A Call to Arms against College Sports

The retirement of Bobby Knight will not mean an end to bad behavior in college sports. The former Indiana and Texas Tech basketball coach’s boorishness was legendary: spewing profanity-laced tirades at referees and Big Ten officials, throwing chairs onto the basketball court, and choking, slapping, and kicking players (in one case, his own son). But in many ways, the hyper-competitive sports culture has caught up with and even passed Coach Knight.

William Thierfelder wants to reverse this trend toward athletic competition without honor or restraint. He is the president of Belmont Abbey College, a tiny Catholic school in North Carolina that is best known for its affiliation with a Benedictine monastery. It might seem to be an obscure starting point for a personal crusade intended to alter what seems to now be an ingrained feature of the American character.

Yet Thierfelder has the credentials to lead such a campaign, with lifetime of success in a variety of athletic endeavors. He was a national champion high-jumper and two-time All-American at the University of Maryland. He has a doctorate in sports psychology and has worked in that capacity with hundreds of professional athletes. And as the former CEO of the York Barbell Company, he restored the Pennsylvania-based exercise equipment manufacturer to profitability.

And perhaps it is not by accident that Belmont Abbey team nickname is “The Crusaders.”

Still, to change the mindset of the nation is going to be a tremendous uphill battle. Recent events in college sports attest to the pervasiveness of poor sportsmanship and the win-at-all-costs mentality:

• Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has long been heralded for his principled refusal to lower recruiting standards. Yet in recent years, it appears that those standards have been dropped, since his recruits now fill the police blotters regularly for serious crimes like rape and assault, even murder.

• Duke University’s basketball fans, known as the “Cameron Crazies” for the gymnasium where home games are played, have established the gold standard among college sports enthusiasts. They employ irritating and obnoxious tactics, sometimes clever and sometimes juvenile, to gain additional home court advantage for their team by distracting the opposition. Sometimes this will include chanting embarrassing facts and rumors about opposing players to make them lose focus.

• Last fall, football players from N.C. Central State University added insult to injury by stomping on the midfield logo of their archrival N.C. A&T after they sealed a victory. This show of contempt precipitated a massive brawl between the two teams.

• In 2006, a backup punter at Northern Colorado University, hoping to gain the starting position, stabbed his rival in his kicking leg.

Speaking at a Shaftsbury Luncheon at the John Locke Foundation, Thierfelder recalled an article in USA Today that discussed a crackdown on coaches’ sideline behavior. “I was going out of my mind reading this article, because there were any number of coaches, many from this part of the country, who were quoted as saying how unreasonable it was not to be able to get up and curse at a referee. [They felt] this was absolutely necessary. There were all kinds of reasons and rationale given why this was acceptable and okay…Now we hardly notice it and have come to accept it.”

Some of the motivation for his campaign came while watching overzealous parents and coaches at a son’s fifth grade basketball game. His son’s team was obviously overmatched by a team from a much larger school. With two minutes to go and his son’s team trailing by 32 points, the other team’s coach was “jumping up and screaming ‘Press! Press!’”

“Guess what happens?” he asked. “They press, they steal the ball, they score again, they’re up by 34 points. And all the parents in the stands are screaming in praise of their superhuman athletes…and I’m thinking, ‘am I in the Twilight Zone?’”

Thierfelder’s vision of sports is far different from one where 10-year-olds try to crush and humiliate their opponents at the urging of adults. He wants to reintroduce the concept of virtue into athletic competition, and he wants athletic training to be considered an integral part of educating a complete individual. He calls his infant movement “Sports Properly Directed.” The name comes from an address given by Pope Pius XII called Sport at the Service of the Spirit, which begins, “Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a man courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor. It refines the senses, gives intellectual penetration and steels the will to endurance.”

He has already created a website, called ReclaimTheGame.com, and has established awards and scholarships. And he has started to remold the Belmont Abbey athletic program according to his vision. “When I look at coaches for Belmont Abbey, I’m looking for coaches who are teachers and mentors first. I hope they’re world class in their abilities to coach, but that’s not enough for me. I’m looking for somebody who recognizes that [they have] been entrusted with the mind, body and soul of [the athlete].”

The task before him seems impossible: Americans seem to like their athletes behaving badly. The taunting, the showboating, and the self-congratulatory end zone dances are often the things that make the nightly highlight reels.

Yet Thierfelder is a difficult person to bet against. He has already achieved success at the highest levels in a multitude of endeavors in the past, and he currently has a position of authority from which to launch his campaign. Thierfelder might only turn out to be modern-day Don Quixote, tilting his lance insignificantly at the vast world of sports and beyond. Perhaps his campaign will take hold and make us a better nation. Even if he merely makes Belmont Abbey the most civil campus in America, he will have at least demonstrated that sports and loutish behavior need not be partners.