"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sports rests on pedestal it doesn't deserve

Image from "Western Sun"
How did you react to that "barroom brawl" in Mankato?
"Barroom brawl" was the term used by my cousin's wife who works at Mankato State. We exchanged emails. I still call the place Mankato State even though the institution presents itself by the cumbersome name "Minnesota State University-Mankato."
The fight which I reference didn't happen inside a bar. It was outside in the streets. Gee, football players out in the street outside a bar in the bar district of a college town, at closing time. What could go wrong? Well, a whole lot did go wrong. Why couldn't these individuals just be home in bed? Look at all the trouble they'd save all of us, let alone themselves.
I asked how you reacted when hearing this news. I'll bet one of your first thoughts was: this is testosterone-fueled football player behavior, the kind we have all known of, through our lives.
I used to sneak out to "Cougar Follies" of the UMM football program. I remember it being at the 9F Sportsmen's Center for a couple years. Even the planners wanted this event to be sort of under the radar. It was a pre-season series of skits so de-based in terms of taste, I wouldn't wish to share an example here. UMM's provost readily admitted this. It was a ritual where we allow our gladiators to behave in a Neanderthal way.
We have traditionally allowed our male athletes to be anti-intellectual, emotionally illiterate, macho-infused, homophobic and misogynist. We have been awakening to the disturbing elements of this. Progress is definitely being made. It's a little grudging because of the entrenched nature of sports culture, the fact we still need these brawny gladiators to entertain us.
The athletes have been victims throughout the course of this values-bereft culture. 
One of the first things a sports agent will tell a client is that the media and public are merely observers from a distance and are in no way, shape or form invested in the athlete's welfare. I remember a spokesman for Billy Sims, the great runningback of yesteryear, saying he had implored Mr. Sims about this.
The "barroom brawl" in Mankato involved a former University of Minnesota quarterback, Philip Nelson. Nelson had announced he was transferring to Rutgers - you know, that college out east where the men's basketball coach got in trouble for throwing balls at players as discipline.
Nelson transferred because he got beat out here by that Leidner fellow. Nelson was the reason why Max Shortell transferred out of the U. Nelson beat out Shortell. These players are just mercenaries - they go where they can get the best deal. And yet we cheer for them as if they truly represent Minnesota. Are we cheering for the uniforms?
At the U they play under a coach who is risky to even have out on the sidelines. The poor man suffers from seizures and we feel compassion, but his symptoms can cause trauma among people who aren't familiar.
Nelson got his dander up outside a bar in Mankato. Others were involved. At any rate, this young ruffian has been dismissed by Rutgers. His life is probably changed forever. All because he thought physical conflict could solve something. It's that old testosterone-fueled football player attitude. We see such an attitude as increasingly anachronistic.
Hollywood violence is faux
The old Hollywood movies showed fights that had those haymaker punches. The fights were so choreographed. A guy would swing and hit his adversary in the jaw. There was a sharp noise and the recipient would recoil, maybe with a little blood (ketchup?) coming from the corner of the mouth. Sometimes a guy would swing and miss magnificently, as his adversary ducked.
A kid digesting this entertainment might think a "fight" is called for when he gets ticked off, like when "somebody makes a play for my girl." A girl was part of the account that emerged from Mankato.
In real life, "barroom brawls" which are imagined so routinely in Hollywood movies, have long-lasting consequences. If you hurt someone and that person goes to an emergency room, that person will get a little note from his insurance company asking if some other party is responsible for the wounds. Enough said. Hollywood doesn't hint at that. It just shows the brawls as an offshoot of the conflict that is so essential in drama. Patrick Swayze in "Road House" gave us the extreme.
Need we be reminded of how impressionable boy athletes can be? Do we think about what happens to them when they hear cheers cascading down on them at a place like our Big Cat Stadium? The cheers and adulation come just from the boy out-running someone, throwing a ball accurately or being able to tackle someone.
Every time I see a football player sprawled on his back by his team's bench, being attended to by the "trainer" or EMT people, I wonder if that player will have long-lasting consequences from the injury. Or, if consequences of that injury might crop up later in life as the body declines and becomes susceptible to problems.
How does age affect the consequence of all those subconcussive hits that football players experience? I go to Big Cat Stadium and see an ambulance parked there with its crew at the ready. What the heck are we doing to our kids, subjecting them to these risks so we might cheer? Can you imagine any other school activity where an ambulance has to be present? Are we nuts?
Here's a question: Could anything like the goalpost incident at UMM happen in connection with any school activity other than sports?
In an earlier time, football was more clearly associated with unabashed ruffians. It famously almost got outlawed. Many people shook their head over it (like my late father).
As football exploded in popularity, due to how TV could present the big-time versions of the sport, we have (rather desperately) tried to make the sport more civilized. The pro game is under intense pressure to flush out the long-established homophobic element in the sport. The pro game is desperate about a lot of things. The wellspring of the ruminations is that society is demanding that football be safe, clean and civilized, when in fact the essence of football contradicts that. Lawyers are working around the clock I'm sure.
Dan Marino popped in and out of a concussion lawsuit last week.
Boys need choices in the fall
This coming fall, many of us will be watching eagerly in hopes of seeing junior high football numbers drop off. We'll be incredulous if they don't. It's very primal for parents to guard the health of their offspring. Surely we can offer young boys athletic options that will steer them away from football. Problem is, cross country isn't a good enough option. Cross country is for kids with a wispy physique. Unless you carry minimal pounds, cross country isn't for you unless you just want to jog along in practice, and you can do that on your own.
Do we have organized soccer in Morris? We did at one time. Why can't boys play the safe sport of volleyball like the girls? There was a time when girls were discriminated against in sports. Today they have it better because their sports are safer.
We look up to a sports pedestal. The best athletes get showered with attention. Recognition programs/banquets are full of hyperbole. A kid who wrestles and wins, pinning his foes, is made to feel he's endowed with some incredibly special gift. We hear talk about commitment, as if that quality couldn't be directed in some other more constructive direction. Indeed there is a unique power of sport.
Sport is really a privileged entity that over-promises and under-delivers, except for an elite few, and this norm has been in place for decades. One commentator says sports can be viewed as "the ultimate venture capital pyramid, as there's a big wide-ranging investment with only a tiny proportion of people reaping any rewards at all, and 'collateral damage' as a necessary by-product."
Continuing: "Sport makes bold, unregulated promises of return on investment (of the kind) Lehman's and Fannie Mae made in the late '90s, and it is only a great, communal fondness for the products of sports - their poignance as a cultural meme - and the select positive memories of (and benefits for) a powerful few, not to mention slickly-produced events and well-manicured messaging around sport, that (maintain the) artificial inflation of the importance of sport."
(Run-on sentences can have the effect of caffeine.)
Toward a more civilized sports world
We view sports as "the way it should be" rather than to critically question. Sport can be made safer. It can complement all the activities our kids are invited to join. But the kind of hero worship that makes the likes of Philip Nelson think he can "beat the s--t out of someone," as if pushing aside a would-be tackler, has got to end.
Come to think of it, why does a college town have to have a bar district? Will that become obsolete someday?
U of M sips the Kool-Aid
The U of M has an athletic director who thinks we need to create a sort of colony where athletes are some sort of (my words) master race. Of course, the money will come from private sources. We're talking something like $190 million. In this Wall Street-dominated age, such lofty numbers just get tossed around.
Norwood Teague has shown his plan to Regents. Teague says the U needs an academic center for athletes who "shouldn't just be expected to go to the library or some other place."
The U has to stay in the "arms race" with other Big 10 schools, I guess. A special facility would include computer labs, tutoring areas, study areas and offices for academic advisors.
Looking through the veil: The U needs to create a ruse where we can feel athletes are being served for their academic needs, when we're in fact holding their hands, with some feeling of desperation in fact, helping them stay eligible, sans any tutoring scandals like under Clem Haskins, so they can thrill us by beating other Big 10 schools.
I have had it with all the pretensions and disingenuousness of big-time sports, the illusions they create, the way they chew up people and spit them out. The fans don't know these kids as human beings - not at all. The race needs to stop. Athletes can nurture other avenues by which they can build meaningful skills and socialize constructively.
Our University of Minnesota-Morris has that fancy football stadium with artificial turf, but doesn't even have a genuine concert hall for music. Strange. We're strangers in a strange land sometimes.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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