On the Sidelines or in the Band: Participation Vs. Spectatorship and the Educational Process

One of the primary purposes of an educational institution is to instill in students not simply an understanding of specific knowledge (numbers, words or dates), but a lifelong love of learning. Further, it is safe to say that clearly the most effective way to learn the lessons taught through sports or other activities, is actually participating in those activities as opposed to simply observing them. Therefore, when evaluating our investment in school programs and extracurricular activities, consideration should be given to whether that activity is something you can continue to participate in and learn from long after graduation.

The purpose of this essay is to assess the effectiveness of football versus music as it applies to lifelong participation and learning.

Before proceeding, it is important to dispel the notion that team sports are unique in their potential to teach skills and lessons in teamwork and to build character in participants. The fact is there is no difference between the types of lessons learned and character traits obtained through participation in football or other team sports and involvement in a music ensemble or band. Skills such as collaboration, communication, discipline and personal responsibility are learned through all of these activities. That being the case, in tough economic times, when considering educational investment in football versus music programs, education and community leaders must consider additional issues and benefits of these activities, including the issue of whether these activities can be practiced for a lifetime.

Football is a sport where 96 percent of high school players will never again play the game after high school and less than one percent will do so after college. According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) website, 5.8 percent, or less than one in seventeen of all high school senior boys, play interscholastic football. Of those, approximately, one in fifty, or 1.8 percent, will get drafted by an NFL team. Or, put another way, only eight in 10,000 or approximately 0.08 percent of high school seniors playing interscholastic football will eventually be drafted by an NFL team. ( Yes, life long lessons are learned during those high school years. But for 96 percent of participants, football’s ability to continue to teach for life ends after their final high school game. Further, none of those participants are women. While there are many sports in which you can participate for your entire life - swimming, golf and tennis - can be played into one’s seventies and eighties, these are not the sports in which we are investing the most resources. That distinction goes to football, an activity where participation for all but the most elite ends at age eighteen.

A few years ago, I found myself trudging on the elliptical machine at my local YMCA alongside a 70 year-old man.  He looked in great shape. He told me that he was not training simply to remain in shape. He was training to play baseball in a local over-50 league. And he’s a pitcher! People marveled that he was still playing competitively at age seventy, so much so that he was the subject of a feature story in the local newspaper. His playing at age seventy was quite an accomplishment and certainly noteworthy because he was the lone seventy-year-old in the league. No one came close to him in age.

Contrast this to the number of musicians who are still playing at age seventy, eighty or even ninety. While both music and sports can teach by participation and observation, music’s potential as a life-long educational tool is far more lasting and powerful because the opportunity to participate as opposed to simply observing as a spectator is possible regardless of age.

In short, there are infinitely more sixty, seventy, and eighty-year-olds still playing music together and, in the process, learning from each other, challenging themselves and keeping their minds sharp than there are twenty-five year-olds playing football. Further, an additional benefit of music is that an eighty-year-old bassist or pianist can play on equal footing with an eighteen-year-old guitarist. Not so in competitive sports, and in particular, football. That being the case, from a long-term educational return on investment perspective, music is far superior to football, if for no other reason than the ability to remain actively involved in music never ends.
If participation in an activity, as opposed to simply observing, is a more effective way to learn important lessons and achieve personal growth, we should invest in activities that allow active participation to the greatest extent possible for as long as possible. If music is an activity that one can actively engage in and thus continue to learn from for a lifetime, shouldn’t we be encouraging the development and funding of such programs? Shouldn’t the potential for lifelong participation and learning through music be strongly considered when compared to investment in sports such as football, where the opportunity to continue to actively participate is limited and usually ends with the final high school game?

If so, the answer is indisputable: Music results in a far better and more powerful long-term educational return on investment than football as it applies to the issue of lessons learned and personal growth achieved through participation. 

March Madness for Anyone and Everyone

Each March, America is overcome by “madness”. Throughout the country, sports fans, both casual and hard-core, focus their attention on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In bars and bakeries, at the dinner table and over phone lines, people catch the madness. Office pools are organized and parties are thrown as television screens everywhere are tuned to "The Big Dance", as teams from Boise to Bloomington, Athens, Georgia to Athens, Ohio and New York to New Mexico compete for the national championship. Over three consecutive weekends, the original field of 68 teams is whittled down to one, crowned NCAA National Champion the Monday evening following Final Four Weekend.

Dubbed “March Madness” for the unpredictable nature of the contests as well as its’ catchy commercial ring, it is the perfect television event. Longer than the Super Bowl’s one day, one game extravaganza, shorter than the three month marathons that are the NBA and NHL playoffs, and more inclusive than the World Series, where only two cities are represented, it has captivated our nation’s televised sports consciousness as no other event.

Another reason it is so popular is because anyone and everyone, regardless of their interest in or knowledge of college basketball can participate in selecting tournament brackets as part of NCAA Tournament “pools” and contests. And the beauty of that is that it’s not always the “experts” who get it right. Here’s a perfect example. In the clip below, my niece, Joy Gerdy-Zogby reveals her method for being in the group of less than one percent who selected all four of the Final Four teams. This is funny stuff. Check it out!

My Bill Walton Moment


Every year while the college athletic world is obsessing over the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, I can’t help but recall my own little March Madness moment with basketball legend Bill Walton.

This year’s trigger for that memory occurred well after midnight, when, still wound up after playing a gig in town, I found myself in front of the TV, channel changer in hand, clicking away.  The clicking came to an abrupt halt when I saw the highly recognizable “mug” and heard the unmistakable voice of Bill Walton erupt across the screen.

There was Walton, smiling face, donned in a brightly colored T-shirt, in typical Bill Walton fashion, pontificating about life, pop culture, Jerry Garcia and, when he got around to it, commenting on the Pac-12 basketball game being played in front of him. As always, he was doing it his way - eccentric, funny, at times profound, at other times, simply nutty, but more than anything, entertaining.

Of course, after his career on the court, he has earned the right to do it any way he wants. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Walton has always been one of my favorite athletes for two reasons.

First is that he was the ultimate team player – one of the best, if not the best, passing big men of all time. As a fellow player who didn’t quite have the physical tools to score consistently in one on one situations, I had to rely on moving without the ball to create scoring opportunities. That meant playing off screens and making crisp cuts and hoping that the ball would be delivered at the right place at the right time to be able to take advantage of the space I had created for an open shot. There are several players who I would have loved to play with. Walton, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Steve Nash to name a few. If you were willing to work hard and move strategically without the ball, they would deliver it to you on time and on target. That would have been basketball Nirvana.

Walton was one of my all time favorite athletes for another reason. He did it his way and broke the mold for athletes. This is the guy who convinced his coach at UCLA, the legendary John Wooden, that it was not only in his (Walton’s) best interests, but also the team’s, that he be allowed to smoke pot. He also was a passionate Grateful Dead fan who played with the Dead in front of the Pyramids. How cool is that?

I’ve always admired athletes who broke the mold. Muhammad Ali for his willingness to put everything on the line for a political cause such as opposing the Vietnam War or a social cause such as human rights. In his case, he risked everything, including being jailed and stripped of his heavyweight title during the prime of his career. That takes uncommon courage. Joe Namath has always been a favorite because he proved that you could have long hair, drink whiskey and chase women and still be a great athlete. None of these athletes were going allow themselves to be defined by or put in to a box by the athletic establishment.

Seeing Walton’s face on the screen brought me back to 1986 in Boise, Idaho when I had a chance encounter with him. Throughout that year, the basketball community was in the middle of a nationwide campaign to celebrate basketball’s invention by Dr. James Naismith 100 years earlier. There were all kinds of events throughout the year commemorating that milestone.

At the time, I was serving as associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and Louisiana State University was appearing in a first round NCAA basketball tournament game. Conference representatives always attended those games and I was assigned to fly from Birmingham , Alabama, site of the SEC”S offices, to Boise to represent the SEC.

My Walton moment came at the end of LSU’s practice the day before the game. Walton was slated to do the color commentary for the game. As the players and coaches filed off to the locker room, I found myself in an empty arena with him. He was walking across the floor headed for the exit when I thought, “Hey, who better to commemorate 100 years of basketball with than the Big Redhead?”

“Hey Bill”, I called to him.

 He turned and looked over his shoulder.

Can I ask for your help with something?” I continued.

“Sure”, he responded.

“Can you help me to celebrate the 100 years of basketball?”

He looked puzzled, but he was game. I grabbed a basketball and asked him to plant himself in the lane. I posted up against him and launched a half-hearted hook shot that he promptly smacked away. I’ve had my fair share of shots blocked many, including by the likes of Alex English, Larry Nance and Orlando Woolridge. While having your shot stuffed back in your face is never fun, this was one block I could gladly live with.

“Thanks”, I said. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 100 years of this game I love than having Bill Walton block my shot.”

He looked at me like I was a little bit crazy, half smiled and said, “Glad to help.”

He turned and began walking off the court.

While I was happy with my small, personal celebration of James Naismith’s wonderful game, as a bit of a Deadhead myself, I need just a tiny bit more from him.

“Hey Bill,” I called.  “ American Beauty is one of the all-time great albums, isn’t it?

With that, he turned, gave me a “double take” sort of look, broke into a big smile and with a thumbs up, replied, “It’s awesome!”

And as he exited the court and entered the bowels of the arena, I swear I heard the faint sound of him singing “Sugar Magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty but I don’t care…”