At the Midwestern university I attended, it was an orientation week tradition to watch an inspirational movie about a legendary football coach named Knute Rockne. The pivotal scene in this weepy came when Coach Rockne exhorted the Fighting Irish to “win one for the Gipper.” The Gipper was George Gipp, a Notre Dame teammate dying of some mysterious illness, who was played with appropriate gravitas by actor and future President Ronald Reagan.
I couldn’t help but think of that moment last week, while watching news coverage of two college teams in Virginia similarly dedicating their games to a teammate tragically fallen. Except in this case, instead of feeling choked up and touched, I felt almost sick. The player was Yeardley Love, the 22-year-old University of Virginia senior and lacrosse star, who was killed when her ex-boyfriend George Huguely, a lacrosse player on the men’s team, reportedly smashed her head against the wall in a fit of rage.
Maybe I’m old fashioned… but it seems like one thing to rise to the challenge and win one for your poor comrade who’s facing death due to a force out of everyone’s control like an incurable illness. It’s another entirely to get fired up for a game to honor a teammate whose death might have been prevented if only the coaches and athletes had focused more on character and doing the right thing, than on winning sports titles.
I’m trying to imagine the Rock telling his boys to win one for the Gipper, who was fighting for his life in the hospital after being beaten up by his teammate over a girl. You know, that irascible defensive end with the anger management issues? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Not that Notre Dame football players haven’t done stupid things over the years, but it wouldn’t have happened back then.
At the same time, there have been numerous reports about an incident last year where the UVA lacrosse coach allowed Huguely to continue playing after he’d beaten up a sleeping teammate over Yeardley. Just today, I read a story of how Huguely’s father believed the rules didn’t apply to him and taught his son the same. Whether this is true, it’s a lesson that was certainly reinforced by the adults running the lacrosse program at UVA.
It’s also reinforced by our society, unfortunately. As a child of the 60s, (okay, a baby, but still) I have to fight my own authority-bashing tendencies. Yet I’ve come to realize we do a disservice to our kids by allowing to think they can skirt the rules, regardless of their gifts. We do a disservice by promoting winning at the cost of being human, by teaching athletes that they can get away with virtually anything up to and including murder, as long as they know how to score on the field. Then we compound that error by teaching them that going to a funeral toting lacrosse sticks and holding up a piece of paper with your teammate’s jersey number is an appropriate way to honor someone you could have saved.
I taught an inmate awhile back whose brother actually had been a Notre Dame football player. This student also played football and a host of other sports in high school, but he wasn’t quite good enough to take it further. Still, for a long time he was able to get by on charm — which he had loads of — in addition to athletic ability.
Until he wasn’t. One night in a bar his anger and drinking spilled over into an assault. He didn’t kill anyone, but it landed him in jail. He’s hardly the only former jock I’ve met who’s serving a sentence. Children allowed to run amok cloaked in their “specialness” and sense of entitlement, often become adults who do the same — until they go too far.
I’m not attempting to malign athletes or athletics. Sports are great in their place, as entertainment, as a means to challenge yourself or channel aggression in a positive way. And certainly, people go to extremes to compete in other areas, such as academics. Witness the latest Ivy league scandal where Harvard grad Adam Wheeler was charged with fraud, larceny and forgery for concocting a phony resume to get more than $45,000 in grants and awards.
But as a society, we need to do a better job of imparting the lesson that self-control and character are more important than any team or passing victory.
Last year, for example, one of my Sunday school students blithely related the story of how he’d broken an opposing player’s nose at a lacrosse game. He did it, he said, because that player knocked his teammate down and broke his arm. Rather than reining him in, his coach told him he would have done the same thing. “He was glad I did it,” said the student, who was all of 13 at the time. Yes, the kid might have been bragging, trying to show off in front of his classmates. But the fact that he told the story at all suggests that even if the adults coaching him hadn’t approved, they hadn’t censured him for his behavior either.
Young Americans growing up today have seen a lot of questionable activity on the sports field. Fortunately, they’re also seeing some consequences. High-profile stars Gilbert Arenas and Michael Vick were both forced to pay for their mistakes by serving time (albeit Arenas managed to do his in a halfway house). My son also talks about his former baseball heros, who were hauled before Congress for “cheating” by juicing their performance with steroids.
But tragedies like the one at UVA suggest that we need to get the message out earlier. We also need to walk the talk. When a soccer dad in Michigan pulls a gun to defend a coach against critical parents at a game between six and seven year olds, that’s not exactly modeling the right behavior.
These days, “Knute Rockne All American” seems a bit dated and corny, particularly given the mystery disease that killed the Gipper was actually complications from strep throat — something he would likely survive today. One can only hope that in future years, our 2010 version of the Gipper — a vibrant young athlete killed by a fellow player no one could say no to or hold accountable — will seem equally unlikely and bizarre.