Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 7
February 17-23, 2000
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Tom Landry: We Need You Now
Sports do not build character. They reveal it.

—Heywood Hale Brown, New York journalist.

Sage words indeed from the writer who founded the Newspaper Guild, and indeed appropriate seeing that the other day, long-time and beloved Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry passed away after a losing battle with leukemia.

Also fitting seeing that a few weeks back the Hagerstown Suns, a Western Maryland baseball team, caved in under pressure to abandon its refreshing policy of encouraging fans to go to church — which, in view of the way the Sports World and its fans are headed, isn’t such a bad idea.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a religious fanatic, not even a born-again Christian. I must admit only casual appearances in the pew, but I can appreciate and respect the benefits of religion and its role in fostering morality, respect and, shall we say, clean living in the society of today.

This is certainly applicable to the World of Sports, once a bastion of clean living and role models, but now a pastime that has degenerated into a public display of greed, vanity, selfishness, idolatry, yes and even crime.

Such manifestations are not restricted to football where it’s said without contradiction that one in five so-called heroes have rap sheets. It’s also evident in baseball, basketball, even hockey — and one can add tennis, track and field. And, of course, wrestling and boxing.

Let’s not forget the boisterous, ever forgiving and sometimes rowdy fans whose antics not long ago called for silent high school basketball games right here in Anne Arundel County.

From fans to the grumpy beverage jerks all the way up to not-yet-satisfied multi-millionaire owners, sports has gone to hell. And in the proverbial basket, as in basketball, a sport played by one super hero who later wrote a book extolling how he bedded 20,000 women when not shooting at hoops.

Yet sports attendance grows as rooters in the stands line up to egg their stars on to commit atrocities that they and we would deplore in the streets of their neighborhoods. We’re in a curious world indeed.

Family Bulletin Day

Get this: When owner Winston Blenkstone decided it might be appropriate to encourage church attendance by offering a discount to fans who plunked down a church bulletin at the ticket window, the American Civil Liberties Union cried foul. You’d have thought he had been involved in some of the recent atrocities involving some NFL pigskin stars, not to mention scores of others in other sports.

Blenkstone, bless him, didn’t have the money to further purse the issue in court. After all, his is not a major league franchise where cities build the stadiums via taxpayers and heap on sacks of other benefits. The Suns were caught in a squeeze play only because for six bucks they let a whole family watch a ball game upon presentation of their church bulletin.

Those who didn’t have church bulletins could pick one up at the stadium. However, ACLU claimed charging more to atheists and agnostics was biased and illegal.

So now the policy of five years has been changed under an agreement in which church bulletins will still be eligible for discounts on Sundays, but so will bulletins from service clubs, 4-H, soup kitchens and other civic and non-profit groups.

Henceforth, Church Bulletin Day will be known as Sunday Family Bulletin Day, and a fine gesture has become as diluted as a drink in a cheap speakeasy.

Family Loudmouth Night

No guarantees that encouraging more church-goers in the stands would mean better fans, but the odds were favorable — and we need help. Why only last month right here in Anne Arundel County, things had deteriorated to the point that a Silent Saturday was implemented in the stands by Department of Recreation & Parks.

Only players were permitted to talk under the policy targeting increasingly rude and hostile Youth Basketball League fans. No clapping, foot stomping, jeering, yelling to players. No making noise of any kind. The policy created an antiseptic atmosphere, admittedly, but for at least one weekend no belligerent spoil-sport father tried punching out a referee, as some have been known to do.

Even in the privacy of the home, there’s no relief if one watches sports on the tube. You see spitting on and wrestling with an umpire or referee, or perhaps a player gleefully jumping up and down after sacking a quarterback laid prone. When a touchdown is scored, you see such appalling showboating, gloating antics you’re tempted to switch to I Love Lucy. What ever happened to respecting your opponents?

Role Models No More

That’s what Tom Landry did in the 28 years he coached the Dallas Cowboys. He respected not only his opponents, but his players, fans and everyone else. Winning wasn’t everything to him, yet he won more games than Vince Lombardi, who said it was.

His priorities were, as he told his team, God first, family second and football third. And, above all else, sportsmanship first on the field. One need not speculate what he would have done had any of his players been deeply involved in murders, rapes or wife-beating or made comments as those of the Atlanta Braves’ John Rocker about New York and some of its inhabitants.

It came as no surprise that after Landry was booted off the Cowboys following three losing seasons — forget the 250 wins and 20 playoffs — that Dallas deteriorated from America’s team to the crime ridden team most Americans would rather to forget.

Sports heroes, with few exceptions, are no longer role models. Who wants a son to grow up like Dennis Rodman? Pete Rose? John Rocker? Ray Lewis? Space doesn’t permit the rest of the list.
If basketball’s Michael Jordan is to be considered someone for youngsters to look up to, why, when he signed on with the Washington Wizards, wasn’t he more restrained at his press conference announcing same? He had to know thousands of youngsters who look up to him were listening and reading, but twice he talked about the job being a “pain in the ass,” seeing it would take him away from golf.

That’s locker room, or at least adult talk. Why legitimize it in public, prompt kids to consider it accepted conversation? We need more Tom Landrys.

Somehow in sports, whether organized or not, the message must be brought across that win, lose or draw, it’s only a game. The original concept was fun, fun for the participants, fun for the fans. No more.
I recall about 20 years ago when Baltimore Sun sportswriter Phil Jackman and I took our wives to West Virginia’s Greenbriar for a family tennis weekend. Among the racquet fans on the courts was Rob Reiner, then playing in the popular TV series All in the Family.

He made several bad serves, lost a match, promptly smashed a new racquet on the net post in front of a few kids who had edged close hoping to get an autograph. Not long thereafter, a second racquet was splintered after he missed a few balls in a row.

The shocked and distressed parents quickly herded their youngsters from the courts. So much for role models whether in sports or entertainment.

Hey, it’s only a game. Enough said …

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly