Column: What Sports Teaches Us

Athletes aren't soldiers, but strive for same code of conduct
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Sometimes the real world is so overwhelming it sneaks into sports. One of those times occurred after 9/11, when the crowd at Yankee Stadium sang “God Bless America,” with all their heart. I’m not very religious, but it sounded right to me.

It seemed appropriate that that signature moment, when we needed to be together, occurred in our country’s most hallowed arena, the nation’s front porch. We are probably the most sports-soaked culture in the world – we’re the ones who pay for the Olympics, after all – and I believe our code of conduct when we’re competing often represents our values at their best.

People like to say sports teaches us how to be aggressive. But you can learn that through alley fighting. Any jerk with no regard for others can be aggressive. Prisons are filled with them – 9/11 was conceived by them.

And it’s easy to play by the rules, too, if you never defend yourself.

So, I disagree. What sports teaches us is how to be tough without crossing the line. That’s the crucial difference. That’s why every sport I know not only has official rules, but unwritten ones, too, that anyone who cares about the sport is expected to follow.

If you’ve ever coached – any sport, any age – you know that is one of the hardest lessons to teach. And, I believe, one of the most important.

When I coached hockey at Ann Arbor’s Huron High School, I made it clear: I expected my guys always to play tough, but never to play dirty. When my players complained the other team was playing dirty, I said: Right. That’s what makes you better than them. I don’t coach those guys. I coach you.

That was one more reason – among many others, of course – that 9/11 troubled me. It boiled down to a few thugs going after 3,000 innocent civilians, led by a coward who had enough money to get others to do his fighting for him. He just took the credit – if that’s what you call it.

I admit I was not always heartened by our nation’s response to 9/11, either. So much of it seemed sloppy and undisciplined – and counterproductive. John McCain has said one of the most important sources of strength he and his fellow Vietnam P.O.W.s relied on to keep going was the simple belief that they were better than their captors. It sustained them.

It seemed like we were losing that. And that’s why I was so heartened by the conduct of the Navy Seals this week. I know there are still many questions about how this process started. But I don’t have too many questions about how it ended, or about the men who flew into Pakistan that night. They found their man not in a cave outside Kabul, sacrificing for his cause – however wrong-headed it might be – but in a suburban mansion.

I admired the Seals’ commitment to going after this paper bully – and the incredible preparation, the courage and the restraint they displayed under the most dangerous conditions.

They were not inspired by blood lust, but simple justice. If the choice was him, or thousands more innocent people – an equation he created, not us – the Seals’ decision is one I can live with.

The Seals got their man.

It felt cathartic. They reclaimed a measure of our self-respect – and they left it at that, right down to the decision to give him a proper Muslim burial at sea, and to keep the photos private.

“We don’t need to spike the football,” President Obama said. “That’s not who we are.” And that’s exactly what had sustained Senator McCain.

It’s good to know we have people like that on our team.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.