Tuesday, November 04, 2014
Barclay’s Bank, which sponsors the English Premier League, has an ad on the field boards that reads, “To those who champion the true spirit of the game – thank you.” I assumed the statement reflected some high-minded, lofty ideals which addressed good sportsmanship and fan behavior but actually it touts their contest rewarding winners with home game tickets and trips to away games. Avid fans, top vendors, or support staff such as grounds crew enter by answering team trivia or convincing the judges of their commitment to a team. Considering the persistent overt racism voiced by fans and players, the violent hooliganism, and the dangerous physical confrontations among players and between players and fans on the pitch, I’m disappointed that the contest focuses on devotion and team details rather than rewarding integrity.
Here in America the NFL has its “Together We Make Football” campaign that has a similar framework. Initially, fans were encouraged to write short essays, submit photos, or make short videos in which they detail how the NFL has affected their lives. That contest closed October 19, but people can still participate online with further submissions that can’t win the grand prize, but can be considered for inclusion in an NFL film to be shown during the Super Bowl. One individual and one group entry will win tickets to the big game where they can witness live the blatant self-important plug for the NFL. The intent is to show that football has had a life-changing impact on people whose stories will splash across the Jumbotron, which of course makes football larger than life both figuratively and literally.
NBC’s Today Show in tandem with Sunday Night Football airs a segment every Friday under the umbrella of “Together We Make Football.” Reporter Josh Elliott details a human interest story inspired by the home team. So far we have seen a woman recovering from breast cancer, a Special Olympics flag football team that won the national championship, a football teen with cerebral palsy and two sisters from a football family who also play the game. These weekly inspirational stories weave a mystical emotional shroud that provides gallant attributes to the power of football in people’s lives. At the end of each segment the team’s owner and/or coach plus some of the more popular players greet the subjects of the story and their families providing tickets to Sunday’s game and sideline passes. There’s definitely no denying how meaningful the gesture is for the participants. I don’t really like football, but if I got tickets and sideline passes to a Packers game, I would have a big smile on my face. That’s the power of casting the light of notoriety on one’s life. However, I notice that there’s no real sacrifice from this billion dollar producing business. It takes little effort to toss some tickets around. I would prefer to see the NFL stop using this project for just self-promotion of game broadcasts. Where’s the large donation checks to the most appropriate weekly charity such as cancer research or Special Olympics? Where’s the commitment for long-term volunteerism to organizations that support these charities? Given recent melt-downs over domestic violence, child abuse, and drug and alcohol problems, I’d think the NFL would want to take the extra step toward showing a more honorable, selfless face. If it needs hooks in its media campaigns, why not one that also contributes something that promotes decency and philanthropy?
Then again, perhaps contests aren’t supposed to be about ideals. It is certainly easier to quantify a level of enthusiasm or a detailed knowledge of team minutiae than to measure someone’s moral essence. Nevertheless, the language of the Barclay statement bothers me. Touting someone being the “champion of the true spirit of the game” infers something far nobler that being loyal or even rabid about the sport. The dilemma lies in the phrase “spirit of the game,” which got me thinking what that should be, especially as it relates to youth sports. What should be our job as parents to model that spirit and instill it in our children? Do we even have an obligation to discover and impart a broader aspect of play that includes moral, altruistic and idealistic elements?
I argue that the spirit of the game has to mean more than self-aggrandizement through a contest. Very few youth players will participate in soccer after middle-school. The drop-off rate in youth sports is around 70 percent at age 14. The reasons vary, but for most kids they find something else that interests them more, usually because they know they aren’t advancing enough in skills to continue to compete successfully. They also will quit from undue pressure on winning, overbearing coaches and parents (both their own and those of fellow teammates), and demands they aren’t willing to fulfill. These issues all lead to a lack of fun. No matter how short or long players participate sports, and soccer in particular, can help invest kids with ideals that translate to other areas of their lives and their futures. Children can learn through soccer the value of cooperation, unselfish play, humbleness in victory, grace in defeat, unconditional support for teammates, a strong work ethic, promptness, and respecting authority. These traits serve us throughout our lives and I believe exemplify the spirit of the game. Yet we often don’t demonstrate them in our own behaviors, berating our children and the team for a bad play or a loss, encouraging our kids to hang on to the ball and score, overly celebrating a win, screaming at the referees, coming late to events, and letting our kids miss practices for insignificant conflicts. When Robbie was playing in a U-11 tournament game, the opposing coach kept exhorting his players to “take him out.” He even suggested they “break his leg if you have to.” No one called him on his boorish behavior including the referees. In fact, several of the team parents took up the call. The clear message was that violence in the pursuit of a win was appropriate and the authorities can and will ignore it. Certainly I was upset that they were talking about my little 10-year-old, but I was also upset that this was the “spirit of the game” the kids were learning.
My hope is that we embrace the best “spirit” and then demonstrate it in our words and actions. All too soon soccer, in fact any sport, becomes more about competition and winning and less about fun, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon our ideals in the transition. Soccer would be much more fun if this spirit was evident at games and practices. It would take the burden of competitive stresses for perfection and winning off the table and it would open the door to more positive interactions with teammates and opponents and would temper the increasing competition for older youth. I wonder if the fan who has attended every one of his Premier League team’s matches for 40 years has done so while practicing decorum and integrity. Rewarding someone for dogged loyalty doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is a pillar of honor. In the Barclay contest, spirit of the game implies commitment rather than principle. A grounds man who mowed and lined the pitch for three decades has obviously done so because he does a good job, has been compensated well enough to stick with it, and probably loves the team for whom he works, but that doesn’t mean he has a spirit that translates to laudable behaviors. Should his devotion be enough to qualify to win?
I’m also bothered by the use of the verb “champion.” To champion a cause comes from a more chivalrous age of knights who exhibited courage, honor, and service. Yet while the Barclay contest clearly borrows the British medieval term, it fails to address its historical intent. I can guarantee that the weekly winners aren’t being measured by their courage, honor and service. In fact to enter most fans just have to answer a question about their team and then submit that answer along with the entrant’s name and address. No one needs to make any more of a sacrifice than springing for a postage stamp or taking the time to fill out an on line form. Those who truly champion do so without regard to personal cost and in the pursuit of attaining something positive and powerful to benefit others.
Finally, I’m troubled by the addition of “true” to “spirit of the game” and then having that spirit be merely the strong support of a team and the game. “True spirit” equates with something essential at the highest level, which is defined in the contest as commitment to team and sport. Championing that true spirit means nothing more than maintaining and promoting fan loyalty, without tackling a more significant spirit of charity, honorable behavior, the pursuit of goals loftier than wins, improving one’s community, and speaking out against intolerance and violence both on and off the pitch.
When I first saw the statement on the stadium scrawl I thought Barclay’s was looking to lift fan involvement beyond racism, hooliganism, and loutish behavior with a message to fans, players, and management that the game needed to find a moral center that people could stand behind. Since the English Premier League is now known at Barclay’s Premier League, it seemed appropriate for the sponsor to open a dialog about the responsibilities of fans, players, officials, owners, and organizations to be more attuned to the higher ground the sport could achieve. That wasn’t their intent unfortunately, but I’m hoping we can open that dialog anyway with our youth players in America.
The values that soccer encourages provide some of the strongest reasons kids should participate in youth sports. A percentage of players will have the skills, determination, and opportunities to move on to high school, college, and professional sports, but the vast majority of players will only participate as kids then move on to other pursuits. Therefore, beyond the obvious benefits of fitness and social interactions, soccer can also provide our children with life lessons that will impact their development well into their adult and professional lives. Learning behaviors of integrity can be a meaningful and lasting benefit from playing sports. We should: encourage our teams to participate in community projects that help others such as delivering Thanksgiving boxes, cleaning up neighborhood lots to provide areas for play, collecting for UNICEF, reading to kids on the oncology ward at hospitals, and any other of dozens of charitable undertakings; model good behavior on the sidelines; expect kids to show respect for one another, opponents, and authorities; look at losses as learning opportunities not devastating disasters; accept wins as something earned not entitled and not to be flaunted; and teach unselfish play, reward it, and demonstrate how it can lead to great outcomes. To champion the true spirit of the game means that adults need to practice admirable ideals and help our kids achieve and embody them. When they leave the sport, the spirit of the game should go with them.