From “The Men They Will Become”
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.

Chapter 20 – PLAY AND SPORTS

On a Saturday afternoon a few months ago, a visiting junior league football team of middle-school-age boys dealt a loss to a team from a suburb not more than twenty miles from where I live. The score was not close. The home team was winless for the season, which didn’t improve the mood of the parents and other locals who had gathered to watch and to cheer if the game gave them any opportunity.

It seemed to the hometown crowd that the officiating was faulty. The head coach for the home team was ejected from the game for challenging a referee’s decision. The local announcer broadcast obscenities directed at the officials over the public address system during the game, for which behavior he was barred from the announcer’s booth for the remainder of the season.

In the parking lot after the game, there was a noisy confrontation between the teams and their followers. Bottles were thrown by the hometown crowd toward the visitors. Eventually, parents of the visiting team charged, the assistant coach of the home team deliberately accelerated his car toward a thirteen-year-old visiting player, forcing him to jump quickly aside to escape being hit. The local chief of police described the altercation as “stupid” and “inappropriate,” but he also felt that the news media blew it out of proportion.

As we shall see, deciding what constitutes judicious proportion is not a simple matter where sports are concerned. But it isn’t hard to find examples of the injudicious. Richard Lapchick of Northeastern University has told of going to see his twelve-year-old son’s first hockey game. The son’s team lost by one goal. After the game another of the fathers came into the locker room, yanked his son up off the bench where he was sitting, and yelled: “You fucking son of a bitch; if you’d hit that guy against the wall you wouldn’t have lost this game.”

What Is Play?

Before boys can walk, they display a capacity to play, and before they begin school they will be old enough in some communities to participate in organized sports. Their behavior will be scrutinized in reference to standards of behavior we refer to as sportsmanship. But what is play, and what are sports? The latter are perhaps easier to define: They are games of physical activity with rules that define the terms of engagement, the roles and limits on the players, and what players need to do to win.

A good definition of play can be found in a much quoted paper by Kenneth Rubin and his colleagues. They describe play as having five necessary characteristics. It is intrinsically motivated, pursued for the sheer satisfaction it offers. This aspect most distinguishes play from work, for even when work is intrinsically pleasurable, it is also extrinsically motivated: to earn income, to enhance status, to support a household, among other motivations. Certain activities, however, can begin as work and develop into play, and vice versa. The transition can occur in both directions, and a specific event may switch back and forth several times.

Play is also, by definition, freely chosen by the participants. Fergus Hughes, who has written incisively about play, recalls a first grader named Scott who had no interest in competitive sports but was pressured by both parents to join a school soccer team. The games caused Scott so much anxiety that he could scarcely eat his supper on the eve of a game. Even gentle pressure, Hughes believes, can move activity outside the realm of play.

Play must be pleasurable, or it isn’t play. This criterion raises some difficult questions about group activities when what purports to be sport consists of someone enjoying making someone else miserable. Patricia Hersch observed some seventh-grade boys who play in the same kind of junior football league I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter: At the field, the kids bound out of the car, happy to see their teammates. They talk about the past weekend’s game, where they crushed their opponent. Chris is still giddy with success: ‘I got into a fight with a center and that was the best time I ever had-I was talking so much trash, we were crushing Springfield-the center started crying and he was swinging at my helmet with bare hands’. It’s controlled violence, Chris and Brad explain’. If you get run over, blocked or something like that, you want to get back. The same thing happened at Lake Braddock-I cut-blocked this guy and he said, “Come on, [obscenity], try again.” So I did it again,says Chris’. That part of the game is fun to me,’ adds Brad. ‘I like the talking part, but at the end of the game you come together and you shake hands and say good job and that resolves the problem. So in that period of time you can be mean and violent and dangerous. And then it’s over.’

Is what Chris and Brad were doing-trash-talking to inflame an opponent and disrupt his concentration, which is common in professional, college, and high school sports, and cut-blocking, which is a type of block apt to injure an opponent’s legs-the kind of pleasure that passes the standard of constituting play? Obviously male drives to establish dominance hierarchies and to test an opponent’s response to physical aggression are an inevitable component in contact sports even when played by young boys, and in other sports as well.

But do we really want to say that an activity, even if it intentionally causes displeasure or injury to another player, is still play because it gives the inflicter pleasure? When a boy plays fairly to win, and succeeds, he may cause the loser displeasure, but that is somewhat incidental, and not inevitable, in a competitive game; it’s possible to lose and feel satisfied if you’ve tried hard and been treated with respect by your opponent.

A fourth characteristic of play is its symbolic aspect. There is an element of make-believe. Another way of saying it is that play has a nonliteral aspect. Baking an actual cake may be fun, but it is work that happens to be fun; playing house and baking a pretend cake is play; building an imaginary house with Lego is play.

Finally, play has to be actively engaged in by a person-physically or psychologically or both. A boy who is indifferent to what he is doing and what is going on about him is not at play. By the same token, I suppose, a fan who is completely, vicariously caught up in watching a game might be thought of as being at play. He is stressing the symbolic aspect of the experience. He might be concentrating on who is winning, on rooting for someone, in which case his association with play is borderline; or he may be enjoying the skill of players, in which case his activity is more closely related to play. But watching is unlikely ever to be the equivalent of playing. This five-part definition of play offers guidelines for understanding boys’ activities. If a parent realizes that he is pressuring a son into participating in a sport, and the son clearly doesn’t enjoy it and wouldn’t pursue it without the pressure, the parent might be inspired to think: What is going on here? Is my son having any pleasure playing this game or is he being forced against all of his inclinations to work to realize his parents’ dreams? Or a parent can use such a definition to gauge when an activity has ceased to be play, and tactful adult intervention might be in order. Parents can also use this definition to monitor their own play with their children. That such play is important to a boy’s development seems beyond doubt. Physical play, including what we call roughhousing, begins in early infancy, peaks in most children’s experience between the ages of one and four, and diminishes gradually. My grandson Noah, a fledgling toddler, is very fond of a shortly-before-bedtime game of running and getting caught-quite a few times in a row. Several studies have shown that children rated as popular by their teachers are the most likely to have parents who have engaged in regular physical play with them. Children who are popular with their peers are more likely to engage in high levels of physical play with them, while rejected children seem to engage in physical play with more reluctance.

Hughes suggests that self-control is among the skills developed by boys in physical play with parents.

Since play of this sort is usually intensely stimulating, the child is highly aroused, and, more importantly, the high arousal level must be sustained for the duration of the play. When the play is over, however, the child is admonished to ‘settle down.’ Thus the player learns to become intensely engaged with another person, to stay engaged, and to disengage when the activity comes to an end. Hughes also believes this kind of activity may help a child to read the emotional states-happiness, fright, sadness, and so on-of others as they are expressed or mimed in play, and to express his own emotions effectively with facial expression and gesture.

Play is the most characteristic activity of children when they aren’t eating or sleeping or doing assigned chores. It isn’t all physically vigorous. Reading and being read to can be play. Conversation can be play. Playing a musical instrument can be play-should be play, unless the child feels pressured into it. As a boy matures, work intrudes more and more into his daily life; school is defined as a place of work interrupted by play periods. As folk wisdom puts it, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” but most schoolboys think their play periods are too brief. The adult “workaholic” is a person who has allowed work to overwhelm his personal life to the virtual disappearance of play. Average folks try to find ways to interrupt work with moments of play; even crumpling paper into a ball and sending it to the wastebasket via an air hook worthy of Kareem qualifies as play.

Play, as defined above, is an appetite of lifelong significance for a healthy male. Many adult hobbies other than conventional sports can be forms of play-woodworking or gardening, for example. Sexual experience often involves times of play for the male who doesn’t turn it into work, as is acknowledged in speaking of foreplay and afterplay. All work and no play makes Jack Senior a dull boy, too.

The Development of Play

Boys play long before organized sports come into their lives. My concern in this chapter is chiefly with the adolescent, but a few words are in order about the childhood activities that precede sports and sportsmanship. All of the issues apparent in adolescent sports have surfaced in rudimentary form much earlier in childhood.

Infants begin to play even in the first half-year of life. Students of child development have taken pains to distinguish the activity of play from the activity of exploration. Exploration comes first, logically. Perhaps early exploration is the precursor of what a person will eventually regard as work. When the environment is, at least in some ways, unfamiliar, the infant tries to figure it out. His attention is intense, his heartbeat steady, his demeanor serious and often somewhat cautious. His way of exploring an object he can grasp-smelling it, putting it in his mouth, rubbing it against his skin-can look almost ritualistic.

Play is more relaxed and joyful than exploration. The infant will continuously repeat activities such as sucking or grasping that give him pleasure; he will bang on his high chair in the latter half of his first year because it amuses him or it appears to amuse someone else, or both. He loves to put things into other things and take them out again. By the time he is a year old, he might turn a game of pushing aside a pillow to find the toy hidden under it into a game of simply repeatedly pushing aside the pillow-the means becomes an end in itself.

During his second year, a boy begins to show a preference to play with more than one object at a time; he begins to realize the proper function of objects-balls to be rolled or thrown, blocks to be stacked and knocked over; and he begins symbolic play-for example, using any available material or toy at hand as make-believe food to feed to his stuffed animal. In general, a boy’s play will be more sophisticated when he is interacting with an adult than when he is playing alone.

Until a child is about twenty months of age, the mother is the principal adult playmate of American children. Parents in two-parent homes share play activities about equally for the next year; after that, fathers initiate more play periods with preschoolers than mothers do. Mothers spend more time with them, but the fathers specialize more in playtime. There is a culturally defined division of labor here, with mothers specializing in some aspects of child care and fathers specializing in other aspects, including play. Fathers do more roughhousing, and they also are more inclined to direct the child’s play activities. Mothers are more likely than fathers to follow the child’s lead and to emphasize the instructional possibilities in the child’s play.

Research in Sweden and in an Israeli kibbutz did not show the mother-father differences observed in the United States, so these patterns are by no means universal. There is a point to emphasize here. Some writers on raising boys are currently emphasizing fathers’ roles, especially in play, suggesting that there is a correlation between extensive father-involvement in a boy’s upbringing and his later success academically and professionally. The implication of this is gloomy for boys raised by a single mother. The more likely truth is that boys thrive on certain play elements in their lives, including a lot of play that is physically active. If fathers don’t provide it, others can, with comparable consequences for a boy’s well being. By “others” I mean mothers or hired child care or relatives, or older siblings who’ve been shown how to do it with proper supervision. A playmate, someone to play with regularly, is deeply meaningful for a child. In the inclination of males to be directive in their play with children, we see a trend that we will come to later. it isn’t females, predominantly, who have built the elaborately overorganized system of sports for boys in the United States, mimicking professional sports with uniforms, leagues, intricate scheduling, commercial sponsors, media coverage, maintenance of performance records, selection of all-stars, seasons leading to playoffs, and enormous emphasis on competitiveness and winning. While both fathers and mothers engage in their sons’ competitions vicariously, it is mostly men who have imposed many of the extrinsic values of their occupations on what should be intrinsically pleasurable children’s play, and who bear much of the responsibility for this invasion of childhood. I should add, however, that I have also seen mothers screeching in fury or triumph at ball games.

Two-year-olds have the advantage of greater mobility and language development. Still lacking fine motor skills, they may enjoy the look and feel of play materials more than the things they may create with them. Their most typical play is solitary, or else onlooker play in which they watch another child nearby.

Three-year-olds show that they are identifying with adults more than two-year-olds do. They are better able to wait their turn, share, and cooperate. They are becoming interested in making things they can show to others. To say it another way, two-year-olds are more interested in process, three-year-olds are becoming interested in results. Blocks aren’t any longer just for stacking; they can be made by the three-year-old into buildings and bridges that loosely represent the actual world. There is an expansion of fantasy in their play and blurring of the distinction between fantasy and reality.

By the age of four, a boy’s advancing fine motor skills usually affect his choice of playthings. His increasing sociability enables him to make quite elaborate plans with playmates for their play projects. Five-year-olds, having begun to show signs of logical thinking, reflect a stability in their play missing in most younger boys. Adults see them as more malleable and cooperative than younger boys, and they are more willing to share play materials and take turns with their peers. The expansion of fantasy in the three-year-olds is being countered with a move back to realism by the five-year-olds.

The social development of children’s play was analyzed as early as the 1930s by Mildren Parten. As two-year-olds, she noted, children engage mostly in solitary play and onlooker play. ~When circumstances promote it, children of that and later ages will often display parallel play-children playing separately at the same activities in the same place and at the same time. Three-year-olds, to some extent, but four-year-olds even more, display associative play: Each child is doing his or her own thing, but there is sharing, lending of toys and materials, and taking turns. Four-year-olds begin to demonstrate cooperative play where two or more children engage in play in which participants have to fulfill complementary tasks toward a common goal. Once that begins most of the issues grouped under the umbrella of sportsmanship exist in recognizable form. Researchers today believe Parten underestimated the capacity of children as young as a year and a half to play cooperatively, and they don’t attribute social immaturity to solitary play to the extent Parten did; but they still use her typology. In sociodramatic play, older preschoolers often imitate the adults in their lives and unwittingly reveal a good deal of how they perceive their home lives. They express their urgent needs and also express impulses that might be frowned upon if expressed directly-aggression, for example, or curiosity about the human body as dramatized in “playing doctor.” This kind of play also permits role reversal, as when a child who feels relatively helpless about something in real life may play a make-believe role with greater power in that situation.

Children tend to seek out same-sex playmates as early as age two. When playing with male peers, boys show more exploratory zeal, and they also are likely to engage in forms of play that are traditionally gender-typed. An argument can be made for encouraging a mixture of same-gender and cross-gender play, since the latter mitigates against gender stereotyping. Play is a central part of group day care, with, studies show, mixed findings as to how beneficial the experience may be. The experience can stimulate social maturity in a boy, but it may also stimulate displays of aggression and resistance to adult direction. The degree of variation in quality from one day-care environment to another makes it difficult to generalize.

Similarly, exposure to television has a mixed effect on children’s play. Excessive exposure to television can inhibit the quality of play of normally imaginative children; but children who are relatively unimaginative may be stimulated by watching the more intellectually stimulating children’s programs such as Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street.

There is now little question that many boys-some very powerfully are affected by violence on the television they watch. The average child in the United States between ages five and fifteen witnesses about 13,000 killings, most of them dramatized but occasionally an actual death. The effects of watching violence are both direct and indirect. More exposure leads to more violent behavior, to a greater tolerance of violence, to a view of the world as a mean and dangerous place where violence is warranted because normal. Boys with an early propensity to aggression feed on violence in the media and use it to organize and stimulate their behavior. The advent of interactive computer games does seem to represent a quantum leap beyond passively watching others commit mayhem and murder on the screen, because in many computer games the player becomes a participant in the unfolding action and commits dramatized violence himself. That is worrisome enough in public arcade machines but more sobering when one knows that millions of kids are playing in the privacy of their homes with parental consent.

Less than deserved attention is given, in my view, to the influence on boys of violence in televised sports. Dramatized violence within the story line of a film or comic book is usually set in a moral context, admittedly often in a simplistic way, but there is some attempt to justify the violence within the good guys/bad guys formulas. But sports violence doesn’t have that context. Attempts to injure the opposing quarterback, hockey brawls, bean balls and dugout emptying, spitting on officials, flagrant fouls in basketball, none of this has even a shred of moral justification. A sports contest is between our guys and the other guys, not between the good guys and the bad guys. Yet boys grow up watching their elders respond approvingly or indifferently to injuries to the “others” in broadcast sports. One view prevalent in the United States is that aggressive contact sports such as professional football, hockey, and boxing act as a catharsis for the release of hostile energy by athletes and spectators, thus reducing incentives by the people caught up in them to revert to crime or domestic violence. But, as Myriam Miedzian points out in Boys Will Be Boys, “An exhaustive study of heavyweight prizefights held between 1973 and 1978 and subsequent homicide statistics revealed that U.S. homicides increased by 12.46 percent directly after heavyweight championship prizefights. The increase was greatest after heavily publicized prizefights.”

The philosopher Sissela Bok takes the analysis a step further in her recent book Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment. The long tradition of cathartic spectator violence, she notes with bloody examples, extends back to the Roman amphitheater where violence was used to entertain and also to encourage in spectators an acceptance of official violence in the conquests and administration of the empire.

No one today is nailed to a crucifix and mauled by a Caledonian bear before a screaming throng. Yet the effect of viewing violence in organized sports may still encourage the expression and acceptance of violence in other forms. We risk boys’ making use of violence in contexts other than sport: toward intimates, and in antisocial acts committed by individuals or groups. Violence, I’m afraid, does appear to breed violence, and the forum in which it is most frequently bred outside the home is on the field of sport.

The games of the schoolboy with their often elaborate rules become fiercely competitive. It isn’t quite enough to play for the thrill of the action. The point is also to win. Some psychologists believe that these competitive activities fail to qualify as play as defined at the beginning of this chapter, and that play as an activity declines swiftly in boys’ lives once competitive games with rules establish dominance in free activity time. It is true that competition and the goal of winning introduce an (often ruinous) extrinsic element into these activities, but it is also true that these activities have many moments in which all of the defining elements of play appear to be in effect. Still, the aggressive behavior and tension generated by the drive to win spoil the experience for many boys. The National Alliance for Youth Sports says that 45 percent of children have been called names and insulted while playing sports (the number may be low, judging from the anecdotes I have already offered) and that 70 percent of children have stopped playing competitive sports by age thirteen because all the fun has gone out of it.

Boys’ play, Stanley Greenspan points out in Playground Politics, is often more assertive and competitive than girls’, and boys are encouraged by their parents to win, and sometimes kidded or chastised if they fail.

Greenspan gives a nice example:

Eight-year-old Michael and his dad are each racing a remote-control car. The competition is fierce. Each competitor is trying to navigate his car around the couch and under chairs to the finish line. Michael’s car crosses the finish line first. Dad says, ‘You beat me. You’re the winner!’ and claps loudly at Michael’s victory.

On the other hand, Dad and Michael’s 10-year-old sister, Ashley, are playing Junior Scrabble. Ashley has been getting lots of pieces, and she has spelled out more words than her father. But Dad downplays Ashley’s interest in competing and winning.

‘Dad, I spelled out six more words than you!’Ashley says excitedly.

‘Those are good words, honey,’ Dad says calmly.

‘But I beat you!’ Ashley says in frustration.

‘Honey,’ says Dad,’that’s very nice, but remember, it’s just a game.’

The function of play changes in fundamental ways from the preadolescent to the adolescent. While the schoolboy was intensely preoccupied with belonging to a peer group, the adolescent begins to single out other individuals with whom to develop close friendships. In these relationships, communication is valued and practiced. Mere preference for the same play activities isn’t as sufficient a basis for friendship as it once was; adolescents are looking for complementary personalities.

So for the adolescent play begins to be less structured than it was for the preadolescent. Much of it consists of “hanging out” together, watching television and videos, listening to music, going to dances and parties. There is decreased interest in games with rules. There is a gradual decrease in the number of different play activities engaged in per week. Having a good time becomes less defined as doing something with friends, more defined as being together, enjoying time of one’s own.

Organized team sports continue to enjoy intense commitment among adolescent males, but for a declining number of them. As the more athletically talented are selected and rewarded with status and recognition, the less talented or committed drop out. Yet another way to look at the decline in numbers of males committed to organized sports is that they have turned to activities, as I’ve just indicated, that promote less structured hanging out with more intense relationships as the goal.

Organized Sports

From early childhood through middle childhood to adolescence, organized sports play a role in the lives of many children, having increased in popularity among children decade by decade in recent history. Thirty million school-age children participate in organized sports in the United States. They play twenty-five different kinds of sports, directed by a volunteer army of 4.5 million coaches and 1.5 million administrators. Four year-olds can sign up for midget hockey, six-year-olds for Little League baseball. Eleven and twelve-year-olds often spend 40 percent of their free activity time engaged in organized sports.

For boys, organized sports offer plenty of instruction, comparatively high quality equipment, community recognition, institutionalized self-esteem for those who do well, and a ready-made social group. In communities where boyhood sports are very highly organized, a boy may feel that he has little choice but to participate if he wants to feel deeply attached to his peers; everyone he wants to pal around with is playing team sports. Parents often view these activities as ways of keeping boys’ free time occupied so they won’t get into trouble inventing activities on their own. Coaches and parents often assert that participation in organized sports contributes to self-esteem, particularly among boys who are more likely than girls to define themselves in terms of athletic accomplishment. Not unexpectedly, several researchers have found a positive relationship between successful athletic participation and a child’s self-esteem as an athlete. But rather than thinking of a boy as having a single global self, it is probably more appropriate to think of a set of self-images. His self-image as an athlete may be high based on his successful participation in the local soccer or football league, but this self-confidence may not be equaled by his self-image as a student or as a member of his class or family. However, it is also true that athletic achievement in organized sports rewards more boys with community recognition than any other activity, and that star athletes enjoy as high, or higher, status among peers as any other adolescent group.

Does participation in organized sports contribute, as is often claimed, to a boy’s character by promoting such values as former United States Senator and New York Knickerbocker forward Bill Bradley recently enumerated in Values of the Game: passion, discipline, selflessness, respect, perspective, courage, leadership, responsibility, resilience, and imagination? Brenda Bredemeier and David Shields interviewed high school and college students-some of them athletes, some not-asking them to comment on the moral dimension of athletic and nonathletic situations. For example, the asked what the interviewee thought a football player should do if asked by his coach to try to injure a key player on another team.

What the researchers found was that both athletes and nonathletes believed a different and lower set of moral principles applied to sporting events than applied to ordinary everyday events. There was a high level of agreement that in everyday life one should try to be considerate, but in sports, because of the emphasis on winning, one needn’t be very concerned about others. They found, as Hughes reports, that: “People who have the greatest interest in highly aggressive contact sports, or have participated in them for the longest amounts of time, tend to score lower on tests of moral reasoning…. Athletes who do earn high moral reasoning scores are the least willing to display hostile aggression during a game.” Michael Messner, a sociologist, once interviewed Art Tatum, an Oakland Raiders linebacker whose tackle in one game broke Darryl Stingley’s neck, leaving him paralyzed. “When I first started playing,” Tatum told Messner, “if I would hit a guy hard and he wouldn’t get up, it would bother me. (But) when I was a sophomore in high school, first game, I knocked out two quarterbacks, and people loved it. The coach loved it. Everybody loved it * “

In boys’ organized sports, coaches have immense influence. As Michael Oriard, who played football through school years and then for Notre Dame and the Kansas City Chiefs reported, “From the fourth grade into my first year as a professional, I was to look to my coaches as figures of wisdom and authority whose pronouncements were gospel and whose expectations of me were to be met at whatever cost.” The coaches are teachers and strategists, but just as much they are motivators; some use rather bizarre methods to provoke the level of enthusiasm they desire in a team. A high school coach in Wisconsin gave a “Hit of the Week” award to the player who appeared from analysis of game films to have made the most vicious hit on an opposing football player. Another coach from Iowa painted a chicken gold to represent the rival “Golden Eagles” and had his team kick it around the field to “get the Eagle.” A phenomenon referred to as “doubling” often takes place in organized sports whereby the players conform to a frame of mind and a moral code imposed by an authoritarian coach. The players have implicitly abandoned responsibility for their own actions to the direction of coaches and public sentiment. Thus a player who in ordinary situations is well-mannered and friendly may become extremely aggressive and callous about inflicting injuries when he is within the team culture.

Part of the equation is that the player is also supposed to be indifferent to his own injuries; but he may remain anxious about being injured himself The sight of football players kneeling together in prayer in a stadium after a game in which they have often tried to injure others suggests the irony that afflicts sports where competitive values have overwhelmed other values. One lineman in the 1999 Super Bowl, Denver Broncos guard Mark Schlereth, has had twenty-two operations for sports injuries-seventeen times on his knees-and will have a twenty-third a week after the game. “No doctor in his right mind would ever pass me for a physical if his job were on the line,” Mark says, “but this is the NFL. If they want you to pass the physical, you will pass the physical.” In fact, some teams have given him physicals and turned him down based on the findings. But one of the best teams signed him. He can’t bend over to putt a golf ball, and he can’t crawl on the floor to play with his kids, but he’s still going to put his body on the line in the Super Bowl.

Brenda Bredemeier measured the attitudes of high school and college basketball players toward intentionally hurting their opponents on the court. Boys more than girls were inclined to endorse such acts, and older, experienced athletes more than novices.

Something akin to “doubling” also occurs between players or teams, and officials. Officials are as human as players. Players seldom perform without error in contests, and officials make mistakes of judgment and observation. But more and more, teams cede all moral responsibility to the officials. If officials make errors that everyone acknowledges, few players or coaches from the side that has benefited volunteer to correct the situation. It is usually considered the prerogative of the players in officiated contests to accept as unearned blessings the benefits of officiating errors. In many sports it is the habit of players and coaches who believe an official has made an error to their disadvantage to react in extravagant accusatory fashion.

Failure to display aggressiveness and self abandonment desired by coaches and teammates subjects adolescent athletes frequently to suggestions that they are feminine or homosexual. Ira Berkow once reported in the New York Times that the men’s basketball coach at the University of Indiana Bobby Knight “put a box of sanitary napkins in the locker of one of his players so that the player would get the point that Knight considered him less than masculine.” Dave Meggyesy, a former football player, says “this sort of attack on a player’s manhood is a coach’s doomsday weapon. And it almost always works, for the players have wrapped up their identity in their masculinity, which is eternally precarious for it not only depends on not exhibiting fear of any kind on the playing field, but is also something that can be given and withdrawn by a coach at his pleasure, ” Without doubt, this denigration of the feminine contributes to the potential for male athletes to be manipulative and exploitative in their relationships with real females.

The Decline of Play

The intrinsic delight of play certainly has been overwhelmed by extrinsic considerations in much of the organized sports we see for boys in the United States. As collegiate and professional sports have become an ever larger entertainment industry, swamping amateurism or making it a subsidized sham in sport after sport, organized sports have become talent selection systems feeding the ranks of high school and college teams and rosters as a prelude to the eventual recognition of the small number of players who will prosper in professional competitions. The premise is statistical. The more boys that try to master a given sport, the more likely it is that those with superior natural talent and trainability will be identified. Even given as large a pool of children as the United States has to draw upon, there remain sports in which American athletes consistently do poorly in international competition compared to athletes from much smaller countries where those sports are emphasized.

Organized sports make those who fail at the early levels feel unwarrantedly discouraged, and it makes many of those who succeed exaggeratedly self-regarding. The system is very steeply pyramidal in every sport. Few of the elementary, middle school, and high school “stars” will excel in collegiate sports, and few of those who play college varsity sports will find a professional career awaiting them.

Clearly organized sports excite the upward social mobility strivings of many families who see athletic prowess in their sons as a talent that will pull the entire family into greater prominence and security. The values that are being reinforced in organized sports are not so much the traditional values of “sportsmanship” but the core values of a society that has made sports into a business: individual competitiveness; a facade of self confidence; the demonstration of earnest effort; a provisional willingness to bear pain and injury for the greater good of the company, yet an apprehension that loyalty is pretty much a one-way street, not to be reciprocated if the company loses confidence in the value of the individual; indifference to those who lose out in competition; willingness to be aggressive and to injure others in the interests of one’s team.

Dave Meggyesy puts the best possible face on it when he says that “football represents the core values of the status quo, and coaches and school administrators want players to win adherence to these values, not only on the football field but also in their private lives.” But it is hardly surprising that for every Bill Bradley there are several prominent athletes being prosecuted for drug violations and sexual assaults, being pursued, despite seven-figure salaries, for nonpayment of alimony and child support or in paternity suits. Beyond the misbehavior of individual athletes there lies an undercurrent of corruption among the administrators and officials of organized sports. The recent Olympics scandals show how this reaches to the top echelons.

An observer can’t help but note the irony that the sports into which most boys are organized are not, by and large, the games they will play as adults. They are organized in largest numbers into baseball, football, soccer, hockey, and basketball. As adults they will watch these games in large numbers, but they won’t play them. And not just because they’ve lost the physical skills to play them enjoyably. I suspect they don’t play adult basketball and baseball because such games were ruined for them as kids. They remember them as tense and conflictual, so they trade them in for golf, hiking, jogging, swimming, fishing-trying to recover activities that might be playful for them.

In my own childhood and youth, I played far more music than sports. But I asked a contemporary of mine what he remembered of the games of our summers and after-schools and weekends. Here is what, in essence, he said: What organized sports has substantially displaced was an informal network of neighborhood or interneighborhood activities that boys organized themselves. What we used to call “pickup games.” The old way offered less instruction, and the equipment was less adequate, so boys had to invent game sites in yards and streets and share equipment. There was little, if any, community recognition outside the group and their families. No status, but plenty of fun. We’d play until we were tired, and then we’d sit around and talk, and then maybe get up and play some more.

Since neighborhood sports were self-governed, boys themselves dealt with all the issues of fair play, and I have no doubt that the process was more educational from a character standpoint than many boys find in organized sports today. Leaders always emerged. They were the ones whom everyone expected to be in charge of a side or team, and to choose its members. Leaders were always among the best players but weren’t necessarily the very best; they were, however, natural leaders whose influence we instinctively recognized and honored. Rules were kept as simple as possible because the players had to interpret and implement them, and no one wanted a game to break down over a rules controversy. There were arguments about how specific plays were to be governed by the rules-heated arguments at times- but everyone knew the process had to come to consensus.

Boys who didn’t fit in were gradually excluded until~ they came to understand what stood between them and inclusion, and made an accommodation acceptable to the other boys. Generally it wasn’t talent or the lack thereof that kept anyone on the sidelines. I don’t remember any boys getting excluded because they were untalented. Anyone who played with obvious intent to injure others was eased out. Chronic whiners were eased out because the games were meant to be fun, and a good whiner could take the euphoria out of a game very rapidly.

The best games were those with evenly matched sides and close scores; then everyone felt good at the end, because with a lucky break here or there the game could credibly have gone the other way. If a game got one-sided, it usually ended sooner because it ceased to be enough fun. Left to their own devices, boys can develop impressive neighborhood conventions of sportsmanship.


In my conversations with boys, sports came up over and over again. In Chapter 18, 1 referred to Brett. His yard and the street outside the fence were full of his contemporaries who had come over to play when I arrived to talk with him and his single mother. Talking with him reminded me of the patterns of my childhood. Some days the kids (mostly boys, but-unlike my childhood days-also some girls who like sports) congregate at Brett’s house, other days at the home of another member of the crowd. Neighborhood play needs parental attention and involvement that organized sports delegate to coaches and managers. The logistics of organized sports lead to a lot of parents standing on the sidelines watching others work with their kids, waiting to take them home again. I saw a fine kind of parent-child interaction when I visited Evan and his mother. She is a single mother who works, so Evan, an only child in early adolescence, usually gets home a couple of hours before his mother; he immediately checks in with her by telephone.

One of their main sports issues is the trampoline in the backyard. The rule Margaret and Evan have agreed to is that no one uses the trampoline unless she is at home. Another rule is that other kids can’t come into the house to play while his mother is at work. Evan volunteered that the issue is one of safety. “Do your friends ever want to jump on the trampoline when your mother is at work?” I asked him. “Yeah,” he replied. “One guy keeps asking and asking, and he gets mad, but I keep saying no. Sometimes he waits until my mom arrives, and then he wants me to ask permission right away; and I tell him to let her have a breather.” (Evan and his mother, incidentally, are right to be concerned. Trampolines caused 249,000 accidents, and the annual frequency of injury doubled, between 1990 and 1995; they are now among the leading causes of childhood injury.) Evan and Margaret also appreciate what he has gained from his relationships with coaches in organized sports. “One of my coaches,” Evan says, “was always encouraging when people made mistakes. He’d say things like ‘We’ll get them next time’ and ‘You can do it.”‘

The values that we associate with sportsmanship-including the thoughtfulness and regard for safety articulated by Evan-are inestimably valuable aspects of male character. They imply attainment of an admirable civility or courteousness, regard both for rules and for the welfare of everyone playing the game, self-control when something upsetting or frustrating has occurred, a capacity to win without overvaluing the victory, and to lose without taking it overly to heart, and a sense of proportion that focuses much of the time on the sheer pleasure of the game. The question is: ‘WHere does sportsmanship come from? Bill Bradley suggests that the several values we refer to collectively as sportsmanship come from the game itself. He played collegiate basketball at Princeton where, with luck, there might be a player with potential to star as a professional once in a decade or a generation. ~”at Princeton had was a remarkable coach, Pete Carril, who taught his intelligent squad to play a very deliberate, controlled style that enabled them to perform well against-and often beat-teams with much more natural talent but far less discipline. In his years with the New York Knicks, Bradley played with a similarly intelligent and disciplined team. Times change, however, and his old team, the Knicks, have been negotiating, while I’ve been writing this chapter, a contract with a professional player of undisputed talent who has been under suspension for several months for assaulting the coach of his former team during a practice session, choking him and threatening to kill him.

The chapter on responsibility in Bradley’s Values of the Game has the subtitle, “No Excuses-None.” It is an interesting tack because sports postmortems are as rife with lame excuses as those in any other kind of human endeavor; and the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions when they haven’t turned out well is a benchmark of character. Bradley gave an example from which he drew the subtitle of the chapter.

The coach who gets across the importance of punctuality introduces order into many a young life…. On Red Holzman’s teams, there were few rules, but they were rigid. His attitude was ‘No excuses-none!’ if you weren’t on the bus at the designated time, it left without you. If you didn’t make the plane, you paid your own way. If you were late for practice, even two minutes late, you were fined. The result was that most of us turned up early. Even if you were late because of circumstances clearly beyond your control, you got no sympathy or credit.’ Sure, Bill, I know your mother’s cousin called with an emergency that your mother’s nephew couldn’t take care of,’ Holzman used to say, ‘and it rained on the highway and made it slick, after the earthquake damaged the bridge, but still you’re fined.’ He smiled and I paid up. To me, the example doesn’t point the way to exemplary character at all. This is not what taking responsibility or refusing to make excuses for oneself is about.

Bradley recalls a rule for which no exception was ever granted-a rule that was worthwhile but hardly worth making into the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt be punctual. Suppose, to underline the shallowness and rigidity of the rule, we turn the story around and have Bill Bradley, arriving punctually for practice, report to Holzman, “Boy, the roads were a sheet of ice this morning and I had no tread on my tires. I drove seventy miles an hour to get here, spun out twice, ran three cars off the road and roared past an accident where it looked like they needed some help. But I got here on time.” And Red Holzman smiles and says, “That’s my boy.”

The values of sportsmanship-including a suppleness to make wise choices in demanding circumstances-are values that boys bring to sports as much as, or more than, they learn from sports. The characterological difference between a Bill Bradley and a Latrell Sprewell, the choker traded to the Knicks, was established long before either got a contract to play professional basketball, or even college ball.

The development of these values begins in the first years of a boy’s life as his play is influenced by interaction with his parents and other adults, and with siblings. Those first experiences in the delight of play, accompanied by the inevitable tensions of sharing and cooperating with others, stand behind a boy as he begins to participate in schoolyard play with a peer group. There such factors as dominance hierarchies, individual aggressiveness, and group prejudices continually threaten the integrity of play as we’ve defined it in this chapter. Sportsmanship, in a sense, consists of a set of values and techniques to keep human nastiness from ruining play.

The ambiguity of organized sports for boys is that they often confusingly support both sides of the equation. Sportsmanship is always given lip service in youth sports, and often there is some substance to it; but at the same time there is support for nastiness: overaggressiveness, demonizing the opponent, deliberately injuring others, taking foolish risks, and exaggerating the significance of winning. Each boy can assimilate what pleases him. If a boy demonstrates superior talent in organized sports, but also displays behavior that is offensive, his behavior is sometimes tolerated in order to keep his talent available to the team.

For these reasons, I view sportsmanship as something a boy more likely brings to the sport than vice versa. Sports can support the development of a boy’s character, or they can degrade it. Because of the prominence of athletes in the social hierarchies of teenagers, and the number of young male athletes who offend against others, girls in particular, I think we need to impose some rules about who is allowed to play in organized sports. Any serious antisocial behavior should prompt a serious and careful review of a boy’s suitability for what has to be seen as an unelected leadership position. If his values and choices suggest that he will use his prestige and power to exploit others, he should probably be barred from organized sports until, through a process of education, noncompetitive athletics, community service, and counseling, he is able to demonstrate values of respect and fairness that would serve him well under the stress of competition. Drawing him into organized sports as a rehabilitative gesture because he will learn “sportsmanship” there places unwarranted expectations on those sports. The exemplary coach certainly exists who can take a troubled boy and guide him into a U-turn. But I believe there are many other coaches who will exacerbate the flaws.


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