Sports and Political Correctness

Published in Spintech, May12, 2000, in WND.COMmentary, May 18, 2000,
and Planet Goldberg, May 20, 2000 (1565 words)

April is over, so the NCAA basketball tournament and the NFL draft are behind us. Let us forget about the myriad upsets that brought so much color and controversy to this year's college hoop tournament. Let us not speculate on which first round NFL picks will be busts and which seventh round picks are bound for the Hall of Fame. Let us save for another day discussion of how this peculiarly American institution of college athletics came to be. Rather, let us marvel that America's institutions of higher learning have not done away with sports altogether.

On almost any given day, the biggest news from America's campuses can be found on the sports pages. This is not surprising in such an entertainment driven society as ours. What is more exciting, a physics lab at MIT or a football game at Florida State? Even at the brainiest schools, sports rule the headlines. For most of the last basketball season, Duke and Stanford were among the top five teams in America. (Quick: name a surgical breakthrough from the Duke or Stanford medical schools!)

The second biggest source of news from the groves of academe is political correctness, or PC-ism. PC-ism may be defined as manipulating the rules governing an event as well as the language describing it to conform to a political agenda. PC-ism creeps into the sports world now and then, leading a team to change its name or a commissioner to require psychological counseling for a relief pitcher for his stupid remarks. However, sports on the field have remained largely immune from PC-ism. Indeed, they are our most politically incorrect institution.

Can you imagine outcome-based sports, where results were not as important as that everyone felt good about them? Would anyone participate in a sport where all games ended in a tie, or where all teams finished with a .500 record, or where each team was guaranteed a championship once every so many years?

Sports are about the pursuit of victory, rather than the guarantee of victory. Every year America's top 64 college basketball teams square off to determine the national champion. 63 go home losers. In any sport, the reward for a good season is a playoff berth. Only one team will win its final game. (College football is the exception to this rule.) Some teams pursue victory for what seems like eternity yet never achieve it. The last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series, the czars ruled Russia.

Sports are uncompromisingly merit-intensive. You get to the top by being good at what you do. You stay on top only as long as you are worthy of staying there. Once your abilities deteriorate or someone dethrones you, you are history. If you are on top, there are countless people running laps, lifting weights, heading to the batting cage, and shooting free throws until midnight in order to get where you are. There is no job security. While athletes may play certain games, they do not play at them. To get to the top requires relentless effort. Even that freak Dennis Rodman was an omnivorous student of the art of rebounding a basketball.

This is why sports are so ruthlessly discriminatory. Physical gifts and cultural tendencies lead to pronounced disparities in the racial make up of sports leagues. If members of one group tend to excel at a certain skill, then champions in sports where this skill is essential will tend to come from this group. The huge majority of running backs, wide receivers, base-stealing champions, and sprinters are black. (Indeed, there is only one white cornerback in the NFL.) Wiry East Africans dominate distance running, while more muscular folk of West African descent dominate sprinting. Almost all NHL players from outside North America hail from four countries: Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.

Age discrimination is rampant in sports. Baseball is unique in the number of players who remain active for 20 years. A pro running back has accomplished something if he stays around for 10 years. If injuries take their toll careers can be cut even shorter. Witness the early exits of Sandy Koufax, Gayle Sayers, Bo Jackson, Bobby Orr, and Bill Walton.

Size-ism is a necessary evil in sports. Bigger players have advantages. (This goes a long way toward explaining why there are so few successful Jewish and Asian athletes, as Jews and Asians tend to be smaller.) At the same time, you do not see seven-foot point guards or 300-pound cornerbacks. 6'9" point guards like Magic Johnson or 6'5" shortstops like Cal Ripken are exceptions to the rule. People of different sizes tend to have different talents and line up at positions where those talents are most likely to be maximized.

We need to discuss one more "ism": that odious business known as hand-ism. The nature of baseball is such that playing catcher, second base, third base, or shortstop precludes lefthanders. So much of what players at these positions do requires throwing to the left, which can be executed far more smoothly by right-handers.

Regardless of race, the rules of sports are the same. When Jackie Robinson came up to the Dodgers, he did not get four strikes while Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio only got three. Nevertheless, Robinson batted .311 for his career and was the best second baseman of his era. Babe Ruth's home run record was eclipsed by a black man, Henry Aaron, and may be eclipsed by Ken Griffey, Jr., as well. They all played by the same rules - with no affirmative action or racial quotas.

Indeed, there is far more reverence for the rules of sports than for rules elsewhere. Churches will preach a watered-down version of the Bible in order to justify all kinds of heresies and appease all kinds of secular pressure groups. We hear that the Constitution is a "living document" and that it is "whatever the Supreme Court says it is." Is it any wonder that Christendom and the American Republic are in such chaos? Sports, however, prosper because they adhere to basic rules. We may argue whether that last pitch really was a strike, or whether that receiver had both feet in bounds when he caught that pass, but we agree as to the rules.

Whereas our government routinely makes unconstitutional laws without bothering to amend the Constitution, the lords of sport wait until the off-season to change the rules, and then promulgate these changes accordingly. If we implement a three-point arc, instant replay, or a designated hitter rule, we wait until after the championship game is over, so as not to violate the integrity of that season's play.

If one looks to sports for a resolution to the creation-evolution debate, then creation (i.e. intelligent design) wins. We saw intelligent design at work in 1891 when Dr. James Naismith sat down to invent basketball. We saw it in 1823, when William Ellis, a student and a soccer player at Britain's Rugby School, picked up a ball and ran with it, thus inventing a new game. Enhanced performance in all sports over the years is a result of the relentless pursuit and meticulous application of knowledge about nutrition, fitness, and successful strategies for winning.

Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jim Brown would have been great in any age. However, their dominance resulted from the fact that they played sports that were in their adolescence. (This makes Wayne Gretzky's achievements all the more remarkable.) There are no players of comparable stature in the year 2000 because the average level of play has increased so dramatically. This has happened because of countless deliberate individual decisions.

Sports embody virtues that are antithetical to our culture. Our cultural and academic elites inveigh against achievement and rising above the crowd, exhorting us to focus on fairness, egalitarianism, and the avoidance of ever feeling bad about anything. Sports, on the other hand, are about excellence, self- discipline, winning and losing. Losing, properly understood, develops character. When a wise person loses, he learns from the experience, puts disappointment behind him, and rises to fight one more day. When students leave college for the real world, even the most successful will do a lot of losing. (Bill Gates has lost tens of billions of dollars in the last few months.) The sooner they learn this, the better off they will be.

At the athletic facilities at West Point, you will find engraved these words from a former superintendent named MacArthur: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory." Even those who oversee the grave business of war frequently eschew objective measures of victory and defeat, preferring to clothe their failures in all kinds of mind-numbing euphemisms. A glance at the day's sports pages reveals a different set of priorities with countless examples of one team winning and another losing; one team in first place and another in last place. A lot of these teams are attached to colleges and universities.

If the rest of the academic community attached such emphasis to objectively measured quality and performance, America may not be in such chaos. Perhaps this is why, when he left his position as president of Yale to become president of the National League, the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti remarked that he would "be dealing with a better class of people."

Steve Sailer has an excellent page which uses sports as a means of debunking fashionable cultural mythologies about race and achievement.

Thomas Sowell is the grand master of taking the empirical sledgehammer to liberal cliches about race. This Jackie Robinson of conservative intellectuals has spawned a veritable legion of black conservatives and libertarians. Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the highly significant content of their intellect.

Freely Speaking: Speeches and Essays by Doug Newman

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