Coach Jon Gambee’s resignation announcement today prompted me once again to contemplate the decline of ethics in athletics, even at the high school level.
Yes, I believe in my heart that sports long ago was that wonderful discipline that taught young people how to work together for a common goal, how to be gracious in victory and in defeat and how to make commitments to fulfill personal goals, mindful of the now almost forgotten adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
I’m sorry to report that sports today is about winning at all costs because the stakes could be high. And it all comes down to Deep Throat’s famous line in the Watergate saga: “Follow the money.”
Gambee made few if any friends this spring in one ballgame when he had to forfeit a game because he disciplined one of his players for throwing a fit in the dugout and throwing equipment around in a rage. Gambee told his players before the season started that certain kinds of unsportsmanlike conduct would not be tolerated. The penalty would be getting thrown out of the game.
The problem was that when he made the disciplinary move, Martin no longer had the minimum number of players needed to continue the game, so forfeiture was the result. Colleagues, parents and fans advised Gambee not to enforce his rules, but he held firm, choosing ethics, doing the right thing, over prospects of winning.
That flies in the face of an era in which young athletes too often see and hear of their “heroes” who cheat or take illegal drugs to build up better statistics, who dope themselves to win races. Just look at Major League baseball in the era of the home run explosions, pitchers who were dominant but had a little help, and even worse, looked right in the television camera and angrily denied the allegations, lying to millions of people.
I’ve long had a theory that competition and free market capitalism, often touted as the best way to do things in life, can deteriorate into high-stakes contests in which cheating, lying and unethical behavior is permissible. It is so prevalent in these modern times that those who play by the rules and are willing to sacrifice victories to preserve integrity are regarded as weirdos.
This reminds me of the televised cartoon “Doug,” in which the main character somehow finds a substantial amount of lost money and immediately says he intends to return it and report it missing. His friends and even some adults treat him like a naive and stupid person because he’s not looking out for No. 1 and, after all, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
It was a difficult year for me as a follower of local sports. I’ve already given up my old habits of following professional and collegiate teams because they’re all about money, recruiting, bringing massive numbers into the stands and buying products at outrageous prices. It’s all about paying big bucks to get the most talented performers, and loyalty to teams or communities be damned. You might guess my favorite two baseball players were Al Kaline and Mike Schmidt.
I felt particularly bad this past winter, when I suspected with good reason that more than a few high school basketball teams took advantage of the State Legislature’s incredibly lax Schools of Choice rules to assemble teams that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to beat. Recruiting wars, once a nasty business at the collegiate level, has seeped well into high school athletics, making me regard some prep performers as mercenaries, selling their services to the highest bidder.
PORGY: “Aw, creepies, Mudhead. Where’s your school spirit?”
MUDHEAD: “That’s in the rumble seat. You wanna snort?”
Gambee told me that he worries baseball is passing him by and he’s just an old school fiddle-faddle. That was another reason for his resignation that wasn’t mentioned in the story. Yet he said he’d like to be an assistant somewhere at the jayvee or freshman level.
I hope he finds it. He still has a lot of baseball wisdom to pass along to youth, not to mention old-fashioned ethics.