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A Principal and a Principle

June 09, 2004

Commitment, it too often seems these days, has become something of a quaint word and a malleable concept. Once it meant a promise not easily undone. Now, pro athletes who've signed lucrative contracts withhold their services until an even better deal appears. So it frankly was not surprising when, as chronicled by The Times' Eric Sondheimer, a number of players on the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies baseball team did not appear at the team's last two regular-season games.

After all, they were meaningless contests because the 7-0 team had already clinched a City Section playoff berth. And there were tempting social activities like senior parties at game time. Short of players, the school team had to forfeit the season's last two games. What's unusual -- and inspiring -- is what happened then: After consulting with the coach, Principal Bob Weinberg, himself a former coach, forfeited the school's playoff berth. If the players didn't care about regular games, how could they care about playoffs? "Someone has to be the adult in this whole thing," Weinberg said. "It's a lesson in character." For everyone.

As the Greeks knew when founding the Olympics as a substitute for frequent wars, sports can channel normal competitive human energies and urges into activities that construct positive attributes, not destructive ones. At their best, sports teach preparation, competition, conditioning, determination, work ethic, physical and emotional grace, handling victory (which is easy) and defeat (which is not). All useful lessons for life beyond athletics.

At their worst, modern American sports teach greed, unbridled emotions, poor sportsmanship, the power of money and fame, the incredibly silly things TV cameras cause people to do and how way too many superb athletes can get away with way too much. All are lessons that corrupt individuals and many impressionable people watching through envious eyes.

Perhaps for their own good, the once- undefeated baseball players of Sherman Oaks CES and the whiners who see the playoff forfeits as extreme will learn an important life lesson. Perhaps a few others, some of them adults, also will notice. "Kids need to know they have to give 110%," Principal Weinberg said, "whether it's a team, business or family. If they let them down, there are consequences. You can't go 80% and say, 'OK, I'm going to coast now and not even bother to show up.' " Class dismissed.

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