SPORTS HAS long provided us with allegories that help us understand the greater game of life -- its temptations, tribulations and triumphs. But now sports may be teaching us, and especially our young, a terribly wrong lesson.
In past years, a celebrated military commander, a renowned sportswriter and a legendary football coach, among others, have found philosophic meaning in athletic competition. The Duke of Wellington, we are told, was convinced that the Battle of Waterloo "was won on the playing fields of Eton." Grantland Rice believed that God keeps score in life and the final judgment is based on "not that you won or lost but how you played the game." To Vince Lombardi -- whom disciples mistakenly quote as saying, "Winning isn't everything -- it's the only thing" -- did in fact say, "Winning isn't everything, but wanting to win is . . . ."
More recently, yet another concept rooted in sports -- the value of "team play" -- has become a staple of applied morals and is taught with unquestioned acceptance in our schools and in the sports world.
Watching a well-drilled team, it is easy to understand the meaning -- and attraction -- of being a "team player." Cooperation is essential to success. Players are responsible to one another and do not let their teammates down. They learn their designated roles and perform them with precision. Praise comes to the unselfish person -- the basketball player who forgoes glory by not attempting a low-percentage shot but passes off to a teammate who has a better chance.
In individual sports, by contrast, contestants are responsible mainly to themselves, and they play by the traditions and ethics of the sport. (Sad to say, some of these traditions and ethics are eroding as sports become businesses, but the public still expects participants to act less like businessmen and more likelike businessmen and more like sportsmen.) In tennis, except for rare occasions, the individual player not only is trainer, coach and contestant but occasionally is umpire, too -- making close calls that can determine the outcome of a game or a tournament. Wearing these assorted hats requires the utmost discipline and honor. On crucial decisions, there is a great temptation to call a play in one's favor -- but it rarely happens.
In team competiton, calling a foul on one's self is unheard of. We would collapse in astonishment to see a football player approach a game official and voluntarily state, "I stepped out of bounds when I caught that pass even though you couldn't see it from your position." His teammates, in a communal call for unity and team spirit, no doubt would knit their shoelaces into a solid noose and string him up by his oversized neck from the nearest goal post.
Team spirit demands that in most instances, players cannot let down their mates, even in observing their own codes of conduct. I have seen individual sports, when played on a team basis, turn in the same direction.
In college, my tennis teammates frequently complained about another team; they felt it mis-called an inordinate number of decisions and that its "sportsmanship" was far below that of other schools. Years later, when I was a college tennis coach, we had the same school on our schedule -- and again my players adamantly complained that its varsity frequently cheated. Finally, as the father of a college varsity player, I saw my son's team play that same school -- and once more there was cheating. I saw one opposing player run into the net, yet fail to announce -- as is proper and usual -- that he had done so and therefore should lose the point. One of his faculty advisers saw this flagrant violation but justified it by saying something to the effect that the player's opponent was footfaulting. The team pressure was so great that the player was breaking the rules of honor in order to win, and his superiors were condoning it.
We constantly hear statesmen and politicians expound on the merits of being a team player. Do they mean that a team player who lies and cheats to further the team is performing an honorable duty? Should a team player who knows of a crime keep quiet because it is his own team that is guilty? Should whistle-blowers be harrassed because they have "ratted" on the team instead of going along with its corruption or inefficiency? This is an age of wrongdoing: Watergate, Mylai, corporate scandals, defense overcharges, environmental crimes, stock-market manipulation, the Iran-contra disaster. How many of those involved in these scandals justified themselves as team players?.
Teamwork at its best -- cooperation and assistance for one another in a worthy purpose -- is highly meritorious. But team athletics can too easily become destructive. Mob psychology and peer pressure are extremely strong, and individualism can be smothered. A person who is not made of the very strongest moral fiber may find himself or herself showing the worst aspects of team sports: just going along and never rocking the boat.
The message is especially important for parents. They should think carefully before pushing children into sporting endeavors. Esprit de corps is fine, as long as it doesn't deprive the individual of rational thought.
Albert Ritzenberg is a tennis professional and director of the St. Alban's Tennis Club.