For relaxation, I follow the Mountaineer games on the radio and, occasionally, on TV. Sports have always been important to me, from my boyhood days when I had the typical dreams of playing college basketball.
I once followed professional sports too, well into my adult years. At last, however, maybe a decade ago, I could no longer abide the pampered, overpaid pro athlete. It had become all too clear that big league sports were businesses and the players were businessmen; and this realization burst the illusion of sport for me. I couldn’t get interested in watching someone making a living.
I can remember the straw that broke the camel’s back—a television interview with Dave Winfield when he was with the Yankees. He wasn’t talking about baseball at all, but rather about his salary, his lawyers, his agents, his feud with George-Steinbrenner, etc.
Frankly, I haven’t missed pro sports a bit. I may be the only red-blooded male in America who can’t tell you who played in this year’s Super Bowl.
However, I did miss something. In his book, The Road Less Travelled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says that people need to look away from their life’s main work on a regular basis. Distraction, he says, is a requirement of mental health.
So when I moved to West Virginia 10 years ago, a state without a professional team anyway, my allegiance went easily to the Mountaineers. The quality of play was good; the kids weren’t paid to play, beyond their scholarships. There were even a few native West Virginians on the squads, and a lot of school and state spirit for its team.
But slowly in college sports there has crept in an attitude of winning at all costs that has soured my interest in this pastime too. The 1960s Vince Lombardi outlook (“winning is the only thing”) today dominates on the college fields and courts. Intimidation tactics of opponents and officials have become standard practice, the mark of a spirited player or coach. And worse, the same tactics are showing up in the stands, where the fans are like a sixth man on the floor or a 12th man on the field.
Is this “fanaticism” a healthy school spirit, as it passes itself off to be? I doubt it. Take, for exampIe, West Virginia’s home court rout of St. Bonaventure earlier in the season. At one point the score reached an embarrassing 70 to 27 in favor of West Virginia. Yet, when one of the Bonnies fouled out, the public address system still played “Happy Trails to You” while the fans sang along and swayed back and forth.
I am aware that the song is a tradition at the Coliseum; and I also know that fans come to games to have a good time. But this gleeful need to further humiliate an opponent already humiliated on the playing floor seemed in poor taste to say the least.
To say the most, I saw more clearly how the “fun” of humiliating opponents is what too many of the fans come to the games for. Why, I wonder? Does it relieve their frustration for not being on the floor or field themselves? Anywhere in life.
Of course these same fans will call me a spoilsport to suggest there is something wrong with their behavior. They want no such criticism. Neither would the U-Mass fans, who, a few weeks later on an ESPN televised game with WVU, jeered and taunted Mountaineer center Jeremy Bodkin as he lay writhing on the gym floor, having reinjured his ankle.
I suppose we haven’t reached the degeneracy of European soccer yet, where fans must be heavily policed for fear they will murder opposing players or each other. And the WVU coliseum so far only slightly resembles the Roman Colosseum, where slaves fought to the death for their captors’ amusement.
But as I left the pub from watching WVU’s overtime road loss to U-Mass, I wondered if my interest in college sports is also waning. Walking home in the snow, I had a memory flash from sixth grade, where I followed the progress of my high school varsity team with something approaching pure love. That year we made it to the quarter finals of the state tournament, and one of the regular speakers to address the pep assembly was Miss Soggy, who coached the girls team and taught civics.
After wishing the team well, Miss Soggy would always add a note on sportsmanship. I remember her once saying that it was great to cheer as loudly as you could for your team’s player when he made a free throw, but wrong to cheer when your opponent missed one. Sitting there in the bleachers, I couldn’t at first see what the difference was. Then it came to me: good sportsmanship means to respect your opponent. Anything less degrades you.
I wonder what became of old Miss Soggy.