By Doug Abrams
As the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics prepared for game four of the 2008 National Basketball Association finals, the coaches – the Lakers’ Phil Jackson and the Celtics’ Doc Rivers – wrote an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News.
The joint editorial offered no insights into the NBA playoffs. Indeed the two coaches did not talk about the pro game at all. While they held the limelight, they instead called a time-out to stress “the invaluable life lessons that sports can teach youth and high school athletes, such as resilience, empathy, teamwork, determination, confidence and the ability to overcome adversity.”
Week after week, the nation’s sports pages carry embarrassing stories about violence, confrontation and cheating by parents and coaches in kids’ games. The scandals involving “over the edge” adults sometimes overshadow stories that report extraordinary acts of sportsmanship and respect by the youngsters. Sports can be noble or ignoble, depending on who is playing and how they play.
This year’s youth sports headlines told inspiring stories of empathy, one of the six life lessons that Jackson and Rivers pinpointed. As President Obama said recently, empathy means “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” In To Kill a Mockingbird, lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) taught his young daughter that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep has said that “the power of empathy” is “the great gift of human beings.”
This power and gift is what the two basketball coaches wrote about.
This Year’s Best
Here are 2011’s “Top Five” news stories about empathy in youth sports, with players themselves cast as the superstars in each one.
5. Three high school varsity athletes in Pompano Beach, Florida — Michael Anderson, Robert Diaz and Richard Lang — created Youth to Youth Sports Locker, which collects and reconditions used sports equipment for free distribution to needy youngsters.
“We realized how fortunate we have been our whole lives to have all we want,” Lang told the Florida Sun-Sentinel, “and it’s nice to be able to give back to others in need.”
4. Senior Trent Glaze, a captain on the Fairfield Union (Ohio) High School football team, never missed a Falcons practice or game. He has also been in a wheelchair for the past ten years from muscular dystrophy.
After the Falcons lost to Teays Valley High late in the season, both teams lined up for one last play. Glaze took a handoff from the quarterback, tucked the ball under his arm, and guided his motorized wheelchair into the end zone to fulfill his lifelong dream of scoring a touchdown. Trent “may not be on the field,” Falcons coach Tom McCurdy told the Lancaster Eagle Gazette afterwards, “but . . . high school athletics is about him.”
3. Doctors amputated Heriberto Avila’s left leg above the thigh after the Belvidere North (Illinois) High School senior suffered broken bones and a severed artery from a legal takedown during a varsity wrestling match. When Avila awoke in the hospital, he quickly thought about his distraught opponent, Sean McIntrye. “There is no one to blame here,” Avila said in the New York Times. “This was an accident. I’m just really worried about Sean.”
2. Senior Allan Guei, a basketball point guard for Compton (Calif.) High School, won $40,000 in college expenses in a free-throw contest sponsored by an advertising firm that planned to film a documentary about the city, which Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Benedict has called “one of the most gang-infested areas in America.” The contest was open to all Compton seniors with at least a 3.0 grade-point average.
Soon afterwards, Guei won a full basketball scholarship to Cal State Northridge. NCAA rules would have permitted him to keep nearly all his prize money, but he decided instead to distribute his winnings among the seven runners-up so that they too could attend college. “They were all smart and wanted to pursue their dreams, but were having financial difficulties,” Guei told the Los Angeles Times. “I felt it was the right move to help the others, especially when everything else was taking off for me.”
1. Mark Mannarn, a 13-year-old hockey player in Ontario, Canada, faced personal challenges when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after his grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. He and his father created Minor Hockey Fights Cancer, with Mark’s motto, “I love hockey. And I hate cancer.” Mark’s ambitious goal was to raise $100,000 to support the Canadian Cancer Society. Scotia Bank and several former National Hockey League stars soon joined his effort, which has already raised more than $200,000. “My dream,” Mark says, is to “eventually raise one million dollars every year until a cure for cancer is found.”
Winning Every Game
Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers are not the only prominent coaches who find a place for empathy in sports. A few years ago, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski criticized the NCAA for suspending players who accept benefits worth a few dollars while their coaches make millions and the NCAA and its conferences make billions. Many players’ families remain underprivileged, even with basketball scholarships. “I think a lot of people who govern our sport do not have empathy for the socioeconomic backgrounds of the youngsters who play our sport,” said Coach K, “The word ‘empathy’ is not there.”
The “Top Five” youth sports stories of 2011 underscore what Jackson, Rivers and Krzyzewski mean by empathy. Like the three coaches, the youth leaguers in each story want to win every game. The desire to win helps explain why they joined the team in the first place. But this year’s youth leaguers also showed how sports can provide athletes special opportunities for doing others a good turn.
[Sources: Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers, Winning Should Not Be the Coaches’ Only Goal, San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, June 12, 2008; Emmett Hall, Teenagers’ Baseball Collection Aids Underprivileged Children, Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Apr. 14, 2011, p. 11; Fairfield Union Senior in Wheelchair Scores Touchdown, Lancaster (Ohio Eagle Gazette), Nov. 2, 2011; Dirk Johnson, After Amputation, Wrestler Tries to Ease Rival’s Pain, N.Y. Times, Mar. 5, 2011; Carla Rivera, From a Standout Player, a Different Sort of Care Basket, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2011; Jeff Benedict, Straight Outta Compton: SI Writer Shares Story Behind the Story, Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City, Utah), Dec. 1, 2007; Farah Mohamed, Taking a (Slap)shot at Cancer Cure, Globe & Mail (Canada), Nov. 29, 2011, p. L4; Todd Graff, Krzyzewski: NCAA Lacks “Empathy” for its Athletes, News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.), Feb. 9, 2000, p. C2]