It’s how you play the game
December 13, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoThis week’s uproar over the resignation of the Aspen High School football coach opens a window into the curious nature of sports – specifically, high school sports – in America.For those of you who missed Nate Peterson’s excellent story in Wednesday’s edition of The Aspen Times, the issue seemed to boil down to a simple point: The coach lost his job because the football team didn’t win enough games.Sure, there’s more. There always is. The coach who resigned was a great guy. He revived Aspen’s football program after it had been dormant for several years. His players loved him. His potential replacement will be a high-powered coach with a lot of success at bigger high schools – and he just happens to be the husband of the school superintendent. And perhaps lurking around the edges are some rich parents who contributed big bucks for the nifty new football field and want a nifty winning record to go with it. There are hurt feelings all around.But still, the heart of the matter is this: What is the purpose of high school sports? What is “success” for a high school football program?When you get right down to it, what is “winning”?That’s one of the problems with sports. On the face of it, the definition of “winning” seems easy enough. It means having more points on the scoreboard than the other guy.But that stark equation doesn’t even hold true in the cut-throat world of professional football. Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer just lost his starting job because he couldn’t “win.” But Plummer has a significantly better overall winning percentage than Denver’s legendary quarterback, that ultimate “winner,” John Elway. Look it up.And if the definition of “winning” gets tricky for the pros, it’s positively murky in high school.Plus, just to make things more difficult, high school sports are not supposed to be all about winning. Certainly not here in Aspen, right?High school sports are supposed to build character.Sounds great. But what does it really mean?Travis Benson – the coach who just resigned – was by all accounts a man who really cared about his players, as individuals, as young men. He supported them and encouraged them and helped them work hard to do their best. No wonder they loved him in return.That certainly sounds like character-building to me.And yet, there’s also something to be said for a fierce, hard-edged, no-excuses, no-sympathy, no-sensitivity focus on victory. Just flat getting more points on the scoreboard.Winning builds character, too.Victory makes all the hard work and all the pain worthwhile. Victory teaches its own valuable lessons. Victory can build team spirit. It can even build school spirit.Face it, winning is fun.And yet, that drive for victory can go too far.I’m not talking about cheating or anything of that sort.Case in point: I played football in high school and our coach had a fanatic focus on victory. He was not an admirable man. I never learned a single valuable lesson about life or about myself or even about football from him.He screamed clichés and empty platitudes and had one practice drill in which he’d call signals with two-by-four in his hand. When he shouted “Hike!” he’d swing the board – and if you didn’t get moving fast enough, you’d get clobbered.He was a vile human being, and I put up with him because I had to if I wanted to play football. (Maybe that was a valuable lesson after all – though not one I’d really recommend.)There were guys on our team who didn’t get even one single minute of playing time, despite showing up faithfully for practice for three solid years. The coach never let them into the game – despite their dedication and the pain they went through – because he didn’t want to take a chance on losing.My senior year, we lost one game, just one, and I remember feeling as if everything was ruined by that single defeat.Winning and losing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.Football is supposed to be a “game.” That you “play.” Let’s try to keep that in mind.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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