An Unhealthy Competitive Streak


“The next time we play a video game, can we do it without complaining so much and criticizing each other?” my son asked me. The question was illustrative on so many levels. I know that I’m an overly competitive person who can get a little frustrated when I don’t succeed in video games, but I didn’t think I was so competitive that it was affecting my relationship with my son. I saw friends of mine pound their face into computer game screens, when I was younger. I heard kids swear so loud in arcades that I was embarrassed to be around them, and I knew kids who viewed their inability to get to the next level of a computer game as some sort of personal failing. I remember these kids, because they were so hilarious. Now, my son implied that I might be one of them.

Anyone who knows a seven-year-old knows that seven-year-olds don’t imply. They discovered language fairly recently, and they don’t fully understand the full power of it. They say the meanest, most awful things, and if their words offend you, that’s on you. We might use their comments as examples of what not to do, by taking them by the hand to help them retrace their steps to show them how others might misconstrue their words as offensive, but those lessons require months and years of repetition.

Most fathers want to spend time with their kids. Most fathers want their kids to enjoy spending time with them. My son wanted to play games with me, and he wanted to have as much fun as the father-son combo did on a YouTube video he watched. I watched this YouTube video with him, of a father and son playing a game together, and they did appear to be having one heck of a good time. My son wanted to do that with me. I, too, wanted to play a game with him just for the fun of it, but to do so, I knew I would have to reverse engineer some 35 years of conditioning.

When I played games as a kid, video and otherwise, I don’t ever remember doing it for fun. Games weren’t fun for me then, and they aren’t now. Games are a test of my abilities and the qualities of my character. I still remember some games I won in sports, when I was young, and some of the games I lost still weigh on my soul. Some games require strategy, some require brute force, and others require some combination of the two? Video games rely on strategy, ingenuity, and all of the creative ways a player can find to defeat their opponent? These games involve one winner and one loser, and it wasn’t enough for us to finish second when I was younger. If you finished second, you lost.

Before those of my generation dismiss this argument that there might be something wrong with overly competitive people who think winning is the whole point of playing games, we have to consider how unhealthy this mindset can be, at times. If you’re the type who plays games, because you enjoy playing games at the end of the day, and you don’t really care if you win or lose, you can stop reading now, and you can leave with the knowledge that I envy your healthy mindset, but I could probably never be friends with you.

For the rest of us, it’s always all about winning. Our grandfathers taught our fathers to teach us that there’s something about winning that we all need to learn. We need to learn it, they suggest, because we need to be it. Winning is an attitude we need to learn when we’re young, and a life well lived is all about fortifying that attitude with these ingredients. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring businessman who is willing to risk it all for a profitable business, playing a video game with your kid, or joining a group of young girls you’ve never met before in a game of hopscotch, it’s all about winning.

We all love to read stories about how six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan needed to beat everyone on the team bus in checkers and cards. We love to hear about how Phillip Rivers constantly challenging his teammates to a game of dominoes, and how Tom Brady needs to beat everyone he knows in any game that they want to play. It wasn’t enough for these guys to be at the top of their respective fields, they needed to win relatively meaningless games too. These three decorated and accomplished athletes have this ferocious, almost to the point of the unhealthy, appetite to win all the time. Some suggest their ferocious competitive nature is what separates them from those of equal ability, but is there a dark side to their stories?

What would those people who love to hear stories about famously competitive athletes think if Phillip Rivers upended a table after losing a game of dominoes to his seven-year-old son? Phillip Rivers never did this, as he likely has a very healthy hold on his competitive instincts now, but if he did, wouldn’t we say that’s a little unhealthy? We can guess that Rivers probably never felt the need to do that, because he has an outlet for his ferocious competitive instincts. He has also accomplished great feats among the greatest athletes in the world, and such a display would speak of frustration. My guess is that earning one of the most prestigious positions in all of sports quells those frustrations and any other sense of unhappiness that would drive such a display.

Yet, how does one become a quarterback in the NFL, a position many argue is the most difficult and most prestigious position in sports? How does one earn this position when they lack the athletic talent necessary to achieve it, as many have said Tom Brady does. How much drive does that require, and is there an ugly side of that drive that no one discusses in these fun-loving, “He’s so insanely competitive” stories?

Most of us would be satisfied to be the starting quarterback of one of the most prestigious colleges in America, as Tom Brady was at Michigan, some might be satisfied to just be drafted to play quarterback in the NFL, then start. We might consider it a life well lived to earn chance to play in just one Super Bowl. For Tom Brady, that wasn’t enough. He worked through whatever demons chase a player throughout a season to appear in nine of them and win six. Does Tom Brady have a secret formula to maintaining such a consistent, championship levels of success, or does the state of being perpetually unsatisfied almost require some level of perpetual unhappiness and inner frustration. We all know the follow-up joke to this. If a coach, or a fan, learned that certain levels of unhappiness drove Brady and Jordan to win six championships, they’d ask what do I have to do to get four or five more unhappy, frustrated people on my team? It’s funny, because it’s true that professional sports teams, corporations, and anything and everything between want ferociously competitive people who crave whatever challenges put in their way to greater achievement. 

Does being unsatisfied with some success lead to more success, or is there some measure of fundamental unhappiness and frustration attached? Imagine being Tom Brady’s sibling, growing up, knowing that every time he loses he freaks out and upends the table? Imagine purposefully losing to him, so he doesn’t cause a scene. Imagine what you might have to do to keep such a person happy as a spouse. Imagine being their seven-year-old child, and your dad questions your character when you’re not able to keep up with them in a game of Super Mario Brothers Deluxe. We probably assume such people don’t take it home with them, but if they’re that competitive, we have to assume that their loved ones see some of the components of the dark side that drive their ferocious, competitive instincts.

I’m sure that there are men and women from as far away as China and Liechtenstein who think it’s not worth playing the game if you don’t do everything humanly possible to win, but the idea that narrowly finishing second destroys a person emotionally appears endemic to males who are Americans.

If we enter into a friendly contest for money, and we lose that contest by cents, it upsets some of us so much that we can’t sleep at night. Most second place finishers might feel some frustration by being so close to winning, but some view this as just as devastating as a last place finish loss by hundreds of dollars. I’m competitive, and I might be so bad that it’s a little unhealthy, but that ferocious level of competition is something I can’t completely comprehend. “You finished second, narrowly, and you want to completely overhaul your whole strategy? I could see a tweak here and there, but you’re talking about a complete overhaul?”   

If I suffer from this unusual, and unhealthy, need to win, that does not extend to games of chance. I know I have no control of dice or the next card a dealer sends me. These games involve some strategy, and an advanced poker player could clean me out in under an hour, but it still involves chance. Gamblers talk about the thrill of victory, and I’ve experienced that, but my experience with games of chance almost always involves the agony of defeat. If I ever won, other than the few times listed below, I might develop a problem, but I’ve never had a problem with gambling.   

I may be upset when chance doesn’t roll my way, but it does not destroy me emotionally. These are games of chance, and I know if I get lucky, I don’t expect that luck to continue. In a friendly game of craps, for instance, I once committed the cardinal sin of pulling my money off the table in the middle of a hot streak. I knew it couldn’t continue, and I knew that with every roll, so I stopped right in the midst of it. I did so, in my opinion, before my luck could run out. I was satisfied by my meager winnings, and I knew that the chances that I would continue to win were against me. My friends complained that true craps players don’t pull their money off the table, without giving the other players a chance to win their money back. “But I was playing against the house,” I said.

“Still,” they said. “It’s considered poor gamesmanship to take the money and run. Plus, if you let it ride, you could’ve been the biggest winner of the day. You were on a roll.” 

To their utter amazement, I was just fine with my meager winnings.

I did this again, sometime later in a poker game. This time, I let my money ride and ended up finishing second. If anyone, anywhere, considers this bragging, I add that in a lifetime of playing these stupid games of chance, there’s a reason these two instances are memorable. The game ended with me drawing one relatively inferior card, and I finished one card away from winning the pot. I finished second in the winnings of that day, and I had no designs on playing a bluff and pushing my pot to the middle. I was perfectly happy to finish second that day, and that didn’t make sense to my friends.

It didn’t matter to them that I played the big money winner down to the final hand. It didn’t matter to them that I managed to walk away with the second most money. He won. I lost. Game over.  

“You need to learn how to lose if you ever hope to win,” someone’s mom once said to him. I don’t care if you’re Tom Brady, Tony Gwynn, or Michael Jordan, you’re going to lose more than you win in life. Tony Gwynn didn’t get a hit 66.2% of the time, Michael Jordan missed 50.3% of the shots he took, and Tom Brady had to fight in college and in the early years of his NFL career to become, and remain, a starting quarterback for those squads. We need to learn to manage and learn from our losses if we ever hope to win. Yet, we don’t want to manage it too well, for as O.J. Simpson said, “He who loses well loses often.”  

I never managed losing well, as evidence by the fact that I don’t win often enough. “Did you have fun?” my mom asked to start the healing process after I finished second in a race of seven. “If you did, that’s all that matters.” She enjoyed racing her peers, when she was young. She didn’t care if she won. She just enjoyed spending time with friends. She had the healthy mindset of course, but it didn’t ease my sense of devastation. Having fun was for girls as far as I was concerned. I enjoyed winning, and I wanted to beat my opponent so bad that I demoralized them.

There was one kid I could never beat in one particular game. There was nothing I could do different to beat this kid. He was just better than me at this game. He didn’t rub it in, and he didn’t celebrate his victories in any way. He was just better than me, and he knew it. When I finally overcame him, I continued to play hard, and ran up the score. “How’s this any fun for you?” he asked. “Do you enjoy humiliating me?”

“I do,” I said. “I consider it fun.”

Seven-year-olds know nothing of these complexities. They want to win when they play sports, and they want to beat video games, and they feel some frustration when they don’t. They might even see upending tables as a way of coping with loss, until they see an example of the opposite. They might also find playing video games with Dad to be less than fun, because he always gets so upset, and he’s always criticizing me and complaining about his own inability to defeat the game. Seven-year-olds don’t view the video game as a vicarious way of accomplishing what they can’t do in real life. They might view getting past stage eleven of the game as a moment of pride, but they don’t have the baggage on their back that the rest of us do. They don’t lord it over their friends who haven’t done it. They just think that video games are fun, and they look like more fun when others play it than when we do.

After my son issued his character-defining challenge, I accepted it and attempted to erase my lifelong conditioning, and I did it. When we played the game together, and he fell behind, I patiently waited for him to catch up. When he killed us, I said, “Hey, it’s just a game.” He freaked out however. When I fell behind, or caused us to die, he was rude, insensitive, and ferociously competitive. “What happened?” I asked. “I thought we were supposed to be playing this game without criticizing each other or complaining?” He had no answer for that, which led me to believe that as hard as I focused on putting my conditioned responses in the off position for one game, he couldn’t do the same with the conditioned responses I taught him.

What Happened to Cam Newton?


[Writer’s Note: At the time of this writing, the former Carolina Panther’s quarterback Cam Newton is unable to find a team, and Robert Griffin III (RGIII), Kaepernick, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota are in similar straits, or they’ve accepted the role of a backup with a team other than the team who drafted them. This might change for them, but the theme of this article remains.]   

Like RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton was the most talented athlete anybody ever saw for most of his life. He never met anyone bigger, better, or faster than in high school, college, and some might argue he was the best athlete anyone in the NFL ever saw. If he encountered someone who was one of the above, along the way, they weren’t all three. If he encountered one who was close, that player was not a quarterback. Cam won the National Championship in college and the Heisman Trophy. He was then the first player chosen in the NFL Draft. He went onto win rookie of the year award, the NFL MVP award, and then he did something, five years later, only 63 other quarterbacks in NFL history have accomplished, he led his team to the Super Bowl. He was fast, big, elusive, and he knew how to win. Some might argue that with the rules of the NFL game being what they are today, Cam Newton’s play almost single-handedly determined whether the Carolina Panthers would make it to the Super Bowl that year.

Prior to that Super Bowl, Cam led the Panthers to three straight division titles and a 15-1 record in their NFC Championship year. Following the Super Bowl, the trajectory of his career and the plight of the Panthers, has since followed a downward trajectory. The Panthers are now 29-35 since that Super Bowl appearance.

Cam’s measurables, coming out of college, were almost unprecedented. He had almost unprecedented size (Dante Culpepper was 6’4″ 260 lbs, Cam was 6’5″ 250 lbs.), and he had an almost unparalleled athletic ability (Culpepper ran a 4.52 40, Cam ran a 4.59). The three best QBs of the era (Brady, Manning, and Brees) would’ve killed for Cam’s measurables, but the question we now ask, in hindsight, is would those three have won as often as they did if blessed with Cam’s size and ability?

Personally, I don’t think so, because when a quarterback doesn’t have the measurables Cam had in high school and college, they, and their coaches, trained their focus on the immeasurables in practices and scrimmages. It’s those immeasurables, those intangibles, that have led those three best QBs of their era and many other lesser talents in the NFL playing QB to enjoy longer, more sustained success in the NFL.    

As another most talented athlete, anyone ever saw, former NFL MVP, and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner wrote an article that alludes to the idea that the NFL has a way of humbling even the most elite athletes. For Kurt Warner, that “most talented athlete, anyone ever saw” era ended for him when he left high school, but it didn’t end there for Cam Newton, and it didn’t end for him in college either. Few athletes can maintain this rarefied air in college, and even fewer like Cam, Colin Kaepernick, RGIII, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota maintain this stature in the NFL. Kurt suggests this might be a blessing and a curse for them.

The blessings are immediate, as everyone they’ve ever encountered told them that their athletic talent was such that they could achieve what nearly 100% of the rest of the us could only dream. The curse, that which arrives much later, happens when an elite athlete encounters a brilliant, NFL-level defensive coordinator uses his elite athletes to minimize the once-in-a-lifetime talents at quarterback to force them into jams they can’t escape with athletic talent alone.   

When forced into such jams, a quarterback learns why all of his previous coaches focused so much attention on developing their immeasurables during their formative years. One of Kurt’s college coaches taught him what to do when the offensive line breaks down, all the receivers are covered, and the defense has assigned one of their linebackers to spy on him, so he can’t run. This college coach instituted what he called a “Kill Kurt” drill that Kurt described as:

“One of my least favorite times on the field, but it may have also been the most valuable. That drill taught me to read defenses and keep my eyes downfield instead of looking at the rush and bailing out at the first sign of trouble. It forced me to know exactly who I was reading on each play and to make a quick decision, inside the pocket, or I was going to get hit. 

“I am grateful my coach installed that drill early in my career, because even though I may have been able to avoid a lot athletically at that age, there was no question the ability to do that would be over sooner rather than later. If I was going to be successful playing the position, it would have to come with what I processed mentally — not what I was able to avoid physically.” 

The young Kurt Warner probably hated the drill as much as he described, because it showed him he was no longer the “most talented athlete, anyone ever saw”. It informed him that if he was going to succeed at the collegiate level, he was going to have to stay in the pocket and develop instincts. The drill taught him that he would have to figure out what to do when things broke down, without taking off and running. When no receiver was open, he had to learn how to scramble in the pocket effectively, throw the ball away, throw it into a tight window that led the receiver to being open, or take the sack. Most coaches, as Kurt alludes, accidentally begin to rely on their QB’s athleticism as much as the QB does, to get him out of jams.  

“As we can see when we look at [Cam Newton], [he] never had to worry about not being the best athlete on the field,” Kurt wrote. “Where many of us lose that tag in high school or college, [Cam has] been able to sustain it all the way to the NFL.

“Sounds like an incredible blessing, and of course to some degree it is, but it has delayed [his] overall growth and remains the main reason [he might be] struggling at the NFL level now.

“Many [elite athletes playing quarterback] have never been taught how to play the position the way it has to be played against the best athletes in the world. They have always been taught the basics, but then been encouraged when things didn’t look right to “Do what you do.””

I inserted Cam Newton, in place of the examples (RGIII and Colin Kaepernick) Kurt listed to explain his point, to maintain the theme of my article, because I believe everything Kurt writes apply to Cam Newton’s current state. Some might state that the ‘X’ factor in Cam’s decline include the injuries he accumulated over the years, and they played a role, but there was some level of decline before the injuries that sidelined him. We also have to factor Cam’s style of play in the NFL, as the hits a running QB take are largely unsustainable, as evidenced by the short career of RGIII among others.

Somewhere along the way, incredibly gifted athletes, like Cam, RGIII, Kaepernick, Winston, and Mariota needed a coach to teach them how to avoid relying on their athleticism, and it has to happen in the formative years of the Quarterback’s career. Sports analysts suggest that playing quarterback in the NFL might be the hardest position in sports, and it has everything to do with the measurables and the immeasurables.

Kurt’s point is that the idea that an elite athlete’s failure to develop alternatives to their athletic talent is not always the player’s fault. Yet, some of the times it is. We have to think that when “once-in-a-lifetime” talents develop their talent, they also develop quite an ego, and most high school coaches and some college coaches don’t feel qualified enough to tell them what to do. They might try to enhance and adjust the quarterbacks game, but in that difficult adjustment period, the QB had a couple of horrible outings that hurt his stock. Their friends and family then tell them not to listen to the coach, “You do what you do. You be you. Did you see what Michael Vick did to the Vikings? That could be you. The game is changing, and you need to tell your coach that.”    

Like most professional sports, the NFL is comprised of the most talented athletes anyone in their local areas ever saw. Most of us don’t know what that feels like, and we don’t know what we would do or say when a middle-aged coach, who didn’t have one-fifth of our talent, tells us how to play the game. Even fewer of us, the most elite of the elite, would ever know what it’s like to prove that coach wrong, when the NFL drafts us in the first round, or as three of the four listed here, the first or second NFL pick. When these once-in-a-lifetime talents, who were the best athletes anyone ever saw, then run into the extent of their talent, it’s often too late to make any substantial adjustments necessary for a prolonged, successful career in the Not for Long league, we call the NFL. 

A Catch is not a Catch


Other than the fact that I wanted to see a Big 10 team beat an ACC team, I had no rooting interest in the College Football Playoff semifinal game that pitted Clemson against Ohio State University (OSU). In the third quarter of this game, a Clemson receiver caught the ball and made, at least, three full steps before the ball came loose. Numerous replays show the ball didn’t move throughout those steps, and the officials on the field declared that the receiver made the catch, he fumbled, and an OSU defender retrieved the ball and took in the end zone. The replay officials, in the booth, carefully examined this play and determined that the receiver did not make the catch.

Announcers, analysts, all players involved, and fans can argue about what the definition of a catch is, per the rules of the league, but two facts undercut the “it was not a catch” argument in this particular instance. The first argument involves our common sense that the receiver did catch the ball, and I consider it ridiculous to suggest otherwise. I don’t care what the league rules dictate, 99.9% of the population from all genders and just about every age group knows that that was the dictionary definition of a catch, and if there is a rule that suggests otherwise, it should include an asterisk that suggests that officials and replay officials use their common sense when needed. The second, and far more frustrating point, is that the replay officials reviewing this play needed indisputable evidence to overturn the call the officials on the field made that this was a catch, and they obviously thought that they found it. One person in the broadcasting booth suggested it was not a catch, and that the replay officials would overturn the officials on the field, because the receiver did not make a football move. The idea that he made, at least, three steps did not move this broadcaster, because those three steps did not advance the ball up the field. This definition is so ridiculous that it almost requires an obnoxious reply, “What if a receiver catches a ball and for whatever reason remains still for an elongated period of time? If he doesn’t make a football move, how long can he remain in that position before the officials officially declare the pass complete?”

The overturned call in this game, coupled with the irrational rationale behind it, made me so sick that I fast-forwarded through a chunk of the game. Again, I had no rooting interest, and I’ve probably rooted against OSU more than I’ve rooted for them in my life, but I cannot shut out that part of my mind that calls for rational, common sense. As illogical and irrational as fast-forwarding through the game to try to pretend the replay officials didn’t overturn the call was at least as illogical and irrational as the call was. 

I imagined being a top broadcaster who is skilled enough and lucky enough to call such a game. I have to imagine that the promotion and the subsequent uptick in salary would change the way I buy products. I would probably buy some large products without any guilt, and I would loosen the purse strings on my budget as the huge checks rolled in. If a play like this happened in a game I was calling, however, I would probably be so sick and irresponsible that my impulses would drive me to ignore the increase in salary and the luxuries it affords me. I would probably also ignore any concerns I have about the network dismissing me after the game. 

“A call like that disgusts me. My heart goes out to all of those involved at OSU who worked so hard to make this day happen, and my heart goes out to their fans too. This replay official just single-handedly robbed all of you of the chance to play for the national championship. I’m sorry Jed,” I would say to my broadcasting partner, who would probably have to lead the search for a new broadcasting partner the next day, “but you make a call like that, you deserve to be fired. I know officials have a tough job, and they need league rules to protect them and provide some parameters that promote consistency in their calls, but to declare that there’s indisputable evidence that that was not a catch just doesn’t make sense to me on any level.”   

In the post-game analysis, some obnoxious fool dropped the obnoxiously foolish comment that all obnoxiously foolish analysts make when an official blows a call that affects a game (Clemson won 29-23). He wrote that to avoid allowing officials decide a game, OSU should’ve scored more touchdowns. He correctly pointed out that OSU had at least two opportunities in the red zone that resulted in field goals. He failed to mention that if Clemson wins the national championship this year, it will be their third in four years. I mention this, to note that if a team wins a national championship, they have to have a competent defense at the very least. If that team wins three of four, their defense is probably great. OSU made some costly mistakes that affected this game, it’s college football after all, but I have some problems with analysts who say a team should’ve been able to overcome disastrous live calls from on the field officials. I have greater problems with analysts who say that a team should’ve been able to overcome disastrous calls from a replay official who is able to slow the film down and analyze the play for however long it takes them to reach an official conclusion.

Any time a team loses a huge game like this one, as a result of one disastrous call by an official on the field or in the booth, at least one of these ingenious analysts trots out the ingenious insight that if the losing team considered scoring more touchdowns that would’ve resulted in more points, and that would’ve increased the probability that they won the game. The losing team, they add, shouldn’t have put themselves in a position where a bad call could determine the outcome, and these analysts write these articles in a manner that casts blame on the losing team for failing to consider that. As ridiculous as these suggestions sound, their argument is correct and logical, but is it as logical as a statement that suggests that it doesn’t matter how many touchdowns a team scores if there are enough bad calls from officials and replay officials, made against them? 

Let’s Make Football Violent Again


“Make football violent again,” was a hat the safety for the Minnesota Vikings, Andrew Sendejo, wore in an NFL training camp. The instinctive reaction we might have to such a call is that Sendejo is trying to be provocative, for no one who knows anything about violence would condone it in anyway. We might also say that, as a professional football player, Sendejo is setting a poor example for the youth who look up to him. Our society should be moving in the exact opposite direction, others might say, especially when it comes to young men. 

An argument that condones violence in any way will never make its way to a broadcasting booth of any kind, unless it is to condemn it, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit, when it comes to football at least. If the argument did make it on air, in some form, we have to imagine that the broadcasters would say, “I don’t condone violence, but …” to distance themselves from Sendejo’s argument, but there is a but argument that is worthy of some consideration. The but argument focuses on the unpleasant fact that some young men have violent impulses, and they need an outlet, or a ‘somewhat’ controlled and monitored environment, to indulge that primal impulse for violence. Most audiences don’t want to hear anything about that. They prefer a more rational discussion that focuses on ways to make would young men less violent in a way that might help make our world less violent. No rational discussion by a professional in any field would focus on the need for an outlet for violent activity.

The well-intentioned opponents of the game now know that football is too entrenched for them to make any strides with regard to banning football from the high school level on up. Yet, they are making strides at banning tackle football in youth groups, and they are using the banner of ‘player safety’ to lessen the impact of some of the more violent hits in the game from the high school level on up. Proponents of the traditional game know that some measures are required to make the game safer, as athletes become stronger and faster, but as these measures to remove violence from the game progress, proponents warn, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

We’ve all heard horrific tales of the wide array of what can happen on a football field, and we’re all sympathetic to the players and their families affected by it. Among these stories, are those that involve brain injuries, including concussions and repeated severe concussions that could lead to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). We’ve heard that various forms of CTE have ruined lives. We’ve heard neurologists state that scientific studies of the harm football causes young people is now irrefutable. We’ve had neighbors tell us that these studies scare them so much, they won’t let their children play the game. The NFL has heard all of this too, and they’ve made substantial rule changes to try to lessen the violent impact of the game, in the hopes of influencing college football, and high school football officials to follow suit.

The ‘be careful what you wish for’ crowd has heard all of these arguments too, and they’re sensitive to them. No one wants to see a young life affected to the degree we’ve witnessed in far too many instances, but when esteemed neurologists list sports’ alternatives for concerned parents, proponents suggest that they fail to recognize the need young boys have to hit one another in a violent manner. Those other sports might satisfy the need young people have for competitive athletic activity, team play, and various other character-building exercises that build self-esteem, but they don’t satisfy the primal impulses young men have to commit violent acts on one another.

Those of us, who played an inordinate amount of unnecessarily violent, pickup games of tackle football, know that football was our favorite way to satiate that primal need for violence. We didn’t know anything about these beneficial qualities, and we didn’t know the possible harm we were doing to ourselves when we played these games, but we saw our non-football playing friends go out for the evening just to “crack some skulls.” We thought they were joking, or engaging in some false bravado, but they had all this pent-up rage, and this general sense of animosity and anger that they couldn’t explain. They needed to unleash in an impulsive, irrational manner. They wanted to hurt someone, and they always got hurt in the process, but they wore their bruises and open cuts as symbols of valor. They failed to adequately explain what a rush it was to the rest of us, because they probably couldn’t understand it well enough to explain it. The only thing they knew was that they gained respect from their peers for their violent tendencies, and it did wonders for their self-esteem. They also enjoyed an element of team spirit in some cases. Those fight nights gained them what the rest of us attained playing football.    

“No one is saying that if we ban football or make it less violent, it will automatically lead to more violent young men, but if you think it will make them less violent, be careful what you wish for,” proponents say to parents who will not allow their children to play football. When our grade school banned football on the playground, we played kill the man with the ball. Our school administrators caught on, and they banned that. Soon after that, we played kill the man with the pine cone. If we dilute football to the point of hopscotch, proponents say, boys will find a way to hit each other, tackle each other, or some way to inflict pain on one another, because we cannot legislate the impulsive, primal nature out of boys and young men. Most parents, who raise their children in safe, happy climates cannot understand why they have violent tendencies, and we might not remember why we did, but football proponents suggest that the sport satisfies something in us that no other non-contact sport can.

Even though this impulsive need for an outlet to indulge violent tendencies has existed throughout human history, we have to imagine that B.C. humans didn’t want to discuss it in polite company either. The games the cavemen and the ancient Romans played were more violent, of course, and modern man might think he stands above that which occurred back then, and we might have a more advanced brain than those who sit below us in the animal kingdom, but the primal need for an outlet still exists in some. This conversation is so unpleasant and uncomfortable that the major broadcasts networks will never cover it on one of their pregame broadcasts, and I don’t think we’ll ever hear this as a topic on one of the all too numerous sports radio programs, because it feeds into the portrayal of young men as primal beasts. Yet, we all know this unpleasant side of young men exists, and if we don’t provide them a monitored, somewhat controlled method of channeling their impulses and needs, it might result in other unintended consequences our society doesn’t want to consider.

The Curse of the Bambino, Harry Frazee, and Ed Barrow


Until the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, many Red Sox fans talked about something called The Curse of the Bambino, as if it was a real thing. Cubs fans talk about a billy goat, and various other sports organizations’ fans develop other myths for why the guys on their team can’t defeat the guys on the other team. The Curse of the Bambino, involving a sale of the greatest athlete of his generation, Babe Ruth, from the Red Sox to the Yankees, might be the one myth that has any merit, however, for at the point of sale the Red Sox won four World Series and the New York Yankees won zero. After the sale of Babe Ruth in 1920, and up until 2004, the Yankees won 26 World Series and the Red Sox won zero. This changing of the tide was engineered by one man, then Red Sox owner Harold Frazee, who then proceeded to sell nearly every member of the World Series champion Red Sox’s best players to the Yankees.

How many of us have had a bout of insomnia over a silly mistake we’ve made? How many of us have made a mistake on par with selling Babe Ruth and the rest of a World Series championship team? Have we ever stopped in the midst of obsessing over a mistake we’ve made, until we realize that it happened over three decades ago? Most people don’t. Most people are blessed and cursed with short-term memories. We’ve all made mistakes though. We’ve made errors in judgment based on uninformed choices, and dumb decisions that seemed so right at the time. Most of us are able to move on in life, even after making decisions that proved catastrophic at the time. Most of us have never made a decision, or series of decisions that proved so catastrophic that people will be talking them nearly one hundred years from now, characterizing our choices as some of the worst mistakes in human history. Other than those decisions made by those involved in the Black Sox Scandal, there might only be one person, in baseball, that continues to be mocked, ridiculed, and scorned over one hundred years after he made a series of historically poor decisions, Harry Herbert Frazee.

Ed Barrow, Babe Ruth, and Harry Frazee

Harry Herbert Frazee (June 29, 1880 – June 4, 1929) was an American theatrical agent, producer, and director, and he remained successful in this field until the day he died. He also happened to be a successful boxing promoter who once landed one of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson’s matches. Harry Frazee also bought the 1915 and 1916 World Series champion Boston Red Sox, who won the 1918 World Series for him. One of the players he sold was also on the 1912 World Series championship team. The error in judgment, uninformed choices, and dumb decisions that Frazee made were to sell, and sell/trade almost all of the best players on those teams. Yet, for all of the successes and failures of Harry’s life, many believe his tombstone should read, “Here lies Harry Herbert Frazee, the man who sold Babe Ruth.”

Most writers love to write provocative articles from an angle no one has ever considered before. We enjoy taking a well-known story and providing a non-traditional perspective that opens our readers eyes to “the other side”. The other side, of the story we now call The Curse of the Bambino involves a suggestion that the conditions surrounding Harry Frazee’s sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees were a lot more complicated than most people know. The author of such a provocative article is then obligated to back up his assessment with data that supports his thesis. This thesis becomes more provocative when the author can provide data that most people don’t know.

The Curse of the Bambino suggests that the sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series from the point of sale in 1920 to the publication date of the Dan Shaughnessy book in 1990 (the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004). Some of the authors, who attempted to write the other side of the sale of Babe Ruth and eight other players from the Red Sox to the Yankees, looked at the data from a baseball perspective, others chose a financial lens, and some had slide show presentations that suggest while history will never judge Harry Frazee kindly, the reactions to his sales and trades were evenly divided among fans and sportswriters at the time. Anytime we read an article that suggests a matter is far more complicated than we ever knew, our natural inclination is to weed through their narrative for the simple truths. One simple truth that permeates all of the articles written on this topic is that Harry Frazee made historical mistakes, and those mistakes led to the Yankee dynasty of the 1920’s and the early part of the 1930’s.

Another simple truth that is impossible to ignore is that the Red Sox won three World Series in four years before the sales and sale/trades, and they finished no higher than fifth in the thirteen years following the sales/trades. Other than a blip in 1925, the Yankees finished no lower than third in their league, and they won seven pennants and four World Series championships over the same thirteen-year period, following the trades. Another fact that’s impossible to ignore in all of the data is that among all the players involved, there were three people most responsible for this shift in the balance of power, Babe Ruth of course, Harry Frazee, and former Boston Red Sox manager-turned-New York Yankee business manager (general manager) Ed Barrow. 

Those of us who enjoy reading authors take those simple truths and attempt to provide another perspective on them, enjoyed the article written by Glenn Stout titled Harry Frazee. In this article, Stout writes that The Curse of the Bambino, and the subsequent demonization of Harry Frazee, was largely a myth created by writers to help Boston Red Sox fans explain their team’s disastrous loss to the Mets in the 1986 World Series. The thesis of the The Curse of the Bambino was there was no other way to describe that inexplicable loss. Stout writes that 1986 Red Sox fans were looking for someone to explain the inexplicable to them. They wanted a scapegoat, and they found one in Harry Frazee. His actions, over sixty years prior, allowed them to think there was more going on than some clutch hitting by the Mets, and an error in game six of the series that led to the Red Sox defeat that year. It was, of course, the ghost of Babe Ruth haunting them.

Stout also writes that Harry Frazee was not a greedy owner who wanted money more than a successful franchise. He writes that Frazee was independently wealthy from an early age, and he died that way. He also writes that Frazee was a wealthy and successful man before and after the trades that depleted the Red Sox and built the Yankees eventual dynasty. He writes that when Frazee died, a majority of the fan base, a majority of the sportswriters, and a majority in baseball didn’t hold him singularly responsible for the fall of the Red Sox. He states that while history might make Frazee appear incompetent, the reality of the situation that occurred during the 1920-1923 period was a lot more complicated than most people know.

To illustrate his point, Stout wrote a book with Richard A. Johnson called Red Sox Century, in which they provide a note Harry Frazee wrote to explain that the sale of Babe Ruth was based on Ruth’s contractual demands, and “[Ruth’s] disruptive influence on the team, and the fact that [Ruth] had “jumped the club” at the end of the 1919 season.” In the book, they also provide Frazee’s frustrations with The Bambino:

“While Ruth without question is the greatest hitter that the game has seen,” Frazee wrote in a 1,500-word statement, “he is likewise one of the most inconsiderate men that ever wore a baseball uniform.”

The Red Sox owner said Ruth had “no regard for anyone but himself” and was a “bad influence on other and still younger players on the team.”

He continued: “A team of players working harmoniously together is always to be preferred to that possessing one star who hugs the limelight to himself. And that is what I’m after.”

The sale of Ruth aside for a moment, Glenn Stout attempts to defend the fire sale of the other eight players by writing that the minor leaguers the Red Sox received in those subsequent trades didn’t pan out, as some of them suffered career-ending injuries.

Injuries are a part of the game, of course, and they can make owners and GM’s look bad when they make deals for players who were injured so early in their careers they appear anonymous to history. This attempt to defend Frazee is valid, until one asks the question how many minor league prospects ever reach their full potential? Whatever the actual answer is, it surely pales in comparison to the prospect of whether or not a player who has already won three World Series might succeed. Stout does not specifically address this particular idea in his defense of Frazee.

Stout also writes, “no one could know that Babe Ruth would become Babe Ruth”. Fair enough, but at the point of sale in 1919, Ruth played six seasons for the Red Sox, and in that brief span, he set the record for home runs in a season twice, and he led the league in eight different batting categories in 1919, the year before Frazee sold him. He was also a dominant pitcher early in his career, before he switched to hitting. 

As one of his peers, Rube Bressler said in his interview for the book The Glory of Their Times “[Ruth] played by instinct, sheer instinct. He wasn’t smart, he didn’t have any education, but he never made a wrong move on a baseball field. He was like a damn animal. He had that instinct. [Animals] know when when it’s going to rain, things like that. Nature, that was Ruth! 

Stout’s point that Frazee couldn’t know Ruth would be one of the top five players of all time is a valid one, as I point out, but it sounds like if he wanted to know the potential The Babe had to be great, all he had to do is ask around. Some of those who provide an alternative view of this story suggest that Frazee saw how undisciplined Ruth was, and how unintelligent he was, and he figured that Ruth’s 1919 season was a peak performance, and he wanted to receive peak value for his services.

Stout, and numerous others, state that the previous owner of the Red Sox was calling in Frazee’s loan, and that Frazee was in a tight spot financially. If Frazee didn’t pay the loan back that year, he might have lost the franchise. Yet, Stout and others assure us Frazee was never personally broke and none of the sales between the Yankees and Red Sox involved Frazee’s attempts to enrich himself personally. If that’s the case, and I appreciate the author’s attempt to dispel this simplistic notion, I cannot understand the deals Frazee made with the Yankees following the Ruth sale. If those latter deals involved Frazee’s continued efforts to save his franchise, one would think he might dip into his considerable personal finances and help the Red Sox over the temporary blip. I prefer to think, as Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt write, that Frazee somehow became addicted to making deals with the cash rich Yankees to help him resolve the Red Sox debts that might help make the Red Sox more profitable for him.  

Those of us who know history, cannot put blinders on. No matter how many alternative “time and place” perspectives various writers put before us, we know that Frazee sold Ruth for money, and no matter how much money he received from that sale, it paled in comparison to the money Ruth would’ve generated for Frazee in the coming years. Stout’s argument that, “no one could’ve known that Babe Ruth would’ve become Babe Ruth” is a decent one when we think about how many could’ve been should’ve beens dot baseball history, but Frazee received $100,000 and a loan of $300,000 from the Yankees for the services of Babe Ruth. We can speculate that this wasn’t the initial offer from the Yankees, and we can guess that Frazee and his people drove that initial offer up by detailing for the Yankees Babe Ruth’s current, 1920 market value. We can also guess that they had detailed forecasts on Ruth’s future, market prospects to drive that price up further. We can speculate that in those dark room negotiations, Frazee and his people displayed intimate knowledge of Ruth’s current and future market value to persuade the Yankees to pay more for Ruth than any major league franchise had ever paid for a single player before. Yet, other reports we’ve read from baseball insiders of the day state that many around the league considered the Yankees fools for paying that much money for one player.

Harry Frazee probably tried to feed into this with his explanation for selling Ruth, “With this money the Boston club can now go into the market and buy other players and have a stronger and better team in all respects than we would have had if Ruth had remained with us.” Sportswriters and fans believed this at the time, for they probably shared the sentiment that one man does not a team make. With the amount of money the Yankees were paying, many inside baseball thought Frazee got the better end of the deal, but no one knew how addicted Frazee would become to using the Yankees’ money to escape debt, no one, it seems, except Ed Barrow.

***

Ed Barrow

Authors Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt introduced this name Ed Barrow to us in an article titled Harry Frazee and the Boston Red Sox. Ed Barrow, they state, played a prominent role, perhaps the most prominent role, in the sales/trades the Red Sox made to the Yankees following the sale of Babe Ruth.

“[Glenn] Stout and [Richard A.] Johnson claim that Frazee made sound baseball deals with the Yankees and that he could not have foreseen what the trades would do for either club,” Daniel R. Levitt, Mark Armour, and Matthew Levitt write. “This argument does not hold up. Ed Barrow, manager of the Red Sox from 1918 through 1920, left the Red Sox and became general manager of the Yankees. Barrow knew the Red Sox players as well as anyone, and he spent the next few years grabbing all of the good players, like future Hall of Fame pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, catcher Wally Schang, shortstop Everett Scott, third baseman Joe Dugan, and pitchers Joe Bush and Sam Jones, among others. In fact[,] Barrow liked his former players enough that he got the Yankee owners to give Frazee $305,000, convincing evidence that both teams agreed that the talent was imbalanced. To argue that Frazee made good deals is to suggest both that Barrow and the Yankees somehow lucked into their dynasty and that the money was not the central piece of the deal for Frazee.”

In my opinion, the answer to the many questions we have regarding why Frazee sold so many players to the Yankees revolves around the question why did Ed Barrow quit his job as Red Sox manager to become the business manager (general manager) of the Yankees? The answer to those questions involves the insider information Barrow had about Harry Frazee, the debt the Red Sox were experiencing in those years, and how Frazee planned to resolve that debt.  

Before Ed Barrow left the Red Sox in 1921, we can assume that for most of his three year tenure, he was so satisfied to be the Red Sox manager, that if it were up to him he would retire from baseball as their manager. He led the Red Sox to the 1918 World Series championship after all. When Frazee sold The Babe, it probably came as a shock to Barrow, but we can guess that Frazee sat him down and explained to his manager why the sale was necessary. When Frazee sold four more players, we can guess that Barrow required a more detailed explanation, as Frazee opened the books for him to show the manager the debt Frazee incurred as owner of the Red Sox. This moment, right here, resulted in the changing of the tide in baseball more than anything else. Regardless what the books said, Barrow probably realized that his owner’s primary concern was making himself and the Red Sox financially profitable. Those who say that Frazee was already rich, and that he didn’t make these deals to enrich himself are probably spot on, but Frazee obviously fancied himself a wheel and dealer who could build a winner, as opposed to inheriting one. 

Ed Barrow also knew, as many did at the time, that due to the “Black Sox Scandal” and Frazee’s disputes with American League Bam Johnson and the other teams in the American League loyal to Bam, Harry Frazee was limited to dealing exclusively with the Yankees. (Note: There is a consensus among the writers of the various articles I read on this particular topic that these circumstances forced Frazee to deal exclusively with the Yankees for the reasons listed here. The idea that Frazee and the Red Sox could have dealt with a team in the National League is not mentioned in any article I’ve found, and there is no reason listed for why this wasn’t a possibility for them.) Whatever the case was with Frazee, we can also presume that in his meetings with with the man, Barrow saw the writing on the wall for the Red Sox franchise, and his owner’s willingness to sell his team down the river for large sums of cash.

As anyone who has experienced debt knows, if we find one way to resolve some of our debt, we are prone to follow that path wherever it leads to hopefully become debt-free. Barrow may have experienced some disgust when Frazee began selling his 1918 World Series Champions, but he was probably one of the few who knew the situation so well that when the previous Yankees general manager died in 1920, Barrow probably raced down to the Yankees front office to pitch them on how he, if hired him as their next general manager, could persuade Frazee to sell more players to the Yankees and help them build a dynasty.

At the point when Barrow decided to join the Yankees, the Red Sox won four World Series, and the Yankees won zero.

As the new business manager for the Yankees, Ed Sparrow helped the owners of the Yankees engineer four subsequent trades with Frazee and the Red Sox that involved 12 players and $305,000 “to help Frazee recover from his debt”. As the Levitts’ and Armour article suggests, the idea that Barrow convinced the Yankees to add $305,000 to the deal provides compelling evidence that both teams knew the Red Sox were getting the raw end of the deal. If we are to believe the writers who write from another perspective, it’s simplistic to say that Frazee made these maneuvers for the money, and “the reality of the situation was a lot more complicated than most people know”. If he didn’t need the money, as they write, and it was his goal in life to continue to own a profitable, winning major league baseball franchise, then he was either an incredibly poor business man, or someone who did not know baseball very well. Whatever the case was, Barrow knew who he was dealing with, and he knew how to convince Frazee to sell/trade twelve more players to the Yankees.  

When Barrow’s new team, the New York Yankees, won their first World Series two years later, in 1923, four of the eight starting position players were from the Red Sox, and four of the five starting pitchers on that championship roster were former Red Sox players. The Red Sox finished last in the American League that year, and “their skeletal remains would be the doormat of the league for many years”. With this team of former Red Sox players, Barrow would oversee the Yankees win six more pennants, and three more World Series. During his tenure as general manager, the Yankees would win a total of fourteen pennants and ten World Series. This level of success, initiated by Barrow’s maneuvers with Frazee, would lead many to call Barrow an “empire-builder for the first quarter-century of the Yankees’ dynasty.” These sales/trades also landed Ed Barrow in the baseball hall of fame and Yankee Stadium placed a plaque of him in center field.

As Harry Hooper, the center fielder for the ‘15,’16, and ’18 World Series champion Red Sox, states in his interview for the book The Glory of Their Times, “The Yankee dynasty of the twenties was three-quarters the Red Sox [dynasty lineup] of a few years before. All Frazee wanted was money. He was short of cash and he sold the whole team down the river to keep his dirty nose above water. What a way to end a wonderful ball club.

“Sick to my stomach at the whole business,” Hooper followed Ruth’s hold out with a hold out of his own just to get out of Boston before it all came crumbing down, and Frazee sold Hooper to the Chicago White Sox.

It would be devastating to any franchise, of any sport, to sell one of the top players of his era, who would become one of the top five greatest players to ever play the game. Yet, even selling a once-in-a-generation talent like Babe Ruth is not enough to sink a franchise for eighty-four years, in a manner suggested in The Curse of the Bambino. It’s even difficult to believe that Ed Barrow taking advantage of Frazee to the point of selling/trading twelve other players over the course of three years can curse a franchise for that long, but as we all know winning breeds winning. In the course of those eighty-four years (1918-2004), the Red Sox did have some high quality, competitive teams. Various Red Sox teams won division titles, pennants, and they competed for the World Series in 1946, ’67, ’75 and ’86 only to fall short. The Yankees, of course, would win 26 World Series championships in the same time-frame, and they would appear in 39 World Series. Many of those Red Sox teams were unlucky, but unlucky is difficult to grasp when it occurs over the space of eighty-four years and the score with their cross town rivals was 26-0 when it came to World Series championships. Some people need an explanation, any explanation, to explain how some bizarre plays and unlucky events lead to a championship drought, and the 45% of the population who believe in ghosts thought they found the reason in Babe Ruth, Harry Frazee, and The Curse of the Bambino. Now that it’s over, and Boston Red Sox soaked the curse for all that it was, what do Red Sox fans talk about now that Boston has won the World Series four times including 2004?