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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Praise the lord and pass the steroids

One of the most prevalent false myths in America is about the virtues of competition. When people compete, we like to say, they are more productive and produce better products, and competition builds character. We seldom note that when people compete, they tend to cheat. As did a number of major league baseball players according to George Mitchell’s report, and Olympic athletes who have been stripped of their medals.

Friendly competition under rules of fair play can be fun and productive. But competition rarely remains friendly. Competitors have a way of turning into enemies. And enemies develop the attitude of winning at all costs.

The real facts of competition have made me a somewhat tepid sports fan. As a college student who had to work, I started out in journalism on the sports desk of the old Davenport, Iowa, Morning Democrat. The sports editor was a very famous figure in the sports world and spent more time downstairs at The Ringside Tap schmoozing with sports celebrities who stopped by to see him than he did on the sports desk. That left the sports staff to deal with all those competitors for whom getting good press was part of winning. We often saw humanity at its worst in ways that rivaled anything the guys on the police beat came across.

I witnessed high school coaches who ran model athletic programs get fired because they were not ruthless enough in going after wins. Schools which were supposed to be tending to education got mired down in community disputes over sports. To many “fans” it is more important to produce winning teams than to educate young people. At that time, the major sports venue in that part of the Midwest was the Big Ten. Iowa and Illinois teams in the conference did not play each other because the rivalries were so intense the players fought and the fans rioted, and meetings between the teams were considered a threat to public safety. You know, character building.

Back then, cheating was a problem, as it is now. In both high schools and colleges, there were constant complaints from the teaching staffs about pressures to give passing grades to athletes who were failing so that they could remain eligible. Alex Karas played for Iowa at the time, and he later developed some comedy routines on courses developed specially to make them passable for athletes. In college sports, star athletes found that the schools competed for them by requiring few classes but providing much in the way of housing, cars, women, and all manner of diversion as long they stayed in shape enough to win games.

Sports are not the only area where competition can have a deleterious effect on character and integrity. The No Child Left Behind competition has produced a rash of cheating on tests and school records. Kids have been given some very good lessons in how to compete. And does one even need to mention the forms that competition takes in the business world? They have a semantic cover, however. Anything that costs people their jobs or provides them an inferior product is called a business decision, a term which legitimizes fraud and corporate tyranny.

Professional sports have little to do with sports . They are first and foremost businesses, and fooling the consumer of them is what their business is all about. Their standards of performance are emulated in our schools: win at all costs. If we were true to our real faith, our currency would say “Win at all costs” instead of “In God We Trust.” Winning is our salvation. We divide humanity into winners and losers, and anything is permissible to avoid being called a loser.

So, pass the steroids, please, and praise the lord, and salute the flag at the start of every competition.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States