Self-respect the foundation on which sports honor is built
FLORIDA State University had its 50th Honors Night recently, and I was asked to be the speaker. This caused me to think about honor. My Webster's Dictionary has 9 inches of small print devoted to its definition. I didn't turn to baseball or football. Many pro teams in these sports will do anything they can get away with to win. Cheating is high art, especially by pitchers in baseball and linemen in football. The only thing wrong is getting caught. A pitcher who is caught cutting a ball or using a slippery substance is frowned upon. But he is honored, so to speak, if he gets away with his cheating, and it gets an important out. A lineman who holds an opponent illegally and is not detected is applauded. But if he is caught and it costs his team yardage, that is to be deplored.
For too many baseball and football players, the sole object seems to be to win, no matter what. This is also the attitude of the spectators. The fans don't seem to care if a player has been convicted of using drugs, provided he plays well.
College football teams that have been subjected to NCAA penalties for cheating still play before full stadiums, provided they win frequently. Many colleges have thrown away academic honor in order to provide football bodies despite their classroom deficiencies.
The one major sport I can think of in which most players believe in honor and practice it is golf. The professionals call penalties on themselves, even though it has cost titles. Bobby Jones as he prepared to putt saw his ball move slightly on the green, and though no one else saw it, he called a one-stroke penalty on himself. It cost him the 1925 Open title. He went into a playoff and lost it to Willie Macfarlane in 36 holes, 147 to 148. Honor can be costly to the man who holds to his honor. But Jones wouldn't have it any other way.
The definition of honor that I decided on in my remarks was self-respect, and I cited two men who had impressed this on me, my father and Bob Zuppke.
Dad was a locomotive engineer and a grass-roots philosopher. He would often say to me, ``Son, I don't know when you grow up where you are going to go, who you'll be with, or what you'll do. I can't know that. But I know this -- that no matter where you are, who you know, what you'll do, every night of your life, when you get ready to go to sleep, you'll wind up sleeping with yourself.''
Bob Zuppke was a football coach and a grass-roots philosopher. He was Red Grange's coach at Illinois when Grange was football's greatest attraction. It was Grange who drew pro football's first great crowd -- 75,000 at the Polo Grounds in 1925.
After the glory years of Grange, the football fortunes of Illinois went down. There were losing seasons, but usually Zuppke managed to coach his team to an unexpected victory, such as the Michigan game of 1939. Michigan was undefeated and an overwhelming favorite. It had Tom Harmon, a two-time All American. It was the last game of the season. Illinois had not won in the conference. Yet, Illinois won it, 16-7. A tremendous upset.
The last time I saw Zuppke was in 1950 at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla. He had been retired nine years and was visiting a former player, Carl Voyles.
I asked him how he could coach a losing squad, day after day, game after game, and still manage to have his players bring off an upset, such as the one with Michigan.
``My greatest joy,'' he began, ``was to win that one big game when you had lost so many.
``It was not fun to have a great team that won and won. You were expected to win. You were not tested too much as a coach when you had a great team. But you were when you didn't have the players.
``I used to tell my boys to keep coming to practice faithfully every day, all season -- keep coming, keep practicing, keep believing -- and that we would win that big one at the end, and that then they'd remember us more for that one victory than if we'd won all our games. I kept telling the boys we'd beat Michigan sure. They prepared for it all season.''
Zuppke paused, then went on.
``Boys must learn that the one thing that is important is their self-respect. Keep your self-respect and you win. Lose your self-respect and you are defeated, no matter how the world looks at you. . . . It is a person's self-respect that matters. When you teach that to football players, then you are a coach. A player with self-respect will not let himself down. He will play hard.
``I used to tell my boys, `Self-respect is that fort from which you sally. That is where your strength is. Remember that.' ''