I was sitting in Starbucks this morning, the day after Lane Kiffin announced that he was leaving after one year at Tennessee to become head football coach at USC. Just as I began to write this piece, Texas A&M women’s basketball coach Gary Blair walked through the front door. I do not know Coach Blair, but I was prompted to walk up to him and shake his hand to say thanks for what he brings to the table here. He is a fantastic recruiter, and there is no question that he is a salesman. But he has brought a stability and an integrity to the women’s basketball program that makes it easy to be a fan.
As I chatted with him, he mentioned that we are all struggling with ethical issues in our own lives, and that he had brought up a number of examples at a Lions Club speech the day before. I agree. But there is something deep in a person’s character that leads to a pattern of behavior. Certainly we all fall short of what we want to be. And a single failure can have disproportionate results in our lives. But it seems worthwhile to seek out the kinds of relationships that will give us the ability to live consistently, to make good choices as frequently as possible. And, as a society, it is worth our while to have the kinds of values that reward those who live this kind of life.
But, to be honest, we value far too many vacuous things as a society. Which brings me back to Lane Kiffin. The love of sports is deeply ingrained in me. But in so many ways, sports, particularly big-time intercollegiate sports, has abandoned virtue for success. And it results in fans and alumni who reward people like Lane Kiffin.
One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes about the importance of teaching virtue comes from The Abolition of Man: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” This must be the feeling in Knoxville this morning. One minute you are mocking Urban Meyer and Florida and thumbing your nose at the NCAA, and the next minute the head mocker is headed for Southern California. But these are chances to look inward at what we have become as fans.
I am no more a fan of the somber grinders like Alabama’s Nick Saban than I am of the Lane Kiffins of the world. His is another example of rewarding success, and success alone. Does anyone look like he’s enjoying what he does less than Nick Saban? His Gatorade dousing after the national championship game was perhaps the most painful celebration event I have ever witnessed. He seemed as likely to punch his players as to embrace them. I respect the fact that he did neither. But I cannot imagine having my son play for someone so humorless, so consumed by his work that he can’t even publicly enjoy reaching the pinnacle most coaches can only dream of achieving.
I am trying to teach my children, and my students, to embrace the types of values that make them the parents, spouses, and friends that can sustain a civil society in the next generation. Sports gives me a regular chance to examine my own heart, whether I am having a running conversation with a referee at a basketball game or critically evaluating my children’s performance. I do not claim to have the right balance. Competition reveals character more than it creates it.
But when I see the good in sports, I want to make sure that I say something publicly. Gary Blair, the consummate salesman, offered me tickets for the game tonight. I turned them down—this time. For once, all I wanted to say was, “Thank you.”