News item: (Lancaster News) sports columnist Mike Gross issues apology in the wake of the passionate outrage sparked by his track and field column…” – LancasterOnline
“The past few years, I have volunteered to be a part of LNP’s coverage of the season-ending league, district and state high school track and field meets. This was no one’s idea but mine, and I have done so entirely because I like track and field and its unique feel and atmosphere. For Monday’s paper, I wrote a piece that attempted to describe that atmosphere and failed — utterly and spectacularly — to do so. For that I am very sorry.”
– Mike Gross, Lancaster News/LancasterOnline columnist
Every day I wonder whether I should even read the news, it’s so full of things that spark passionate outrage. The political life is toxic, the humor is dark, and social media creates an echo chamber that reflects back to us our own biases and prejudices.
And even reading about my beloved sport of athletics, I’m as likely to read/write about (and contribute to the discussion of!) the culture of doping, the media circus, and the might of marketing dollars in manipulating our fan feelings.
Folks, the article written by Mike Gross needs no apology.
Of course, readers of his columns (and my posts) are free to have strong reactions to anything they read. But sometimes reader reactions say more about the readers than about the author. That seems to me to be true in the case of Gross’ column, which celebrates (my word choice here is intentional) spring track and field and contrasts it with fall football.
“A big meet is a smorgasbord of diverse and diffuse activity and inactivity: kids running and jumping and throwing but also stretching and limbering and pulling sweats on and off and on and off and even lying under tents on beach towels and waiting. Or napping.
They seem happy in their work. Happy to compete, to be interviewed (even if there isn’t much to say beyond, “I ran as fast as I could,’’), to break off conversations to exhort teammates and, later, to hug them, and even to visit with competitors that share their healthy obsession.
The really good ones, especially in eccentric specialities like pole vault or shot put, see each other nearly ‘round, at camps and clinics and during the indoor season and at the Penn Relays until finally they have a connection that is different, but exists alongside, that with their actual teammates.
They seem to want to respect them at least as much beat them.”
In his mea culpa, Gross apologizes for “…as unfortunate, and as inaccurate, a sentence as I have ever written.” The sentence to which he refers suggested that track and field was “…no more intense than frisbee golf…”, and it was that equivalence that made a lot of passionate track fans angry. (There were no comments from Frisbee golfers, so we don’t know how they feel about it.)
But even if I wouldn’t put it the way he did, I know exactly what Gross means. Let me try to explain it without giving the Internet reason to turn on me next:
In football (and other team sports), success depends almost entirely on direct conflict with your opponent. It’s a zero-sum game of offense vs. defense, expressed in disturbingly militaristic terms, a game that involves desperate combat for every inch of advantage.
The struggle begins long before the actual games are played, as kids compete with their peers for precious and limited places on the varsity, and then for playing time or a starting role. No one suits up and runs out on the field as the school band plays unless they have first won that privilege through off-season practices, clinics, and years of youth sports designed to give them an edge and a chance to play at the next level.
But in track, we pretty much take every kid who can run without limping and can find the backroom where the team meets on the first day of spring sports. OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but basically we welcome any kid who’s willing to make it to practice and choose from among the 17 or so events in which we compete.
A typical team has a range of talent, including some amazing athletes, many average athletes who work hard, and quite a few kids who never identified as athletes before they joined our team. Hey, Jim Ryun only turned to track after being cut from his junior high basketball team (and every other “ball” sport that he tried out for). Lucky for us the first high school boy to run under 4 minutes for the mile never made those other teams.
The differences continue. I’m fairly sure no football coach ever has to deal with a kid who frankly admits that they like the training and want to be on the team but aren’t interested in competition. I’ve had teams where it felt like half the kids felt that way. Maybe I’m soft, but I see my job as understanding where that reluctance to compete comes from, and helping kids develop a healthy attitude that allows them to enjoy trying hard against other kids who are also trying hard. And when that happens, and when you’ve learned to care enough to get something out of the sport besides side stitches, it’s a beautiful thing. I don’t think football coaches get many chances to see non-athletes bloom before their eyes, but maybe I’m wrong…
I do know that Gross is absolutely right to point out that track meets are a great place to socialize, with your teammates, but also with your rivals. That’s not a flaw, that’s a feature of track meets and track and field as a sport.
I suppose it needs to be said that none of the above means that I (we) don’t take track seriously. Indeed, the real beauty and meaning of track and field emerges when you see athletes care enough to commit themselves to the long, arduous pursuit of perfection. Among the hundreds of thousands of high school athletes who “hang out” on their school team, there are many who have set off down that path, and for the most part, they train and compete in obscurity.
In football, the whole town comes out to see you. It is a sport rich in external rewards and trappings.
In track, unless you make it to the Penn Relays (which Gross mentions, by the way) or the Olympics, you’ll rarely compete in front of big crowds, and only track nerds like me will pay attention to your time, height, or distance.
That’s OK, it’s a sport rich in internal rewards.