10/21/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
I played football for four years in public school, two years in college and one season on a six-man team in the Marine Corps. I always knew there was something artistic about football, along with all other sports, but I didn’t know in what way.
I first recognized the artistic in football during practice one day when I was in 11th grade. I was playing middle linebacker and noticed that our quarterback, Morris Milton, always ran and gained the 4 or 5 yards we needed for a first down. He accomplished the same feat during official games. We had our best winning season that year.
Whenever I was on the sideline, I would watch Morris. How did he always get those yards? I didn’t see anything special, except perhaps his size. One night, after we had beaten a big-time Jacksonville team that should have trounced us, I asked Morris how he did it.
His answer was surprising, and it gave me new insight into the game: He would create a picture in his mind of what he wanted to happen as he stood over the center and prepared to call the signal. He visualized the location of the first-down marker, he sized up the opponents blocking his way, and he went through the moves he would make and how the opponents would react before the snap.
The playing field was his canvas; the first down was his piece of art. To see him fake out a would-be tackler was a creative moment.
Since then, I have studied other successful athletes, especially the great ones, to appreciate the creativity in their performances. Jim Brown’s runs were art. Muhammad Ali’s shuffle and jabs were art. Michael Jordan’s acrobatics were art. Peyton Manning’s playmaking is high art.
I’ve never expressed this idea in print until now for fear of being laughed out of punditry. After listening to a fine commentary by Frank Deford on National Public Radio the other morning, I realized anew that sport should be considered art.
Deford’s commentary was framed around his interview with Gary Walters, the director of athletics at Princeton University.
Walters asked: “Is it time for the educational-athletic experience on our playing fields (to) be accorded the same academic respect as the arts?”
Walters has experience to speak with authority. He and Bill Bradley were on the same Final Four team, and he was chairman of this year’s national Division I basketball committee.
Deford, who has written several books about sports, said one reason sports get such a bad rap, when compared with art, is that people play sports to win. “Artists are not supposed to be competitive,” he said. “They are expected to be above that. We always hear ‘art for art’s sake.’ Nobody ever says ‘sport for sport’s sake.’ ”
He said also that sports have been discounted because, until recently, athletic performance couldn’t be visually preserved.
“What we accepted as great art – whether the book, the script, the painting, the symphony – is that which could be saved and savored,” Deford said. “But the performances of the athletic artists who ran and jumped and wrestled were gone with the wind. Now, however, that we can study the grace of the athlete on film, a double play can be viewed as pretty as any pas de deux. Or, please: Is not what we saw Michael Jordan do every bit as artistic as what we saw Mikhail Baryshnikov do?”
Deford argues that cheating and other forms of general corruption, such as gambling, shouldn’t diminish great athletic performance by individuals.
“Certainly, there remains a huge double standard in college,” Deford said. “Why can a young musician major in music, a young actor in drama, but a young football player can’t major in football? That strikes me as unfair, but it encourages the hypocrisy that contributes to the situation where those hidebound defenders of the artistic faith can take delight in looking down their noses at sport.”
Walters is unequivocal about the artistic value of sport: “Athletic competition nourishes our collective souls and contributes to the holistic education of the total person in the same manner as the arts.”