Walleye Fishing, Chess, and Cornhole…Oh My!

Remember the pureness of sports? The reason you were probably drawn to participating and being a fan way back when? There was such a time…right?

I think back to playing sports with all my friends all summer. We’d go to two-a-day basketball summer camps and hustle over to the local park just in time to swap jerseys and shoes to play softball double header in the muggy Ohio July evenings.

Those were the days. Sure, we were kids, but a similar coming-of-age pureness occurred on my college softball team as well. Figuring life out, being out on our own, and learning life’s lessons that can’t be taught and must be experienced along the way.

If you participate in competitive sports as an adult, or even if you are just a fan and armchair quarterback, there is still an element of that pureness that speaks to you (hopefully!). Honing your skills, cheering on your favorite team. The highs and the lows. They stick with you.

I’m not naïve enough to think sports – especially at elite levels – have always been pure. I know there are always some bad apples in the bunch that ruin it for the rest of us…but I thought those used to be the exceptions, not the norm. Hello, Netflix “Bad Sport” series, the Black Sox scandal, and you can’t forget my hometown’s own Pete Rose (who is apparently still trying to get the HOF nod).

Those once-in-a-while occurrences stopped us in our tracks and briefly made us question the integrity of sports as an institution. The dust would settle, and we’d go back to normal.

But lately, I’ve been stopped in my tracks several times by recent cheating scandals that have honestly made me question on occasion why I work in sports. I’m just being honest here. I’m a purist at heart. I love nostalgia, feel-good moments, and a fierce need for a sense of integrity in life.

This fall, I took my kids to an author series presentation at our local library. They went kicking and screaming, but we homeschool our kids, so I chalked it up to their “schooling” and dragged them along.

The author speaking was a friend of mine, Scott Mercier, Scott was on the committee that hired me to start the sports commission. He’s a former Olympic cyclist and a former member of the now infamous US Postal Service cycling team. He competed internationally at the highest level during the rise of doping, with the likes of Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton.

Have you heard of him? Probably not (sorry, Scott!).

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Scott Mercier – Aspen Times

But the reason is good. You see, as Scott writes about in his wonderful book “Win True: How you win matters on and off the bike,” Scott likely passed up the opportunity to become a household name when he made the decision to quit competitive cycling at the height of his career rather than to cheat.

My kids listened intently and took notes (I made them do that part…I’m a mean mom!) as Scott told his story in his raw, brutally honest, and typically engaging fashion. After the session, I introduced them to my friend and had them each ask him a follow-up question.

Scott answered patiently and from the heart, treating them like the young man and woman-in training they are. He gave them his cell phone number and told them to reach out to him with any questions. Genuine selflessness on display.

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Scott, me, and my kids

The next day my kids wrote a paper about what they learned from Scott’s presentation. Not swayed by me, they wrote about seeking opportunity and learning that you alone are in control of the decisions in your life. I could try to pound these things into their heads, but hearing Scott’s story made it stick. After all, he’s a cool former pro athlete, and I’m, well, Mom.

Sure, it may not be all that surprising anymore when we hear about pro cyclists and baseball players doping (or banging on trash cans).

But what has surprised me as someone who has been in and around sports nearly my entire life is how cheating seems to be permeating even sports I (perhaps naively) thought were pure. Recently, there has been a major cheating scandal in walleye fishing at Lake Erie, accusations of cheating by a chess Grandmaster, and even controversy about regulation bag sizes in cornhole being dubbed “Bag Gate.” You can’t make it up!

I get the fact that whenever money is involved – from any angle, be it players, coaches, boosters, or sports bettors – the game literally changes. And it significantly offends my need for a sense of pureness and integrity, don’t get me wrong. However, it’s stories like those of Scott Mercier that remind me that even when it looks like all is lost in sport, there are real glimmers of hope and serving as examples by which we can teach our kids. And for that, I’m thankful!

As Scott astutely pointed out in his presentation: “Integrity is one of the very few things we have control of; only we can give it away.”

Be sure to check out an incredible story of someone who did it right…there are many great stories in the book that I won’t spoil here! (Win True, by Scott Mercier and Laurena Mayne Davis)

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