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It's Not Only a Game

  • Date: 05/14/2005
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and technologies. And, you have discovered that learning is a continuous and exciting process and that life's experiences will continue to instruct you along the way. So allow me to offer you one final University of Akron lesson...this one from me.

    Today's lesson is on sports. How can that be appropriate for a commencement topic?

    Of course, you probably have heard the expression: "It is only a game."

    "(That's) true," says columnist George Will, "And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or (all) games, are created equal."
    (Will, George F., Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, New York, 1990)

    Indeed, sports and sports metaphors loom large in American life. Organized sports have become a national institution, generating loyalty, rivalry, and entertainment, and creating billions of dollars in revenues.

    Much to the chagrin of other business enterprises, the sports section of newspapers typically is larger than the business page.

    Here in Akron, much of the recent publicity on the sports page has centered on Charlie Frye, The University of Akron quarterback who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. We are honored today, in that Charlie will serve as your student responder later in this ceremony.

    Yes, whether you are sitting in the Akron Zips Zone or the Cleveland Dawg Pound, sports creates enormous passion.

    So, let us ask these questions: Why do sports mean so much in America, and what is it that they mean?

    For most of us, sports simply serve as a release from the rigors of day-to-day life.

    Michael Mandelbaum, in his book, The Meaning of Sports, points out that "The word sport is related to ‘disport' (which means) to divert oneself from the burdens of normal existence."
    (Mandelbaum, Michael, The Meaning of Sports, New York, 2004, p. 4)

    Mandelbaum is not your typical sports writer. Actually, he is a professor of American Foreign Policy at The John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

    Why would a foreign-policy-type in Washington concern himself with sports?

    Mandelbaum believes that with all the confusions and traumas facing society today, our need for diversion has become more acute and that "....human beings have sought diversion in staged drama."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 4-5)

    He says that "(Sports) possess the defining property of drama, which is tension and release - that is, uncertainty ultimately relieved by a definitive conclusion."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 5)

    "Team sports," he contends, "offer a particularly compelling form of drama. The outcome of the game, unlike that of a scripted drama, is unknown....tension suffuses each and every game...Each game is part of a designated sequence - a season - the goal of which is to produce a champion."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 5)

    Historically, according to Mandelbaum, sports became an American obsession because of longer childhoods.

    "Only in the nineteenth century did the period between birth and (children joining the workforce)...stretch beyond a few years."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 2)

    For adults, nostalgia sustained their interest in those games, and while many associated childhood with the happiest days of their lives, watching others play was a way of recapturing their youth.

    Organized sports became a national institution because of three reasons - the growth of public education, the growth of an urban environment and improved transportation.

    Beginning in the 19th century, public schools, not only provided the education, they provided the recreational time and the setting for organized games to be played.

    And the growth of cities brought large numbers of people together in one place, which "...created the pools from which players and spectators could be drawn."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 3)

    Also, new and improved methods of public transportation allowed teams from one region to compete in other parts of the country and made it possible for their fans to travel with them.

    In short, changes in our society were hugely influential on sports, often serving as a mirror to our social habits.

    To make his point, Mandelbaum examines the many distinctions among sports, noting that they "...reflect different aspects of American history and American social life."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 39)

    Baseball, for example, is a product of the rural life in the 19th century, which tended to be more accommodating to nature. "The pace of the game is...leisurely and unhurried, like the world before the discipline of measured time, deadlines, schedules and wages paid by the hour."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 41)

    Football, on the other hand, is a game in which time has value. It is "...a sport of the (industrial) age because football teams are like machines, with specialized moving parts that must function simultaneously."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 120)

    The growing popularity of basketball, however, is more aligned with the post-industrial age, he tells us. "Like the knowledge worker of the post-industrial society, what the basketball player brings to the enterprise is his (or her) own skill."
    (Mandelbaum, Ibid, p. 200)

    Indeed, sports are woven tightly into the fabric of American life. They so closely reflect aspects of our society's values of competition, teamwork and innovation that we find sports metaphors perhaps being the most commonly used in creating powerful images for other aspects of our activities in business, government and many other facets of our lives.

    Now, surely you are familiar with that old saying: It is not important whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game. However, in today's increasingly global economy, a better restatement of that old saying might be this: How well you play the game determines whether you are in the game at all.

    In his book, Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis tells us that if we are trying to compete against the New York Yankees and their $120-million annual budget, we had better not spend our own smaller budget just like the Yankees spend their three- or four-times larger budget. And, he spotlights the Oakland Athletics, who achieved a spectacular season in 2002 with the lowest player payroll in the major leagues, because they played smarter, not more expensively, winning against a team with much greater depth and range of talent.

    Playing smarter than the rest of the world is what we in the United States now face, because the playing field is no longer tilted in our favor.

    Rather, as Thomas Friedman points out in his recent book, The World is Flat, global competition is increasingly occurring on a level playing field, in which Europe and America no longer enjoy any obvious competitive advantages.

    So, the lesson for today is that in life, as in sports, we need to play smarter.

    As graduates of The University of Akron, you now are conditioned and ready to compete. You have learned much here, but you must continue to learn and to hone your skills. And if you do, you, too, will create a better future for yourself and for those around you by playing smart.

    And that's important, because in the game of life, you cannot succeed by being a spectator.

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