Food For Thought

Is Our National Pastime Now Our National Religion? 

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

Editorís Note: Dr. John Bonfadini took this month off from writing his Food for Thought column. Appearing here for our readersí pleasure is one of his popular pieces from our archives. This column first appeared in the May 1998 issue of Cooperative Living. 

Well, itís time to take on the big topic of sports and its relationship to education. If thereís anything that comes close to being viewed as a ďnational religion,Ē it may be sports. Many parents are enrolling their children in organized sports activities as soon as they begin walking. Children no longer have the opportunity to arrange their own community games; we adults have done it for them. Our society is obsessed with being entertained, and our children are providing us with some of the entertainment, through organized sports activities for youth. Children spend far more time on the athletic fields than they do in libraries, museums, and engaged in other educational activities.

Youíre probably asking yourself, ďWhat background does John Bonfadini have that makes him an expert to write on the subject of sports?Ē Iím no expert, but I reared three children, all of whom played sports at all levels in the public schools. One, an all-state baseball player, received a scholarship to a major university. Two of them later coached sports in the public schools. As for myself, I played many sports and coached several at the high school level, including football and basketball. In fact, one of my former students is now a well-known NFL coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. (Iím sorry to inform you I was his golf, not football, coach.) Iíve served as president of Little Leagues, sports clubs and a high school booster club. Iím an avid fisherman and have spent days training bird dogs for quail hunting.

When I look back at my own five-decade career in organized sports, I see a lot of things that disturb me. There were plenty of times when sports made a fool of me, not so much as a player, but more as a parent on the sidelines, especially because Iím one parent who should have known better. But like many of you, I lost sight of the real goal of youth sports: to let the kids have fun.

Today, it seems like coaches need a legal team in addition to the team they coach, since many of them face more problems from the parents than from the opposing team. Sadly, this trend also exists for regular classroom teachers, whose classroom actions are often tempered by the very real fear that students and parents will pursue legal actions to solve everyday problems.

Many of us have seen or been involved with sports leagues where adult coaches tried to stack their team with the best players in order to win some piece of metal, whose final destination will be a box in the attic. At the time, that trophy may have seemed more important than getting a better grade in some school subject. Today, kids get so many trophies they end up meaning very little. Many parents believe that kids should get a reward just for showing up, or their emotional well-being will be damaged forever. It reminds me of the fisherman who catches a beautiful fish, and keeps it to hang on the wall. The fish and the fisherman would both be better off if photos were taken of the man and his catch, and the fish let go to give joy to someone else. A photo showing parent and child will be far more important in the future than any metal trophy.

Iíve sat in the stands and watched parents criticize both coaches and players. On one occasion I asked the individual next to me if he had ever played or coached the game. Obviously he hadnít. if he had played or coached, he would have realized that on the field before him were kids playing a kidsí game, and not some NFL players earning a living by entertaining him.

Iíve been on the other side of the line when some big tackle was looking to ďknock my block offĒ when I came running at him. Sometimes I found the courage to take him on and sometimes I didnít, but in either case I learned something about myself.

So many parents think that athletics is the way to get their kid a college education via a scholarship. Most kids would be much better off if they spent more time working on academics and looking for scholarship aid from other sources. Parents need to be realistic about their childís athletic potential. Parents see their child competing in a very small arena. In this country there are many such small arenas, and each has athletes just as talented as your children. To get to the ďbig showĒ takes a lot of talent and some luck. My one son who got an athletic scholarship to play baseball had his career come tumbling down on one play. He dove back into first base and tore his shoulder. After surgery, baseball was over. But because he devoted sufficient time to educational studies, his college career wasnít.

When you get a college scholarship itís similar to getting a job. The university gives you the money for tuition, but they expect getting plenty of your time in return. Athletics is big business at most universities. In light of ďMarch Madness,Ē we probably know more about Kentuckyís or Utahís basketball teams than we do about those universitiesí academic programs. College sports are a major vehicle for advertising the university. I believe college players should be able to major in, and earn a degree in, basketball, football, baseball, etc., if they so choose. We give students degrees in dance and other performing arts. Why not give athletic degrees for performing sports? All college students are required to pass a core of academic courses, and beyond that, the major should be the studentís choice and collegiate sports should be one possibility. Iím tired of seeing some 300-pound tackle claiming to be majoring in ďHome and Family Living.Ē Letís be honest. We all know that many are majoring in the NFL.

Many people say that athletes are role models for our kids. If they are, itís a sad commentary on our society. Out of the thousands of athletes Iíve seen, I canít think of many Iíd want as role models for my children. Our children should be taught that the professional athlete gets paid for entertaining us, period. Thatís the only way to justify the Tysons, Sprewells, Rodmans, Roses and other professional athletes who display despicable behavior. Role models for our children should be teachers, law-enforcement officers, doctors, good neighbors, clergy, and the rest of us who work hard to make a living and a good home for our families. I wanted to add politicians to my role-model list, but having competed in that arena myself, itís probably a stretch to include politicians with the Mother Theresas of the world.

My final piece of advice on sports is, take your kids fishing. The joy will last forever. The hours you spend talking with your son or daughter while anticipating catching ďthe big oneĒ will be far more meaningful and memorable than all that screaming and yelling from the sidelines.

Whatís Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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