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Do Sports Build Character?

October 12, 2021 by

My first memories of my father’s intersection with sports came in the tumultuous years of the late sixties against the backdrop of the appalling Vietnam War, the nationwide anti-war protests, the civil rights movement with the tragic killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the rise of Beatlemania and the countercultural Woodstock Festival, and Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind.”

Akron, Ohio, known as the Rubber City, was home to us, the national Soap Box Derby, the World Series of Golf, and three of the largest tire manufacturers in the world. We often enjoyed seeing Goodyear’s famous blimp floating over the city, though it could be quite a distraction for our high school football team on fourth and one.

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My brothers and I delivered newspapers for the Akron Beacon Journal every afternoon. (One address we delivered to every day, less than a block from our house, was the childhood home of NBA great LeBron James.) My brothers and I would complete the job of delivering 120 papers, then sit on the curb and digest the Sports section in its entirety. We read the stats, discussed the standings, and argued over the heroic feats of the great players of the day such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente.

Then we would go home and get the real story from Dad.

Dad enjoyed sports as much as we did, but he often added nuance to the fabric of discussion. Keep it real, guys. Sports are a platform where important life issues are on full display – issues such as social, economic, and racial justice, true manhood, compassion, respect, and sportsmanship. Dad didn’t preach to us, he simply quietly expressed his deep personal beliefs as the opportunity arose.

We would sit through a long January Sunday afternoon at Municipal Stadium, just about freezing to death from the wintry blast off Lake Erie, and watch wide receiver Paul Warfield and running back Leroy Kelly run wild for the Cleveland Browns. Dad would enjoy the game, but during and after it he would fill in the blanks with life values. There was always something to be learned.

Dad used sports to encourage us toward racial justice. He admired the great Black ballplayers of his time, such as catcher-slugger Josh Gibson and pitcher Satchel Paige, both of whom languished for years in the Negro Leagues simply because of their skin color. He rejoiced when Paige, at age forty-two, finally made his Major League debut, then continued to play until the remarkable age of fifty-nine!

Through the sport of boxing, Dad taught us about the futility of war. In 1967, Muhammed Ali (“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”) was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title for refusing military service, citing his opposition to the Vietnam War. Dad was sympathetic; as a former religious conscientious objector during World War II, he had been ostracized by his family and friends and had experienced being grilled by skeptical draft board members.

The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were memorable, and I can remember sitting alongside Dad as we watched events day after day. He loved the spectacular races thrown down by Kip Keino and the other Kenyan runners. He chuckled at the unique “Fosbury Flop” style, which Dick Fosbury used to utterly transform high-jumping forever. It was no surprise to us that Dad supported Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their iconic non-violent protest for racial justice, standing on the awards podium with raised, gloved hands. The front-page headline that I delivered the next day stated: Smith, Carlos, Suspended From Games, ‘Exhibitionists’ Ordered To Leave Olympic Village.

Dad helped us to understand economic injustice as well. In 1969, Curt Flood, all-star center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, refused to be traded like a piece of property and challenged the so-called reserve clause and baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws. His action resulted in what we now call free agency, and it dramatically changed professional sports forever.

Dad taught us to respect our opponent’s ability, talent, effort, and passion for the game. Play hard, play to win – but always stop short of hurting or injuring another player. This lesson was brought home to us on a July evening in 1970, during the Major League Baseball All-Star game. Dad and I watched as Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds, determined to score, intentionally crashed into catcher Ray Fosse in a violent and unnecessary collision at home plate. The impact left Fosse with a fractured shoulder, an injury that significantly hastened the end of his career.

Two years later, the Summer Olympics took place in Munich, Germany. Dad and I watched in horror as the world’s largest sporting event became a tool of political violence, resulting in the tragic deaths of Israeli athletes, coaches, the terrorists, and a police officer. We struggled with that one.

By the early 1970s he was nearing the age of fifty, overweight and worn down with the responsibilities of a large family. Nevertheless, Dad played two hours of full-court basketball twice a week with his sons and friends in the gym of a local church. He took us to local parks and hit thousands of fly balls for me to chase down, which helped me to make my high school baseball team.

In the late 1990s as Dad suffered from late-stage lung cancer, he received a beautiful letter:

My name is Maynard Stong. I lived in Huntingdon, PA in 1943–1945 while my dad was a Chaplain in the Air Corps. During this time, you were attending Juniata College. I was ten years old. My friend Jimmy Wright and I would hang out at the college, and you used to take us to the gym to play basketball.

I am writing to let you know just how much you influenced my life. I remember one Sunday you were teaching our Sunday school class. You took us on a field trip where we could look out over Huntingdon and the beautiful hills. You read to us Psalm 121, verses 1 and 2, and had us memorize them. We repeated the verses several times, raising our eyes unto the hills. This made an everlasting memory in my life over the last 50 years, and I want to thank you for it.

I hope this letter finds you in good health and good spirits. Again, thank you for the wonderful impression you left in my life, and every time I look unto the beautiful hills, I think of you and thank God.

Sports challenge us to give our best, and force us to respond to unexpected challenges. They allow us to learn from our mistakes. True respect, the opposite of the modern scourge of trash-talking, encourages and congratulates even when an opponent beats us to the rim. Through sports, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” as Jim McKay said, we learn to win graciously, to lose graciously, to work hard, to develop friendships, and to build relationships that can last a lifetime. These are all important values that can be applied to life in general, and Dad, in his quiet way, taught them to us.

Thanks, Dad.


Kirk Wareham lives with his wife, Alice, at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. Comments

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