Heinen: It’s more than just a game

Elements in athletics are profoundly troubling
Heinen: It’s more than just a game

We don’t do a lot of writing about sports in this magazine for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because many readers tell us they don’t care about sports.

On the other hand, some readers care very much about sports – and some sports, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s in particular, but also the Mallards, and Madison athletes in the pros or with an Olympic dream – are very much a part of the Madison lifestyle that is at the heart of this magazine’s mission. So we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the influence of sports in our community, for better or for worse.

I’ve had a life-long interest in – and yes, at times, a passion for – sports since I began my boyhood mornings reading the sports pages of the Milwaukee Sentinel I delivered. But it’s a passion I’ve been questioning lately.

The start of football season is a kind of unofficial start to the busiest part of the sports year. At some point, virtually every major sport, high school, college and pro season is underway. If, like mine, your loyalties are to Wisconsin sports teams, this is a heck of year to be a fan. As I write this, the Brewers are in the playoff race, the Packers are among a handful of Super Bowl favorites, the Badgers football team is ranked 5th in a national poll, and the UW-Madison women’s volleyball team is ranked second in the nation. Hopes are high for men’s and women’s basketball and hockey. Heady stuff. Yet, I’ve never felt so conflicted. While it’s fun to think of the Brewers’ success and the hoped-for success of the Packers, I’ve really been enjoying the unparalleled success of the UW-Madison athletic department. It has taken more than 25 years to build a department that is one of the best in both men’s and women’s sports. And by and large it has earned a reputation for doing things the right way. UW-Madison hires good people as coaches, recruits kids who can be successful in school as well as athletics, famously gives non-scholarship kids a chance to compete, and as an institution adheres to ethical standards and practices.

But there are elements of big time athletics, both college and pro, that are profoundly troubling and in jarring contrast to the simple joy of victory and agony of defeat. Too many sports tolerate violence and abusive behavior either on or off the field or court, and it is considerably worse for men’s sports. Compared to other programs, the university has avoided the really ugly stuff, but that only makes the most recent allegations against a couple of Badgers football players more disappointing.

Of course sports like football have an element of violence built into them, and it’s getting more difficult to watch the constant collisions that are seemingly an inescapable part of the game and not feel some guilt for not taking more seriously the potential harm these young people are risking. And then there’s the money. It’s harder and harder to argue sports are not ruled by money. There’s something morally wrong about Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers being paid $80 million over the next six months. But the influence of money in big-time college sports continues to grow as well, as do fiscal inequalities on a number of levels. And don’t forget, legalized gambling is upon us.

There are serious issues in the sports world and we don’t seem to be doing very well grappling with them. Scandals at Michigan State, Ohio State and the University of Maryland, and the politics of athletes kneeling during the national anthem expose our cultural ambivalence around sexual abuse and racism. I, for one, need to consider my appreciation of athletic competition, to say nothing of the joy of winning in the context of such important matters.

Side notes

Rubin for Kids
You’d be hard pressed to find a more effective use of modest amounts of funding to make a kid’s life better than Rubin for Kids. About as grassroots as it gets, this organization made up of a dedicated group of community volunteers honors the memory of Peter Rubin, the late public defender and advocate for young people, by rewarding Madison young students facing struggles. The nonprofit will provide clothes, a musical instrument, school supplies or a driver’s ed class to bring a little joy to deserving young people. The annual fundraiser is Oct. 11 at the Boardman & Clark law firm atrium. It’s inspirational. But if you really want to help, go to rubinforkids.org and donate online. rubinforkids.org

World Sight Day
Ditto for the extraordinary Combat Blindness International. The nonprofit organization here in Madison restores sight for thousands of poor people around the world by doing cataract surgery for about $25. Oct. 11 is also World Sight Day. Send CBI a check for $100 and you will help four people see and live productive lives. What an investment. What a gift. combatblindness.org