Dear America: Pro Athletes Think You’re Soft

So does the secretary of education. Maybe Bobby Knight can help.

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Photo by Roberto Schmidt | AFP

Photo by Roberto Schmidt | AFP

It occurred to me recently that Americans are insufficiently competitive. Pushovers, even. We’re too nice to our kids, undisciplined, and in need of a little more Bobby Knight.

I’d been dwelling on this sentiment a lot recently—because I’m a pushover in need of discipline who tends to coddle children, animals and lonely people. This, despite a childhood filled with sweat-earned trophies and the fear of being grounded for life if ill-behaved. (Still grounded, technically.)

So last week I attended the Leaders & Legends conference at the MGM Grand, hosted by former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa as a benefit for the Animal Rescue Foundation. The theater was full of sports and business leaders—from tennis great Pete Sampras to Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb. Competitive people. Hard-core winners.

It was inspiring—you’d be surprised to know how many current and former athletes double as professional motivational speakers: You have to set goals. You have to get out of bed every morning and work, because if you don’t, you won’t meet your goals. You have to want it. You have to be competitive, aggressive, unflinching. There was more, but I set my pen down to relax for a bit, sure it’d all work out in the end.

But right as I began to daydream of greatness, Olympic soccer star Julie Foudy shifted the conversation from positive self-talk to a consideration of culture: Don’t you think our current culture discourages intense competitiveness? Aren’t kids today told not to over-celebrate a win so that the loser won’t feel bad?

I remembered that Foudy was on the 1999 U.S. World Cup-winning team, and that her teammate Brandi Chastain famously—passionately—stripped off her shirt and slid across the field on her knees with her fists clenched: We win! We win! We win! (Oh, and congratulations to the other team for participating.)

“Well I think competitiveness is beautiful, ” Olympic volleyball champ Kerri Walsh Jennings replied eloquently on the red-velvet draped stage in the MGM. “And if I’m playing gin, I want to kick your ass.”

I could feel the adrenalin in the room rising. These are not average people. Foudy joked that sometimes she wants to throw away her son’s “participation” trophies and focus on teaching him to earn wins. I laughed—we all did—because we all knew the collective adrenaline was hilariously over the top now, and yet it still bore some resemblance to the true spirit of many leaders and legends. Of course, it also bore some resemblance to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent categorization of parents who don’t like the Common Core education standards as “white suburban moms who all of a sudden [realized] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”

As in, buck up, spoiled people.

The room was getting so pumped now, it felt like somebody needed to challenge somebody else to compete in something, anything—arm wrestling, pingpong, a cage match—so that we could softly utter positive affirmations, then yell our freaking heads off, and strip off our shirts in victory, to hell with the points for participation. I noticed I’d picked up my pen again, if only in self-defense.

And then Dara Torres—who, at 41, was the oldest swimmer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, losing the 50-meter freestyle gold by a single hundredth of a second—knifed me:

“I would’ve liked to have played for Bobby Knight. He’s the kind of coach I’d thrive under,” she said.

Knight, the longtime controversial and combative college basketball coach who once threw a chair across an NCAA court, and another time grabbed a player by the neck and lost his job, happened to be sitting in the back of the theater—a leader and a legend despite such antics. He yelled out—as he is prone to do— “I would’ve let you shoot the ball, too.”

Just as I was beginning to question my soft underbelly—chief among a thousand reasons I’m not an Olympic athlete, I guess—I remembered why this group was all here: to raise money for abandoned animals. There’s all kinds of heart here. Some hearts just play harder.