By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
November 26, 2014
As I write this column it’s Thanksgiving Eve, a perfect time to reflect on the things one values and appreciates.
One of the things I value and appreciate the most in life is sport. While sport is flawed in many respects – usually by the twin evils of win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) – it is also inspiring and one of the best places to find the human spirit at it’s best.
I care deeply about sports, and the associated ideals and values of our games, but I’m also very concerned about the many problems in the sports world today. Thus, I work to mitigate the negatives in sports so all sports stakeholders can maximize the positives that potentially can be gained from the games we love.
However, truth be told, I tend to focus too much on the negatives. It’s easy to get cynical – especially as a sports columnist.
That’s why I need Thanksgiving. I need to reflect annually about what sports can be when our egos are tamed and we’re led by our souls. It’s a great time to appreciate and be grateful for sport at its best.
Let’s take a few minutes and let some sports wisdom soak in…
A good place to start is with Joe Ehrmann. Ehrmann was a standout defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts for 13 seasons. He received numerous accolades as a football player but he’s done his best work in the community, including as a coach and mentor. Parade magazine called him the “most important coach in America” because of his work to transform the culture of sports. Ehrmann’s revolutionary approaches to coaching and team-building are the subject of a great book by Jeffrey Marx called Season of Life.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from that book:
“God gives each person X amount of talents. The question isn’t really how many talents you’ve been given. That’s the sovereignty of God. The real question is what you do with the ones you have. Some of us get paralyzed when we feel we don’t have ‘as much as’ or [aren’t] ‘as good as’ someone else. But the person we really want to honor is the one who maximizes whatever it is he has.”
That’s beautiful stuff.
Champion long distance runner Steve Prefontaine captured Ehrmann’s sentiment succinctly with this statement: “To give less than your best is to give away the gift.”
On another subject, how about this gem on the importance of working together from long-time NBA coach Pat Riley:
“Teamwork is the essence of life. It makes possible everything from moonshots to the building of cities to the renewal of life. And a good team multiplies the potential of everyone in it, whether that team consists of a family, a school, a business or an NBA squad.”
(As a country, we could certainly use some of that type of teamwork in Washington DC as we come off a long, contentious political campaign season.)
While some in sports believe the scoreboard is the only thing that matters, John Wooden, selected as the greatest coach of all-time — in any sport — by the Sporting News, begged to differ.
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming,” said Wooden.
There’s nothing about wins and losses in that definition.
Adversity is a constant companion in life and sports. Through the decades, sports figures have given us an abundance of inspiration for dealing with adversity. Consider Jim Abbott, the former pitcher who reached the major leagues with only one hand. He would rest his glove on the stub on his right arm, pitch with his left and then quickly move the glove onto his pitching hand so he could field his position.
“It’s not the disability that defines you, it’s how you deal with the challenges the disability presents you with. We have an obligation to the abilities we do have, not the disability,” said Abbott.
I’m not a Vince Lombardi fan but he addressed this theme powerfully.
“It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get back up.”
It has long been said that sports build character. Others contend that sports don’t really build character, they reveal it. At any rate, there’s little doubt that sports are a great testing ground for one’s character. Here are a few thoughts on character from some of our sporting greats.
“It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself,” said Muhammad Ali, maybe the world’s most famous athlete of all-time.
Character is often linked with mental toughness. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski once said, “Toughness is being who you are, no matter what the circumstances are.”
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it brings family and friends together with limited commercialism attached. Relationships. That’s what life is all about.
Likewise, I believe one of sports’ redeeming values is the ability to bring people together, often connecting them for life (although there’s often way too much commercialization and professionalism involved). It’s that unity that athletes miss — not the games — when they’re no longer playing.
Former Princeton basketball player, Drew Hyland, described the bond he had with his teammates nicely: “There was something simple, a sense of oneness between us all, which both had to terminate, yet would always be.”
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
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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.
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