I think.
Reed: Thank you for your time Chuck, and good luck with Even Field.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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