In t he March 26 issue of the New Republic , Leon Kass and Eric Cohen analyzed the moral crisis of professional American sports. While focusing on the steroid scandals that have rocked Major League Baseball, Kass and Cohen argue that biotechnology is only a symptom of a deeper and broader adulteration of play.
The heart of the corruption, they argue, is a failure to grasp the proper ends of sport. It’s not all about winning and losing, “the separable, the measurable, and comparative results.” Sport is about the “humanity of the human performer.” At the heart of human play is “the lived experience, for doer and spectator alike, of a humanly cultivated gift, excellently at work, striving for superiority and with the outcome in doubt.” In professional sport, Kass and Cohen lament that these ends and goods of sport have been almost buried beneath mountains of hype, cheating, betting, drug abuse, scandals, and greed.
College athletics has an air of innocence lacking in pro sports, but even college sports has been infected with a spirit inimical to the ends of sport. All year, media attention has been focused on the fab freshmen: Kevin Love of UCLA, USC’s O. J. Mayo, and several others. Media attention to superstars conspires with the hype of March Madness to give NCAA basketball an ever more professional aura.
Not in Pullman, Washington, where the Washington State University Cougars have put together a remarkable two-season run, igniting frenzy in a chilly town hardly known for basketball.
My sons and I became Cougar fans when we moved to Idaho a decade ago. It hasn’t been easy. For the first several years, the Cougs were bottom-dwellers in the tough Pac-10. With the arrival of former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennet, who came out of retirement to take over the Cougs in 2003, things began to turn around, and in the last two seasons, under the command of Bennet’s son, Tony, the Cougs have attained heights fans could only dream of a few years ago. It’s a story straight from Hoosiers.
This year, they have been in the Top 25 all season, compiled an impressive 26-8 record, and obliterated Winthrop and Notre Dame in the first two rounds of the tournament. This week they have a chance to face off against North Carolina, who are favored to be this year’s tournament winners.
The Bennets have turned the program around without any All-American star to lean on. Many of the players were lightly recruited coming out of high school, and the Bennets drew players from Serbia, New Zealand, and Australia to round out the team. They recruited players for their charactertheir willingness to sacrifice, to subordinate their stardom for the team, their work ethic and their off-court conduct. They have emphasized fundamentalstough defense, unselfish team play, ball control, hustle. They have one of the best defenses among Division I teams, and one of the lowest turnover average. These stats don’t get anyone Gatorade contracts, but they win games.
It’s entirely characteristic that junior guard Taylor Rochestie gave up his basketball scholarship so the coaches would have more to offer recruits for next year. And it’s entirely characteristic that, when asked how the Cougars held Notre Dame to half their season point average, senior forward Robbie Cowgill answered, “Coach told us to get back on defense.”
The Bennets’ coaching style illustrates Kass and Cohen’s point that the beauty of individual performance is multiplied by the choreography of team play: “Players survey the entire scene as they perform in concert with others, attending to where their teammates are heading and how their opponents are defending. They embody the rules, manage the clock, execute their game plans, and make innumerable strategic adjustments when things go badly.” Team sports thus cultivate not only “game-specific skills” but “determinate, discipline, courage, endurance, enterprise, perspicacity, and mental toughness.”
The Cougs have their work cut out for them. Few people give them much chance to beat North Carolina. But Washington State’s success illustrates that the kind of sport Kass and Cohen, and many others, long for still exists. WSU’s turnaround shows that there are still places where “the deepest appeal of sport is . . . the drama of the game,” where “in microcosm, the human drama is on display, with all its pathos and possibility.”