Has athletics lost its initial intent -- having fun?

By Wes Emmert

I want to exercise the intellect and share with you a book I read years ago. 

The book is "The Athletic Snowball" by Charles B. Corbin (1977, Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, Ill.). 

It’s the story of a little snowball rolled by a couple of innocent kids. They kept rolling the snowball and as it grew, more and more kids joined in the fun of pushing it.

Not only were they having fun pushing the snowball, but it was good exercise and kept them out of trouble. Soon the adults noticed how positive "snowballing" was on the youth and felt it belonged in the schools. It was adopted into the schools and teams were made up of students "gifted" at snowballing.


As the snowball continued to grow, it attracted more and more attention. People from all over traveled to see the snowball grow. Parents were becoming very proud of their little snowballers.

It wasn’t long until the schools recognized the money-making potential and began selling tickets to people who came to watch the teams push the snowball. Coaches were hired to help the teams improve their snowball pushing skills. Only the best students at snowballing were allowed to push the snowball. If the snowball didn’t continue to grow, no one would pay to see it. 

Unfortunately, once in awhile, someone would get in the way of the snowball and be swallowed up into it. The coaches and administrators reasoned that there would be some accidents from time to time, but the good of snowballing far outweighed the accidents. As the snowball continued to grow it became more and more unmanageable. It required more support staff and maintenance crews.

Snowballing moved onto the collegiate level where universities and their students identified with it. They become great institutions of higher learning because of the success of their snowball. The cost of snowballing continued to escalate. Expensive equipment was needed to improve performance. It was costly to recruit the best high school snowballers to the universities. They had to pay their conference "The Big Ice," a portion of the revenue to cover conference administrative costs.

The story continues to the point where the snowball is so big and so unmanageable that it comes to rest next to a cliff. The predicament is what to do to keep the snowball from plunging over the cliff and being destroyed. The universities pleaded for support from students, faculty, local merchants, and alumni. 

The support wasn’t without their own challenges. Some alumni financially paid the snowballers (against Division I National Collegiate Snow Ball Association rules). Ticket prices soared and some universities sold "ticket options" which only gave fans the "chance" of the opportunity to purchase season tickets. 

Some people were against the snowball saying that it was now too big and out of control. It had lost its initial intent of being a positive educational experience. 

Winning, marketing, and generating money became the prime focuses. Other issues began to arise; female students wanted equal opportunity to snowball on an equally equipped hill as the men. Universities started to cheat by pushing the snowball out of season. Alumni demanded their names on the snowball because of their financial support. In the end, the university averted their financial issues, won the national championship and business went on as usual. Nothing really changed.


I read this book as an assignment in an undergraduate coaching theory class at Michigan State University in the fall of 1978. This short read is now more than 30 years old. I highly recommend it for all parents, coaches, and administrators. It is timeless and an eerie allegory that hits home today. 

Has athletics become too big in our culture? Has it become more than entertainment? Has it lost that initial intent of being a positive educational experience? Are coaches/parents more focused on themselves and winning than on shaping young athletes? Is it still fun? Are there definitive answers to the above questions?

Wes Emmert is director of fitness for the Rochester Athletic Club.

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