When I was a boy, I loved sports. Baseball was my passion, and I could be found in the backyard, even in the middle of winter, endlessly throwing a rubber-coated baseball into the air and hitting it as far as I could with my bat. I played organized ball from the age of nine to twenty-two, in Little League, Pony League, American Legion, High School, College, and in town leagues. When I began teaching, basketball became my new sports obsession, and I played seven days a week for many years.
In a working class town, excellence in sports was much prized, and for me, helped secure my budding “manhood.” It greatly aided my desire to fit in, to be considered someone who was physically tough. Sports allowed me to be good at something and respected at the same time. Academic excellence wasn’t even a close second.
It was impossible then, in the 1950s and 1960s, just as it probably still is, to be sports-crazy and not worship competition. When I played, I wanted to win. Defeat bothered me; there was never a game that I didn’t do whatever I could to win. This often led me to behave badly. I had no sympathy for teammates whose performance was below par. I’d yell and scream at them. Once when I was fifteen and pitching in an important contest, our third baseman dropped an easy pop fly. I shouted an obscenity at him. My father was watching the game and was so angry at my outburst that he came onto the field and told me to apologize. To little effect, however; I wasn’t chastened and didn’t change my behavior.
If baseball games engendered nasty outbursts, basketball put me into frequent competitive rages. The faster pace and frequent rough physical contact, in pick-up games without referees, promoted and rewarded aggression. I’d mercilessly taunt my opponents, push and shove those I was defending, berate my teammates when they played poorly, call unwarranted fouls, and generally be a gloating winner and poor loser. When my team was winning, I could be the embodiment of a collective spirit. But when we were losing, all hell could break lose in an instant.
The irony of my sports life was that it didn’t usually match my conduct as a teacher or parent. Almost always, I was a gentle instructor and father. Authoritarian parenting and teaching repelled me. I encouraged cooperation, offered praise at every opportunity, gloried in student and child achievement, discouraged mean and vindictive treatment of others, never refused help when requested, and never mocked or demeaned anyone. However, my relationships with colleagues did sometimes reflect the antisocial deportment that underlies competitive sports. I was not above serving my self-interest at the expense of someone else.
It was difficult to maintain a split personality, to not see the contradiction between a vicious competitiveness on the playing fields and a radically egalitarian spirit in the classroom and home. Matters were bound to come to a head sooner or later, and one day, in the gym, they did. As often happened, I lost my temper and was arguing vehemently with an opposing player, disrupting the game. One of my teammates, who happened to be my best friend, was standing about twenty feet away with the basketball in his hands. He was a large and strong man, and all of a sudden he threw the ball at my head as hard as he could. I caught sight of it and ducked in time to avoid being smashed in the face. But I couldn’t duck his words. “Did you ever stop to think,” he shouted, “that every time there is trouble here, you are always involved. Always. Did it ever occur to you that it might be you who is to blame. That it is your fault these things keep happening?” I probably argued back, as I always did. Maybe I said something nasty to him. I don’t remember now. What I do remember is the sting of those words. They were like thunderbolts of truth, spoken by the person with whom I had been closest friend for more than twenty years. I mulled them over for days, but almost from that day on, I tried to make my athletic actions match the rest of me and to not allow my sports demons to influence what I did away from the court. I didn’t always succeed, but people did notice the change. A couple of years later, when at the end of the school term, we gave out mock awards to our crew of gym rats, I was given the “best sportsmanship” award. And whenever I began to act in unbecoming ways at work or at home, I remembered my friend’s words.
I quit playing basketball many years ago. I stay fit by hiking and sometimes working out with weights and training machines. I enjoy watching games. But not for who wins and loses. What is great about sports is the grace of the athletes, the amazingly fine-tuned bodies and minds that allow them to perform such remarkable feats. We should all strive to be physically fit and healthy. And even some competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The trouble is that, in a horribly competitive, ego-driven, dog-eat-dog, beggar-your-neighbor social system, it is nearly impossible to play sports, or work, or, for that matter, do anything, without getting caught up in abhorrent thinking and acting, irrespective of how much you oppose this. I look back on the thousands of games I played, always to win and often at the expense of honorable conduct, and wish I had done things differently, radically so.
It is not possible for us to credibly oppose the multiple evils so abundant in this world without at the same time transforming ourselves. How else will we become worthy to live in the egalitarian and cooperative society that must someday come? During the upheavals of the 1960s, radicals argued that the “personal is political,” that how we live our lives is as important as the social struggles we wage. With my friend’s help, I came to embrace the truth of this.
Don’t get me wrong, Michael…I agree with you. But as the mother of 4 sons, I can see clearly the “social system” does not create the aggressive idea of competition in males. Though society and the media exaggerate and exploit it, it is inherent. From very young, too young to be influenced by anything but Blues Clues and Mr. Rogers, my children were always in heated competition to see who could be first at anything, who could burp the loudest, the longest, the furthest through the alphabet, who could finish a drink first, who had the first facial hair, and on and on. It never seems to end. And there were intricate rules and specifications that followed, who had facial hair on the chin as opposed to sideburns, how many and what color, what did and did not count as real hair, etc. Perhaps before we can even think about combatting our abundant societal evils, we should think about how to channel such a hard-wired biological trait into a force for good.
Dear Kelly, I am not certain that I can agree with you, given the experiences we have had with our three sons. None of them really acted in competition with the others, though the twins might have imitated their older brother a lot. And aggression might be different than competition.
Good post as usual, Michael. As with sports, so with jobs/career. In both spheres, otherwise good people engage in bad behavior. The reverse is also true; people can be injurious toward others at home in private but show a different face towards others in public. It is said that Hitler loved dogs and kids. Capitalism/imperialism no doubt contributes to this contradictory consciousness. ~Quiller
Thanks, brother. Though these connections are sometimes devilishly hard to figure out. Even in one’s own life.