Will Athletics Save our American Exceptionalism?

After travelling throughout more than 40 countries and working with people from countless nations and cultures, there is one question they always ask, “Why do Americans love their sports so much?”  Some ask critically while other with admiration.  They always say there is no other country in the world where sports mean so much from a very young age.

Those who admire our passion for sports comment that this is what makes us unique.  The spirit of competitiveness, drive, and perseverance embodies American culture.  I contend that this part of our culture cannot be diminished by a political party.  Competition and survival are inherent in our culture.

The athlete brings many characteristics to the table that American spectators admire.  The spectator ends up living vicariously through the athletes’ successes and failures.  Nowhere in the world can one find sports bars filled with people and hundreds of channels of every sport imaginable.  People are watching for a reason.  The cliché “the thrill of success and agony of defeat” speaks for our very lives.  We Americans know that what we have worked for can be taken from us at any point.  We value hard work and see through sports that hard work reaps rewards.  However, we also see the agony of defeat and how to deal with defeat.  With defeat, there is always hope.  That is why we don’t see our waiters, waitresses, hotel help as second class citizens.  They are like everyone else… perhaps our grandparents were in that position to put their child through school.  Perhaps you could lose your job and in order to make ends meet, must take a low paying service job.  The point is, we don’t demean people in these positions because we know in a heartbeat, and we could be there.  We respect hard work and tip for that.  In other cultures with a class system, these people are second class citizens with absolutely no chance of ever rising above a cleaning person at a hotel.

Why is it that in one country one can ascend to the top of a major corporation with grit, fortitude and perseverance and another country the same person would never get past the cleaning equipment?  American exceptionalism is why.  Our American exceptionalism is being threatened in every way.  Entitlements have turned our culture upside down.  When one can earn more by not working, there no longer becomes incentive which comes with it grit, fortitude and perseverance.  What comes with entitlements is hopelessness.  The danger of this is we are creating generations of hopelessness where the only thing children see is the government taking care of all their needs.

So, how can sports save our country from this demise?  Don’t consider this an exaggeration.  Entitlements are the demise of our country.  As Ben Franklin said, when there are more takers than givers, that is the end of a great nation.  We are nearing that point.  We have more than 47% of our population taking entitlements (that does not even include Medicare and Social Security).  Where is the hope in that?

The hope is in athletics, especially when started young.  Children are taught at a young age that with grit, fortitude and perseverance, they can succeed.  Sound familiar?  These are the same attributes needed to succeed in life.  These are the same attributes that can save our American exceptionalism.

What makes an athlete great and worthy of watching and admiring?  Their distinctiveness includes: determination, strength, hard work, motivation, adversity, optimism, focus, reserve.1

Determination has made our country great as it makes athletes great.  Going back to the American Revolution there could be no greater statement of determination than “Give me liberty or give me death”.  To be willing to die for what one believes is the ultimate in determination.  Athletics teach determination to our children.  It teaches them that you need to fail before you succeed, but never give up.  NEVER!  To quit is a greater disgrace than to fail.

The athlete’s strength is more than just muscle;  it is his/her mind.  Athletics teach our children to be mentally strong in harrowing situations.  Being up at the plate with the bases loaded in the ninth inning, losing by 3 runs when the count is 3-2 teaches both the pitcher and the hitter to be mentally strong.  Our country and politicians need to be mentally strong.  We need to produce leaders who can handle that 3-2 count without crumbling. (Ahem, Boehner)

Hard work can never be underestimated  (unless, of course, you are living on a trust fund or government entitlements)  When I traveled to Peru I always made a point of being there over a weekend so I could visit Cuzco and Machu Picchu.  Once my business was finished in Lima I jumped on a plane to the most beautiful place on earth.  I always stayed at a traditional inn in the center of Cuzco.  The bartender’s name was Guillermo.  He was a bartender, a student at university, a tour guide and basically did any odd job necessary to supplement his salary of $50.00 per month.  His dream was to save enough money to come to America.  He knew in America he wouldn’t be treated as a lowly bartender, even if that’s what he ended up doing.  He knew in America he could be somebody.  He could be anyone he wanted to be if he worked hard.  Working hard in his country just meant he worked harder.  There was no huge reward.  The difficulty of rising above the class system was virtually impossible.  So he saved and saved and every time I visited he was closer and closer of realizing his dream of coming to America.

My friend Guillermo certainly had motivation.  He had a dream.  I pray he has achieved his dream.  What are we telling our children when they lose and get a trophy?  EVERYONE’S A WINNER!  Where’s the motivation.  My daughter is a competitive swimmer.  She has boxes of ribbons and trophies and is only 11 years old.  She couldn’t care less about this boxfull of stuff.  Is this mentality backfiring on our athletes?  Perhaps not.  She keeps only two trophies and two medals on her dresser:  Her first places from her biggest meets.  Hopefully our new gentler and more compassionate culture hasn’t crushed her drive and motivation.  A true athlete keeps his/her eye on the prize- to be the best.  America used to think that way.  Now it is embarrassing to say “I live in the greatest country on earth.”  I’ve been to 40 countries!  I can honestly say there is no greater country on earth.  For now.  With motivation, we can preserve this American exceptionalism.

Athletics also gives us a culture of optimism.  As a Clevelander, our famous saying in the beginning of Indian’s season is, “I think this is the year!”  After 44 years of life, it’s never our year, but every year I keep believing, ok, this could be our year.  I think the epitome of optimism is a Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns fan!  Regardless of where you are from, an American is optimistic before every game, even if the odds are critically in favor of the other team.  There is always that glimmer of hope.  We Americans don’t go into the game saying, “Oh, forget about it. We don’t have a prayer”.  We still watch that game while in the back of our heads believing we can pull it off.  Why do you think “Cinderella” teams are so coveted?  Because that is America-  the Cinderella story!

The final attributes that make athletes great and America should learn from are focus and reserve.  Focus is absolutely critical in any endeavor, but when it comes to competitive swimming, wrestling, football or passing a bill in the house, focus is essential.  Our country is in disarray.  The Republican party in particular has never been this discombobulated in my lifetime.  I’ve never seen such disjointedness.  The reason is a lack of focus.  Our country needs to get focused and remember why this country is great.  What made us great?  Return to those values.  Focus on the fundamentals.  When my son goes into a hitting slump in baseball I repeat to him “See ball; hit ball”. Our country needs to “see ball; hit ball”.  Return to the Constitution.  Focus on the simple straightforward laws and recommendations that our forefathers advised. Focus on the history of our country.  Have the reserve not to get rattled in that 3-2 count with the bases loaded.  See ball; hit ball!  TAKE OUR COUNTRY BACK with grit, fortitude and perseverance!

1http://www.thewritersmanifesto.com/blog/2008/08/08/8-attributes-of-an-olympic-mind-set/

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