In an argument against Reggie Miller's claim that it is one of the top 5 sports towns in America, I wrote an editorial a few months ago dubbing Indianapolis as "The Neutral Sports Capital of the World." The story below is why I reneged on that contrarian claim. Journalistic Kryptonite indeed— "flip-flopping," as Faux News might call it. But it seemed like the fair thing to do after I decided I was wrong, and it's things like this that make me glad I changed my attitude about sports in our city.
Rick Reilly, excellent writer and mediocre on-air personality for ESPN, somehow found out about a game between my alma mater Roncalli Rebels and the John Marshall Patriots, and wrote about it in his column.
Rather than recant a column already written by an industry icon, I'll briefly summarize and then link to it here, and hope you come back for a little local perspective.
In a paragraph— the John Marshall JV Softball team was comprised of players who had never played the game, but obviously had an eagerness to learn. Instead of playing a lop-sided game, the Roncalli girls forfeited and helped the Marshall girls learn the basics. It led to regional attention and donations of equipment and money to the program, and by the end of the season the Marshall girls were competitive, though they didn't win a game.
It's an important distinction to recognize that Marshall still does not have a junior or senior class; they are still developing their high school and will have all four years' worth of students in 2012. So this wasn't a situation here a bunch of middle-class white kids were trying to make heroes out of themselves and humiliate their opponents by giving them an on-field lesson. Marian University's football team got crushed in almost every game in the program's first year; their shortcomings that season were no more a product of the player's cultural backgrounds than Marshall's were. These things just take time, regardless of which boxes the kids' parents checked on their Census forms.
The amazing thing to me isn't the Roncalli girls forfeiting the game to help the Marshall girls learn; it's the eagerness that the Marshall girls had to learn the sport and have a positive attitude about the whole thing. I've been on some terrible teams in my life, and know what it means to be truly trounced in athletic competition. I would not have been in the mood for the opposition to show me exactly how inept I was afterward— and though the Marshall team reportedly only brought two bats to the game, that's one more than I would have needed to show the other team exactly where to stick their advice.
I wasn't there and can't describe what the dynamic was like, if anyone was embarrassed or apathetic and took the impromptu seminar as an insult. Reilly certainly made it feel like a scene from one of those "Sportsmanship: Pass it On" commercials.
I like to think that the scene was probably slightly more genuine— if there wasn't discomfort and a slight wariness on both sides to preserve the dignity of themselves and their opponents, then I wouldn't trust what happened. Because nothing great ever happens inside of someone's comfort zone.
I'm proud of the positive service Roncalli contributes to the community, and the ethics the school preaches— but let's not get carried away, they're not graduating 250 Peace Corps volunteers tomorrow either. Whenever you take a random sampling of 15 students, from any school in the world, there are going to be a few that don't quite know how to handle themselves in a profound situation.
But whether it was 10, 60, or 100% of the girls on that field that participated in one of the great success stories of Hoosier sports this year, the Indianapolis athletic community is better off because of the John Marshall JV Softball team.
While my brother's 16 year old friend quit umpiring 7 and 8 year old's baseball games because of the incessant heckling from parents and coaches, the Marshall Patriots are building a community of respect around the game that everyone who plays sports for the right reason can be excited about.
They're probably the only team called the Patriots that I'll ever be able to say that about.