Maybe you were as excited as I was watching Derek Jeter’s final game a week or so ago at Yankee Stadium. With the Yankees blowing a lead in the top of the ninth, the stage was set perfectly for Jeter’s game-winning hit in the bottom of the inning.
It was a storybook ending that could not have been scripted better by Hollywood. It was heart-warming, dramatic, inspirational, and a fitting capstone to Jeter’s 20-year career. It was all of that, but there was one thing it was not: important. The game meant little in the standings, no one was going to make — or not make — the playoffs because of the outcome, and no one was going to lose their job as a result.
I will grant that once in a while sports contests might be important. A college or professional coach might keep or lose his job based on the outcome. A lucrative sponsorship might hinge on a team’s success in a single game. A city that has not had a winning team in years could be galvanized by some sudden success — go Kansas City!
But by and large, I subscribe to the wisdom of the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter of the mid-20th century, Red Smith, who wrote that “sports isn’t Armageddon. These are just little games that little boys can play, and it really isn’t important to the future of civilization whether the Athletics or the Browns win. If you can accept it as entertainment, and write it as entertainment, then I think that’s what spectator sports are meant to be.”
And that’s especially true at the high school level, where I am willing to say that games can often be dramatic, exciting, and — at the very least — opportunities to build character, camaraderie, and teamwork. I will also argue that sports are no more efficient than a host of other activities, physical and non-physical, at fostering those qualities in our youth.
But parents, coaches, and kids seem to be more caught up in the game than ever. My high school, Maine-Endwell in upstate New York, has now won 43 football games in a row, including three state championships. The word is that parents are moving into the district just to get their kids into the Spartan program.
Is that crazy? Or is it crazy that Time magazine just ran a cover story on the deaths associated with high school football?
Closer to home, the editors of U.S. 1’s sister paper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, watched that community debate whether or not a high school baseball field should be renamed in honor of a 2009 graduate, a stand-out baseball player who died of a undiagnosed heart ailment in the summer of 2009, just before he would have entered Seton Hall University on a baseball scholarship.
After deciding that no such decision should be made sooner than five years after a person’s death, the WW-P Board of Education voted 6-3 to rename the field in honor of David Bachner.
I have no quarrel with the vote since it seems to reflect the opinion of the majority of those in the community who cared about the issue. But I do take seriously the warning of one of the dissenters, board vice president Richard Kaye, who argued that, as the WW-P News reported, “a decision to name a facility after a specific student will put future school boards in the untenable position of having to place a value on a student’s life and accomplishments when considering naming a facility.”
In fact, the WW-P board had to make exactly some of those value judgments five years ago, when the naming issue first arose. Earlier that same year another student at High School North also died suddenly. But Kenny Baker was stricken with a different kind of illness, mental illness, and his suicide was viewed in a different manner. There was even an argument over whether or not his photo should appear in the class yearbook.
At the recent board meeting approving the renaming of the baseball field in honor of the fallen athlete, Kenny Baker’s father, Kurt Baker, opposed the move, expressing his concern, as the WW-P News reported, “that naming a facility after a deceased student, and thus immortalizing that death, would act as a trigger for students with suicidal tendencies to take their own lives.”
A representative of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies, Shauna Moses, concurred with Baker, citing research showing that glamorizing the death of a student can encourage others to take their own lives.
To me the more immediate downside of naming a field after a fallen player is that it will further aggrandize the role of sports in the minds of kids and their parents.
Playing on the field of dreams named in honor of one of their contemporaries, why should a young athlete not feel he or she is in a special place, performing a special role?
How easy could it be for the young athlete to lose sight of the fact that, in any year, there will be one kid who is the ultimate athlete. Blessed by some combination of genetics, encouraging parents, instructive coaches, and inner desire (perhaps fueled by the realization that he is better at his sport than he would be at chess or the math Olympiad), this student stands out from all the others.
Of course at the end of the year this special kid leaves and is replaced by another special kid the next year. Even the kid who seems so special that he is the athlete of the decade sooner or later will be replaced by another kid in a later decade.
To me the real test of his character and his inner strength is what happens as he moves through the successive challenges of life. In sports it means that the non-pareil high school star arrives at college to find himself in competition with dozens of similarly gifted stars. Only one of them becomes the single greatest athlete at the college. And so it goes through the ranks. In the end, as the NCAA commercials point out, most of these athletes excel — at something other than sports.
And eventually even the greatest of them realize, just as Derek Jeter has realized, there is something more to life than sports. Sooner or later they all have to adjust to life outside the spotlight. How would the young WW-P pitcher have fared at Seton Hall and beyond? We will never know, and that’s a sad reality.
The media contribute to the mythology. The adults in the press box also come to believe that the importance of their reporting is somehow tied to the success of those whom they cover.
How easy it is to think that the beat is Armageddon. When Red Smith made that observation, he might have been taking a dig at one of his predecessors, Grantland Rice. It was Rice whose purple prose painted the picture of the four horsemen of the apocalypse at Notre Dame, plundering the cadets of West Point. If that’s how he covered a game, you wonder what would have happened if he had to do some actual combat reporting.
But even Rice recognized the value of putting life and sports in perspective. Rice is the one who wrote the following:
For when the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes — not that you won or lost —
But HOW you played the Game.
Even better, in my scorebook of life, is the following wisdom, also from Grantland Rice:
“Failure isn’t bad if it doesn’t attack the heart. Success is all right if it doesn’t go to the head.”