Monday night 78,600 screaming fans, paying dearly for event and travel tickets, will stack themselves 300 feet into the Arizona sky to witness the athletic exploits of several young studs, who will, for just a second, brush shoulders with immortality. They will be America’s functional heroes for the next several days, vaulted into the national spotlight for their ability to come closest to perfection in a sport of incredible physicality, finesse and wit. Millions will devote almost a quarter of their day to see the spectacle.
Today’s sporting events resemble the Roman colosseum more than ever. In terms of bloodsport no, but rather in terms of sensationalism. Winning athletes are worshipped as heroes. Coaches and players are paid exorbitantly for their ability to direct and execute. Sporting events are a place for the elite to see and be seen. The entire country seemingly grinds to a halt for matchups of importance. It’s hard to overlook the similarities. We clamor to be entertained by athleticism and showmanship, and spend incredible time and effort – and billions of our cash – to that end.
In the midst of this landscape, it’s good to see Dabo Swinney. As the National Championship game looms and the hype grows, the opportunity is ripe for a proud Clemson alumnus to relay an anecdote about Coach Swinney and to explain why his mentality is profound in college sports, military and America.
A few years ago, I was in Clemson for my younger brother’s commissioning and had the chance to talk to the commander of the Army ROTC Fighting Tigers Battalion. He told me of a conversation with Coach Swinney in which the coach said, “LTC ********, the way I see it, our jobs are very similar. We’re both in the business of creating leaders. Yours may go out to the battlefield and mine to civilian life at the end of the day, but our goal is the same.”
It’s a profound perspective from a man whose livelihood is dependent on Ws and Ls. Yet he’s made that distinction at every turn, most recently in sending home three players for failing a drug test, just days before they faced Oklahoma in the playoff. Coach Swinney and his crew are playing to win, no doubt, but their emphasis and purpose lie elsewhere.
“Sport is an empty vessel (at best) and what we fill it with makes the difference (positive or otherwise.)” ~John Amaechi
Below is Swinney’s response from a press conference when Clemson first set atop the polls this season. In response to: “Do you feel any kind of pressure with the kind of success you’re having right now?”
“I just laugh at that stuff. And I understand the question, I’m not being rude…Do I feel pressure about a football game? No man! Turn the TV on. You’ve got 150 people killed and slaughtered in Paris. You know, you’ve got problems in this world. Football is not pressure. This is a game. And that’s the message I try to instill in our players all the time: “Gollee, enjoy this moment, this brief, brief moment in your life, to play a game that your body’s not going allow you to play forever, even if you go to the NFL. Enjoy this brief moment of the relationships that you have and your time at Clemson, but also understand that through this game you have a chance to bring some joy to people who really have pressure in their life, who really have problems.”
I mean, what kind of pressure do I have? Give me a break. I love what I do, and it’s important, but when you have the cross as the foundation of your life, football ain’t gonna bring no pressure. I promise you that. None whatsoever, absolutely zero. That’s why it’s fun. This is a game. It’s fun. And people lose total perspective a lot of times. And it’s great that people are passionate because football brings people together and gives them something to rally around. But there’s absolutely no pressure being the number one team in the country, it’s a whole lot of fun. And we’re going to try to stay there as long as we can. But whether we’re number one, two, three, four, all we want to do is get to that college football playoff…If somebody beats us, I ain’t gonna love this team any less. I’m not going to let one moment define our program or who I am.”
The Clemson football staff uses their sport as a vehicle to teach discipline and virtue and not as the end itself. Dabo’s proven he’s not willing to win at any cost; to sacrifice his primary purpose of building men for his lesser goals of winning titles and building a perennial top-10 program. And that’s where this intersects with liberty and the American ideal. There are things that, until recently, America has done and has refused to do, purely on the basis of Americanism and virtue. America has repeatedly proven her willingness to spend her treasure and blood for the liberty of others. She has not, as national policy, condoned torture of our enemies. She aims to fight just wars and avoid unnecessary loss of life however possible. Though faltering at times, she continues to stand as a beacon of hope to the oppressed of the world. Virtue has enabled her liberty; they’re inextricably linked. Freedom cannot exist, at least for long, without goodness. To quote Dr. Benjamin Franklin,
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
So I’ll be so bold as to compare Swinney’s program’s slow and steady rise to the top with America’s ascent into the world’s preeminent superpower. Neither set the desire to be the greatest as their primary aim; but both created environments where the virtues of dedicated effort, excellence and justice are rewarded. Correlating an emphasis on virtue to achieving success may seem outlandish, but it’s not without merit. Considering the NCAA alone, there’s a storied history of virtuous coaches who’ve experienced great success: John Wooden with 10 national championships in 12 years, Dan Gable with 16 NCAA titles, Knute Rockne with a 105-12-5 record and three titles; the correlation cannot be overlooked. It seems America is in her sunset years; that she may never return to the stature she once achieved. If accurate, her decline is owed to an abandonment of the virtues that made her great and a pursuit of inane pleasure instead.
Clearly, I have my allegiances. I’d love Clemson to beat Alabama in a game for the ages, taking home their second National Championship title. Don’t infer any negativity towards the sport of football or Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide from my words. It’s simply clear that integrity, discipline and humility–virtue writ large–are championed in the Clemson Tiger locker room. In a world where good does not always triumph, it’s refreshing and inspiring when it does. Godspeed Coach Swinney, to you and your Tigers. You’re doing it right.
Nathan Carlson currently works as a Sales Associate for a major American medical device manufacturer. He served in the Active Duty Air Force for six years as an Air Liaison Officer (ALO), and is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Nathan received his BS in Civil Engineering from Clemson University, and he continues to serves in the Washington Air National Guard.
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