Competition And The Character Within

Fred Bills

August 1, 2005

Two years ago I discovered my elementary school had passed a rule forcing all students who played basketball in grades five and six to have equal playing time, and the implications of the idea have lain not quite dormant in my mind ever since. Last Friday, I watched my brother and his senior teammates lose in the Regional Finals of the Ohio High School Boys State Basketball Tournament, and the implications of the idea became clear. The world of sports is a unique arena of life—lessons where goodness and character grow and do so through the art of competition.

My brother and his teammates had played basketball together since the fourth grade. Through all their time together, they developed a bond that can only be found in the arena or on the battlefield. Together they made a team and, from their experience, learned about life. They learned how to dedicate themselves to a cause, and undertook the responsibilities that went along with such a task. They learned how to handle the pain of loss and how to act well through the thrill of victory. They learned how to handle pressure in intense situations and how to trust the people that they must (teammates). They took on leadership, took on hope, took on fear, took on ecstasy, and took on pain. In victory, they experienced the heights, and in loss, they experienced the depths. In short, they learned what it meant to have character.

These are not life’s simplest lessons. One is hard—pressed to find even a handful of people whom he can point towards and say he has fully thrown himself behind them. And it is not a surprise because it is not an easy thing to do. This is not a world where trust and teamwork abound. We are, and rightfully so, cautious in choosing the people with whom we trust our lives. But there is something to it. There is something about giving yourself to another that builds the resolve to take on the responsibilities when someone does the same to you. And it is a good thing. It illuminates the goodness of life and the goodness of our neighbor. It allows us to secure our hope and look forward to the beauty tomorrow will bring.

In sports, this occurs through competition. The threat of defeat forces inescapable lessons and ideals upon the competitor. In earning the right to play, he must push himself to his mental and physical limits. He must realize that others are attempting to do the same as he is, and that only a limited number of opportunities exist. If playing time is earned, he must know others continue to compete for his spot and he must maintain his work ethic. If he is cut, he must accept his failure and decide to either further commit himself to the goal for next year or give up. Regardless of its outcome, a lesson is learned from the effort. The actual game heightens the education. In victory, he feels excitement, but must have the discipline to contain it and keep his composure. In defeat, he feels pain, but must have the pride to hold his head high while recognizing his faults and holding himself responsible for the loss. In leadership, he must put responsibility on his shoulders, and understand the prudent way in which to call his teammates to accountability. He comes to know himself; to recognize his strengths and weaknesses not just as an athlete, but as a human being.

So what does it mean when an elementary school mandates that all fifth and sixth graders have equal playing time on the basketball court? It may not have grave consequences, but it seems to be the result of misunderstanding the pain of sports. It seems parents fear that exposing their children to the limitations that competition makes known is not worth it. We all know that it is not an easy thing to have limitations exposed, but this is not the answer. It has been said that children are angels when they are alone, but demons in packs. If a child is going to school, then he knows all about his faults. The revelation is inescapable. The pain of sports is not so mercilessly arbitrary. It builds the character necessary for dealing virtuously in a difficult world. Killing competition, then, is only stripping our children of essential life—lessons. We need not hold sports responsible for our nature, but rather have the courage to face what we are, and the fortitude to gain from it.

As my brother and his teammates walked out from the locker room after the game, the pain was evident in their tears. But the stature of their gait and clench of their teeth revealed that the lessons of the trip were worth it.

Fred Bills is a senior from Zanesville, Ohio, majoring in Political Science, History, and Philosophy.