College Cross-Country’s Imported Superstars — My Private Discontent

I’m sure Jesse Squires didn’t mean to, but this morning he really got my dander up.

Jesses is a fine staff writer for Daily Relay. This morning he reported highlights of the weekend’s college cross-country meets.

In the results lists for the Cowboy Jamboree X-C meet, we find the following top finishers:

1. Kennedy Kithuka, Texas Tech

2. Kirubel Erassa, Oklahoma State

3. Shadrack Kipchirchir, Oklahoma State

4. Futsum Zienellassie, Northern Arizona

5. Brian Shrader, Northern Arizona

6. Tom Farrell, Oklahoma State

7. Joseph Manilafasha, Oklahoma State

8. Mason Ferlic, Michigan

Note that Oklahoma State is the #1-ranked team in the nation, and that 3 if its 4 top-8 finishers (and 5 of the top 8 athletes overall) are from Africa.

Is it just me, or should NCAA track and field consider giving itself another name – say, “NTF,” for conformity with NBA, NHL, NFL?

Let’s face it, what we’ve got in some top college track and field programs today is shamateurism. It’s de facto professional age-group sports, complete with worldwide recruiting.

I’m no racist, but … the universities of Nairobi and Addis Ababa at Stillwater and Tucson just make me laugh.

I hear voices raised in protest: “Nothing wrong with that – may the new world of global sports thrive!”

I guess I’m an old fogey. I like my track and field with a dose of classic amateurism. I believe there’s something beautiful about sports at the elementary-school level, and that the factors that make it beautiful ought to be preserved for as long as possible, as children make their way through their education.

My faith is expressed beautifully in an article by the late Bil Gilbert, “Gleanings From a Troubled Time” (Sports Illustrated, December 25, 1972). It includes one of the most inspiring paeans to sports amateurism I’ve read (I’m 71, so I’ve read some).

I have no problem with foreign-born athletes running and learning in the U.S. It’s their coaches I mind. Their obvious mentality of winning at any cost is, in my book, just plain sick. Particularly in an environment where the main goal ought to be providing opportunities for all comers. Coaches should not displace athletes who would otherwise be able to compete, with superstars seeking a footstep to the Diamond League.

I believe there’s a good argument to be made for the notion that winning isn’t everything, and that coaches don’t need to look beyond American athletes in order to win. In fact, I think we should re-define winning.

Consider Bill Aris, coach of the perennial U.S. #1-ranked Fayetteville-Manlius HS girls’ cross-country team in Manlius, NY.  I’ve written about Bill’s coaching philosophy. Bill expressed his approach:

“You start with the mind and the heart. We try to find out what makes a kid tick. We talk to them, we spend time with them, we ask them – this is in advance of any serious running – and find out what motivates them and what they aspire to do and achieve, even if they’re runners, or even if they’re not runners yet. Okay. And our emphasis is on getting them to see what we may perceive as their potential. And when they see it and they invest of themselves or, as they say, buy into it, then the rest of it’s easy.”

Even if Bill weren’t succeeding brilliantly, if he were only inspiring kids of average talent to make the best of themselves, he would be a big winner.

This is coaching as it should be – concerned with the individual athlete, NOT with the coach’s win-loss record. That’s putting it backwards.

The coaches who import runners from Africa to build their resumes are the biggest losers. They’re confessing their weakness as coaches. They’re saying, “For me, winning is everything – the education of young people is secondary. I can’t be successful unless I can work with athletes who have tremendous, world-class talent. Without that kind of athlete, I’m a nobody.”

Well, yes, you are.

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