The tyranny of athletics
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I'm a hypocrite. I buy game tickets and pay the extortion required of season ticket holders to maintain good seats and "benefits." But I agree with coaching legend Frank Layden.

Frank says that when historians write about the decline of American civilization, the first chapter will be about our obsession with sports. Examples are plentiful.

The coach of a local high school female softball team invited select players from throughout the valley to a "treasure hunt," complete with pizza and promises of future college scholarships. The proper term for such things is "recruiting."

Affluent local high schools take their football teams to "Camp Carbon" for summer practice — at least a hundred players and coaches by bus to Price for a week — from a school district that can't afford textbooks. Some local high school coaches "suggest" to parents of athletes from other areas that they rent nearby apartments so it will appear the family lives in the coach's school boundaries. These are the ethics of winning.

The Romans sent Christians to fight lions in the arena. We send children to battle other children in the sports arena — mostly to satisfy the egos of thoughtless parents.

A Texas high school spent $60 million on a football stadium to seat 18,000 spectators. Without a doubt, the school was well fixed. But hundreds of thousands of students in Texas can't read. Tickets for some professional sports events cost $5,000 or more a game. Corporations spend billions to support teams and advertise at sporting events, while channeling limited funds to the arts. Fans jam football stadiums. Symphony orchestras struggle to survive.

The New Orleans "Saints" offered bounties to players who inflicted injuries on opponents. Players who earn millions of dollars a year were willing to injure other players for an extra $5,000 or so. Winning trumps common sense.

Universities spend millions for coaches and hundreds of thousands to recruit players while academic programs struggle to survive. Colleges cram hundreds of students into single classrooms and raise tuition so athletes can play for free.

I understand that athletics provide positive values. Children need physical activity. They need to learn about competition. Sports teams provide the primary interface between local colleges and their communities. Professional teams focus community interest and community pride. I get it!

But something is wrong with a society's values when professional athletes earn more in six months than a dozen school teachers earn in a lifetime. Something is wrong when spectator demand induces the local college to spend millions on a new stadium while symphony, ballet and theater audiences dwindle. Something is wrong when athletes get more attention than scholars. Something is wrong when more citizens visit football stadiums than voting booths.

None of our basic problems will be solved by athletes — health care, education, terrorism, poverty, hunger, political tunnel vision. They will be solved by citizens who think not in terms of "winning," but in collaborating, of working together to solve common problems. It's beyond teamwork. It is democracy, and you learn it in the classroom, not on the athletic field. You learn it from great books, not playbooks. You learn it from art, not athletics.

Winning and losing are simple concepts. Solving tough problems is complex.

I'm a hypocrite. I'm not willing to give up my season tickets. But as a thinking citizen, I know this would be a better nation if we had more balance between athletics, education and the arts.

Yes, I buy tickets to the theater, the symphony and the ballet. My hypocrisy has limits.

G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words, Inc. He lives in Salt Lake City.