AMERICAN SPORT – THE BASTION OF MERITOCRACY
I have reached the saturation point! I am all filled up! I am tired of sport being the focal point of everything that is wrong with our culture and with our societal structure.
I am bored with the banality of racist octogenarian professional team owners.
I am nauseated with the NCAA’s duplicitous positions on amateurism but yet maintain a declared value of $500 million.
I am dismayed at so-called “educators” who are diminishing the comprehensive training of our youth with the systematic dismantling of physical education in primary, elementary and secondary schools.
I am disgusted with higher education “tenure-ites” whose jealousy of collegiate sport is so pervasive and sophomoric that it smacks of the vestiges of a youth filled with vengeance because he was the last one picked for any team in “pick-up” and now has a captive audience of young minds on whom he can spew his vitriol without objection.
And the litany of anti-sport invective continues like an endless stomach virus regurgitating in obnoxious repetition.
And “I’m mad as hell and I won’t shut up anymore!”
So just where is sport today in America, or for that matter, in the world? Clearly he U.S. has developed the most comprehensive system for participation in and veneration of sport. At the same time, sport is more accessible to its citizens than at any other time or in any other culture in the history of the human condition.
And I believe we should start to enjoy it more!
Sport occupies a special place in our American culture because, as I see it, sport serves as both a beacon and a mirror of our society. At once, it is the stanchion and the reflection of what and who we are – good or ill. And, as it has been with other civilizations, sport is an aspect of life which lionizes its participants as representatives of the most revered fundamentals, the highest ideals, and the most deeply held beliefs that that civilization espouses.
You see, sport is a logical and necessary extension of America’s self-image which is framed in the idealistic, but seemingly disparate notions of rugged individualism and collective community cooperation, but, ultimately, embraces the concept of virtue from Ancient Greek philosophers.
We have been imbued with the notion of “American Exceptionalism”, a phrase coined by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, and refers to the qualitative difference of the ideological, political, sociological, and economic forming of our country as it evolved after the American Revolution.
Central to the theme of American Exceptionalism is the notion of a meritocracy – which embraces the idea that one advances in position through one’s abilities and not one’s birth-station in life. A good case is made by the fact that had John Adams’ family remained in England and had not immigrated to the Colonies, he would have forever been consigned to making candles. Instead, he became one of the founders and eventually the second President of the United States.
There are countless examples of how the concept of a meritocracy has strengthened America. And, yes, I know that racism, sexism, religious prejudice, and a host of other sociological maladies have impeded the real progress of our meritocracy, but when I reflect on sport in America and the opportunity it has afforded our citizens, I easily forget all the negative tripe floating through our media today and feel a sense of pride.
Watching one of the NBA playoff series last night, a commentator, who usually dribbles out constant inanities, made a point of citing what a great father this player was. It was explained that this player grew up without a father and has determined to be father first to his three young children.
Now, this might be taken for granted, that if a man spawns a child he is supposed to behave as a father would. However, in our current cultural climate it seems banal that a man should face up to his responsibilities. Still, the commentator explained that this player had used his ability in sport to climb out of his poverty, earn a college degree, is pursuing a graduate degree and works with youth in his old neighborhood for their betterment.
What got him there? The meritocracy of American sport!
And so it has been for decades in the U.S. I recall Coach Bobby Bowden talking with me a few years ago about the sociology of sport, if you will, and he recalled that sport in America has always been an opportunity for those wanting to climb out of poverty. The Eastern European immigrants with weird sounding names, the Irish, and finally (at long last!) the African-Americans and the Hispanic-Americans have engaged the meritocracy of American sport to achieve success as a direct result of their God-given talents.
It has always been so with boxing in America. We just look at those who have emerged and enjoyed success. I will not deny that there have been far more who have been exploited in American boxing, but the opportunity was still there.
I had the privilege of coaching an outstanding young football player in high school, then junior college, and watched him go on to success at one of the old Southwestern Conference universities, then on to a successful career with the Denver Broncos where he played on one of their Super Bowl teams.
Today, he is a successful investment banker – and he came from poverty and racial prejudice – was one of the first African-Americans to play in the Southwestern Conference – and he sends me Christmas, birthday, and, believe it or not, Father’s Day cards every year.
He has a fine family and is very well-to-do. His sons, though, all play soccer, and my former player explained to me that they have the opportunity to choose which sport they play. “I had to play football because that’s where the money was going to be,” he told me. “And I knew that if I just took advantage of my ability I could make it.”
On a personal level, I can think of no other affirmation of the meritocracy of American sport than my former player, now dear friend.
So, all of you “negatories” out there, pack up your bags, your snipes, your jealousies, your too-quick-to-print lamentations about the “bad boys” of sport, and leave me alone!
I am too busy watching Americans grow and thrive through the wonder of American sport and its meritocracy!
Dr. Arthur Ogden is Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy. He has worked in higher education for more than four decades. He has served as a college dean, vice-president, president, football coach, and athletic director. He is a published author and poet and writes a weekly column on issues facing America. He has also served on NCAA committees and on the All-American Football Selection Committee.