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Make it a ‘moral imperative’ to energize generation of leaders
Published June 28, 2010
The following is an excerpt from former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s opening address on “Sports in American Society” at the Sport and Society Conference at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., on May 26.
When people ask me about sports and societal values, I am usually quick to think about some of the more provocative and compelling assessments.
One such hypothesis is by Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins: “The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do.”
Based on an historical review and the development of America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mandelbaum finds deep religious roots for sports’ “powerful grip on the imaginations of Americans.” Football, baseball and basketball, he argues, “respond to human needs that can be traced back to the earliest human communities, needs to which the dominant responses for most of human history came from organized religion.”
And then he concludes with observations that some may find comforting, others may find heretical or insulting, and still others may find amusing but irrelevant:
“Sports and organized religion share several important features. Both address the needs of the spirit and the psyche rather than those of the flesh. Neither bears directly on what is necessary for physical survival: food and shelter. Both stand outside the working world. And team sports provide three satisfactions of life to 21st century Americans that, before the modern age, only religion offered: a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate.”
Another assessment at the provocative end of the spectrum is found in a recurring debate throughout much of the last century: Whether football was mostly about violence in America — and indeed about war — or whether football was more benign and might actually be a substitute for war or other destructive conflict.
We have, for example, a sport tradition of excelling and winning, individually or as a team, for oneself and for the community. Sometimes the “winning” is said to be at all costs. Vince Lombardi is often seen as the embodiment of this tradition.
At the same time, we have a civil rights tradition of giving individuals the opportunity to participate fully — and without discrimination — in all aspects of society and to serve others in the community as a higher calling. Dr. Martin Luther King is often seen as the embodiment of this tradition.
Can these traditions be blended and synthesized? Should they be? Would this serve useful purposes — in sport and beyond?
Both traditions rest on the power of ideas and on views of human nature that have been well-articulated. And both traditions rest on the power of leaders and of movements — on the actions of men and women who have been leaders and doers with ideas that have inspired and motivated millions of citizens.
In David Maraniss’ compelling biography of Lombardi (“When Pride Still Mattered: The Life of Vince Lombardi”), he tells us that a key element in Lombardi’s search for meaning was about “striving for perfection;” that Lombardi’s Jesuit mentors at Fordham University had “taught him that human perfection was unattainable, but that all human beings should still work toward it by using their God-given capacity to the fullest;” and that “the spirit … to excel” endures forever. So as Maraniss quotes Lombardi:
“[C]omplete victory can never be won, … it must be pursued, it must be wooed with all of one’s might. Each week there is a new encounter, each year there is a new challenge. But all of the display, all of the noise, all of the glamour, and all of the color and excitement, they exist only in the memory. But the spirit, the will to excel, the will to win, they endure, they last forever. These are qualities, I think, that are larger and more important than any of the events that occasion them.”
And 50 years ago, Dr. King, a Lombardi contemporary from a very different background and with a different mission, emphasized that we can all “enrich [our] spirit” in special ways:
“Whatever career you may choose for yourself — doctor, lawyer, teacher — let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. … You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
“Make a career of humanity”: That is Dr. King’s message to you, to all of us, whatever our profession. There are so many ways to do so — ways that are authentic to our interests, our training and the activities that we love doing right now.
Take, for example, the world of athletics, where — as I’ve suggested — participation in sports is an intensive education that develops qualities of character and skills critical to success and service in life.
Some of the greatest teachers in my life, some of the people who have shaped me the most, made a career of humanity through their careers in athletics.
As you reflect upon the stories of … leaders [such as] Eddie Robinson, Joe Paterno, Wilma Rudolph, Roberto Clemente, Billie Jean King and John Thompson, I hope you see that many of our sports icons of the 20th century made for themselves careers of humanity in sports.
Now, the central question is whether sports in America in the 21st century will continue to produce such leaders — men and women with the “spirit to excel” and motivated to “enrich the spirit.”
Will sports continue to be a positive force in developing the qualities and experiences that create athlete-citizens who enable communities to resolve societal challenges beyond sports?
Do we have the institutions and resources committed to create environments in which such sports leaders can grow and thrive?
I am often amazed, and frankly dismayed, at the numbers of talented young people I meet whose career interests are only in sports business, sports event management or sports marketing.
Do we need more academic programs in our colleges and universities offering degrees in coaching and sports leadership?
Can our colleges and universities deliver on [Education] Secretary [Arne] Duncan’s observation in his recent speech to the NCAA:
“Collectively, along with the military, college sports are arguably the [most] important and largest developer of young men’s and women’s character in the nation. You are literally creating our nation’s future leaders.”
As we look over the horizon into the 21st century, the heart of our challenge as a nation will be to continue to be the global leader, and this will include leadership in sports and in those areas of societal endeavor in which sports leaders in the 20th century have contributed enormously. But do we as a society recognize the urgency of the continuing need to make leadership in sports a national priority?
The global competition that our young people are entering is radically different from the world that prior generations of America’s young people entered. In most areas of amateur and professional sports today, there is a global talent pool meeting standards that others are increasingly setting. We all need to make it a priority to understand this new world and to prepare our young people to compete and lead in it.
A next generation of leaders exists, and we need to support them and add to their ranks.
We would all do well to support leaders such as Ann Cody, a three-time Paralympian in track and field and basketball, a world-record holder and marathoner, who inspires and serves the cause of athletes with disabilities in the United States and worldwide in key positions in the U.S. and international Paralympic movements. Her commitment to working collaboratively with the poor is helping to empower disabled women previously forgotten.
We would all do well to support leaders such as Dikembe Mutombo, the former outstanding Georgetown and NBA basketball player, born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose tireless dedication to helping others has, among other things, resulted in the construction of the first new research and teaching hospital in the Congo in nearly 40 years, with a personal donation of over $15 million by Mr. Mutombo.
We would all do well to support leaders such as Warrick Dunn, a recently retired outstanding NFL player, who became the head of his family at age 18 when his mother, an off-duty police officer, was killed by armed robbers. Dunn has since focused his considerable charitable efforts in helping almost 100 single-parent families obtain first-time home ownership, establishing productive environments for them to thrive educationally, socially and economically.
We would all do well to support leaders such as Brian Burke, the general manager of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and of the Team USA men’s hockey team in the Vancouver Olympics, who — having recently lost his gay son in a tragic automobile accident — has committed himself to educational programs to eliminate the bullying of gay children and to help reduce and eventually eliminate homophobic attitudes and discriminatory practices in sports.
And we would all do well to support leaders such as Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympic ice hockey player and medal winner who was recently elected during the Vancouver Olympics as an athletes representative to the International Olympic Committee, committing herself to strengthening international cooperation in Olympic sports and to creating opportunities around the globe for young and often impoverished people to be able to develop through sports.
As we go forward with responsibilities for sports in America, we should take our lead from the values, spirit to excel and vision of both Coach Lombardi and Dr. King. All of us must make it our highest priority — our moral imperative — to energize and support leaders such as Cody, Mutombo, Dunn, Burke and Ruggiero, and the visions they articulate, the institutions they create, the programs they formulate, the resources they generate, and the legions they motivate.