When the game stands tall – A Model for intercollegiate athletics

This week, Nevada regents will consider the future of intercollegiate athletics (ICA) at our two universities and two community colleges that compete in them.

During eight years as a regent — especially with the recent changes, problems and challenges facing ICA — the subject has been difficult for me. On one side, I’ve always been a jock and a high school, college and professional sports fan. In fact, I’m one of those legions of ex-college athletes who went pro in a field other than his sport. (If I’d had to earn a living as a distance runner, I’d have starved.)

On the other side, I’ve long recognized that ICA’s role in higher education is tenuous and fraught, first because athletics are not central to the educational missions of most colleges and can detract from their missions. Second, public officials’ basic duty is to promote the broad public interest by spending public dollars very frugally and not on ventures where the case for public involvement is not clear and strong. So, because ICA is entertainment, one must ask whether competitive markets generally fail to produce optimal levels of entertainment, thus requiring public funds to be spent providing them. And the answer, especially in Nevada, is: “No.” (This point doesn’t apply to private colleges because they don’t have a duty to voters and taxpayers.)

The wholesome character-building athletics ideal that taught profound life lessons, broadened experience and forged meaningful friendships in practice and play during one’s formative years – well, all that was somewhat spotty even when I went to college (shortly after the fall of Rome). Today, ICA is a semi-professional enterprise that’s greatly about ever larger budgets, of which the athletes get less than their share, compared to the value they contribute to the enterprise.

Further, the big-time football and basketball programs that both provide and soak up most ICA money now face challenges that seem certain to erode their viability — from lawsuits to spending-growth unsustainability to continuing scandals, etc. So, even though the majority of coaches, staff and student-athletes may well be people of good character and honorable academic and other achievement, it’s unlikely the status quo can survive.

If ICA is going to change greatly, and assuming we want to preserve it, we need a vision of what college sports can and should be. So, I found it refreshing this last weekend to see a movie about a high school football program that epitomizes what we want from athletics in school: When the Game Stands Tall. I highly recommend it.

The film tells the most famous part of the story of the DeLaSalle High School Spartans football program in Concord CA under head coach Bob Ladouceur and his chief assistant, Terry Eidson. That part centers on DLS’s 151-game winning streak in 1992-2004, even while playing many of the best teams in the country, plus DLS’s recovery from the end of the streak. No other team in any sport has ever run up a streak close to it.

While the film-makers took some liberties with factual details, the movie is true to the real spirit of the Spartan legacy. It makes clear the central point that for Ladouceur, the coaches and players, touchdowns, wins and even The Streak were never the main things. They were secondary, by-products of hard work and continuous demanding preparation; responsibility, the making and keeping of commitments; teamwork, brotherhood and love; and execution always based on trying to give a perfect effort every minute.

Perhaps the best insight to the whole matter is that I once read that, in applying for the head-coaching job in 1979, the then-24-year-old Ladouceur wrote a 15-page single-spaced essay on the role of a high school football program in raising good Catholic young men, with almost no word about a winning program. The humble, gentle, soft-spoken coach and religion teacher was all about values beyond football and preparing his players to take the next step to forging good lives.

The program started in the 1970s with almost nothing, with coaches, athletes and parents staging car washes and bake sales to raise money the school did not provide. When they finally got a weight room via those efforts, the players almost lived in it year-round, working so hard that they could play both offense and defense and often still physically dominate much larger players from the top-flight schools they played.

Ladouceur gave up the head-coaching reins in 2012 (although he remains an assistant coach), compiling a 34-year record of 399-25-3 — better than a 12-1 average annual tally. Considering the competition they played, that’s likely the most dominating sports achievement ever, and certainly the best high school football program. They have been named national high school football champions at least eight different years and have won state and other titles too numerous to list.

But much more important than all that is that the program embodies what we need from grade school through college in interscholastic athletics. Whatever the won-loss records, programs that produce the values, behaviors, practices and personal development of DLS football would surely be something we can embrace whole-heartedly.

Ron Knecht is an economist, law-school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.


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