I grew up in western Pennsylvania — the cradle of quarterbacks, Steelers Country, the home of those folks accused of “clinging to their guns and religion” — where hard work and home style values are honored more than social position and wealth.
An appreciation for football, a hard-knocking sport requiring the kind of gritty strength admired in western PA, was ingrained in me from my youth. So when our son reached the appropriate age, my husband and I registered him for flag football.
Problem was, too many kids had already signed up and the league needed another coach. My husband, a product of small private schools, had never played football on a team, but he volunteered to give our son the opportunity. Each of the overcrowded teams gave up two of their players and along with our son, these rejects became “The Sharks” — the real-life version of The Bad News Bears.
It was immediately apparent that The Sharks were in serious trouble.
In a desperate effort to provide the group of distractible boys a worthwhile team experience, regardless of their obvious lack of athleticism, the parents made up cheers, blared the theme from “Jaws”, waved purple towels and instilled in the boys the ceaseless will to win.
The Sharks never scored a point that season and lost every game. However, our team became legendary in the league for its undying spirit in the face of impossible odds. Despite finishing dead last, The Sharks were, in a way, inspirational.
At our end of season picnic, my husband called each player up one by one, and told the proud parents what their sons had done to contribute to the team. Then, he handed every single player a trophy.
Yep, I said it: The team lost and everybody received a trophy.
“What!?” you’re all saying, “You gave everybody a trophy? You’re contributing to the epidemic of unmotivated individuals who feel entitled to praise!”
I hear you and on many levels, I agree that participant trophy policies send the wrong message to kids. I do believe that rewards must be earned. But, despite coming in last place, The Sharks displayed certain desirable qualities that are rarely recognized in today’s athletic culture — good sportsmanship and moral fortitude.
Consider the NFL. Where I grew up, kids looked up to players like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Mel Blount and Jack Ham. As underdogs, these unlikely superheroes rose above the pollution-choked confines of 1970s Pittsburgh to epitomize the right mixture of raw talent, determination and team responsibility.
As longstanding team owners, the Rooney Family seemed to understand what the growing fan base valued in players and coaches. They never went for flashy cheerleaders or hotshot superstars, opting instead for a team that appealed to its blue-collar, no-nonsense bread and butter.
But nowadays, the NFL is wracked with scandal involving criminal and moral misconduct. There are so many arrests among NFL players, newspapers such as The San Diego Union Tribune and USA Today maintain extensive online NFL arrest databases. (See, www.usatoday.com/sports/nfl/arrests/ and www.sandiegouniontribune.com/nfl/arrests-database/.)
Even my beloved Steelers have been swept up in the tide of scandal. Most recently, Michael Vick, who was sentenced in 2007 to 23 months in federal prison for running a brutal dog-fighting ring, was hired as Steelers’ back up quarterback, amidst widespread fan protests. Ironically, Steelers linebacker James Harrison posted on Instagram in August about taking away his sons’ participation trophies because he was “not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.” But Harrison continues to play and receive his million-dollar salary despite a history of domestic abuse, anger management counseling and repeated violations of the rule against helmet-to-helmet hits.
Scores of NFL players and coaches have been involved in criminal or cheating activities yet they continue to be rewarded with sponsorships, over-the-top salaries, and unfettered playtime. In its insistence on recognizing only athletic skill, modern society overlooks the virtues that make athletes truly great.
The Sharks could teach the NFL a thing or two about sportsmanship and character, but the league is too busy compromising its values for the almighty dollar.
As Vince Lombardi famously said, “The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”