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It’s How We Play the Game


Generally, I don’t read biographies.  For me, they’re boring.  However, Ed Stack became very interesting to me, so I decided that there must be more to him and his book, It’s How We Play the Game, than meets the eye –enough that it was a worthy investment – and I was right.

A Sporting Chance

Ed Stack grew up around his father’s sporting goods store – Dick’s Sporting Goods – and took it from a two-store organization in upstate New York to the retail powerhouse it is today.  The journey, as one might expect, wasn’t straightforward and wasn’t without peril.  Stack recounts the good and bad times in the book.  Certainly, from a business perspective, it’s a reminder of the hard work and luck that allow an organization to grow.  However, that’s not the interesting bit.  The interesting bit is how the experiences shaped the character of a man and, ultimately, an organization in a way that supports communities and helps children develop life skills they’ll need.

When I was growing up, sports weren’t a real option.  Two factors conspired against me.  First, there was always a shortage of money.  I remember breakfast cereal with powdered milk – because that’s what we had.  I remember our cups were recycled margarine cups.  Sure, others had it much worse than I did – but it meant that the idea of spending on sports wasn’t a priority.  A roof, food, and clothes were more important.

The second factor was much more powerful.  My parents couldn’t agree on anything and often consciously or unconsciously put my sister and I between them.  Stack acknowledges that his own parents’ divorce put the kids between them.  In my family, the conversations occasionally came up about doing sports, but the fact was that practices and games would be on the weekends sometimes, and weekends were hotly contested times between the parents.  It was clear pretty quickly that I’d never make it to stay on a team, because I’d never make the number of required practices and games.

To be fair to my parents, I’ve never been particularly interested in or good at sports.  It’s not something that interests me.  I’ve been honored to know professional athletes in many disciplines – baseball, football, and auto racing.  I respect what they have done – without getting so wrapped up in it that I’d believe I ever would have been very good.  (I know I should have a growth Mindset, and that Peak performance is just purposeful practice – but knowing one’s own limitations isn’t a bad thing.)

Foundational Beliefs

Woven throughout the story of Stack’s life is the dedication to the community and the recognition of the value that youth sports bring – even realizing that very few youth will ever make it to play professional anything.  That’s okay.  The foundation of hard work and teamwork is an important life skill – one that Stack credits with keeping him out of too much trouble.

For my part, I agree.  The focus of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation on supporting youth sports programs is laudable.  It’s a good way to support the belief that sports build the kind of character traits that we all want to see in our youth, our adults, and our society.  Just because my son wasn’t good at soccer didn’t mean he didn’t play.  He played enough to learn some lessons and to hopefully develop some character that will serve him later.

The Shot

The truth is that I came to the book because I was curious.  We’re working on some firearms means restriction in the suicide prevention work we’re doing, and Dick’s Sporting Goods was expelled from the Firearms Industry Association (NSSF).  We were working with them to get safe gun storage information in the hands of as many people as possible.  Expelling one of the nation’s largest gun sellers seemed odd.

I learned that it started with the tragedies at Sandy Hook, CT and Parkland, FL.  Stack was touched by the tragedies, and both personally and organizationally took a stand to make a difference in protecting children from mass murder.  They removed all modern sporting rifles – assault rifles – from most of their stores.  They’ve also limited the number of handguns sold across their stores.

The tricky bit is that I can applaud Stack and the organization for being committed to take action to make things better.  I can even say that the moniker of modern sporting rifles is not the way I’d describe them.  At the same time, calling them assault rifles is probably not fair either.  Do I think that they should be as easy to get as they currently are?  I don’t know.  Certainly, Dick’s decision to remove them from the shelves made them slightly more difficult to get –but not in a fundamental way.  What it did was allow the executives at Dick’s to have a clear conscious – and I can respect that.

I’m not interested in entering into a Second Amendment debate.  Much like Stack, I have guns, I enjoy shooting them, and I want others to be taught how to use these tools.  I’d hate for people to say that I’m anti-gun, because I’m decidedly not that.  The nuanced challenge comes in whether the answer was the right answer – and whether NSSF expelling Dick’s makes sense.

As for Dick’s decision, the problem is that I know the numbers, and while the mass shootings are tragedies, they make up a trivial percentage of deaths by firearm.  It’s something that can compel someone to action, but it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of injury and death.  I don’t say that to minimize the suffering of anyone injured in the all-too-frequent mass shootings.  I say it to put things into perspective.  The leading cause of death due to firearm is suicide.  That’s not fundamentally changed in decades.  The non-mass-murder aspect of firearm deaths is a large portion of the remaining.  Accidental shootings and mass-murder are relatively trivial in comparison.

For NSSF, it makes sense.  Someone is publicly moving in a direction against where the firearm manufacturers and industry is going, they shouldn’t be a part of the industry association.  I’m not sure why they’d want to be.  I think the tragedy is that both organizations – NSSF and Dick’s – are aligned in the desire to prevent unnecessary deaths.  They’re both committed to finding ways to stop gun violence.  They just find themselves on opposite sides of a particular sub-group of the problem – and as I explained above, it’s a trivial percentage of the violence that’s happening.  For reference, modern sporting rifles or assault rifles are a trivial amount of the overall industry.  It’s a position and talking point, but it doesn’t move the needle in terms of overall sales of the industry.

Dreams of Greatness

The number of kids that grow up to be professional sports athletes is vanishingly small.  The odds of winning the lottery are also small – but people still play, because they can dream of winning.  There aren’t many people who will make the investments necessary to reach peak performance.  Though Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s research about what it takes to reach peak performance was oversimplified by Malcolm Gladwell, the truth is that becoming the best takes a lot of work – work that most kids won’t invest.  (See Peak for a summary of the research.)

However, what Dick’s sells when it comes to kids is the dream of greatness.  It’s not that anyone really believes that their child will break world records, it’s that they want to have the dream for a while, because it makes everyone feel better.

That’s at least part of the point.  It’s in learning how to play the game that we discover how to hope, dream, and live.  It’s How We Play the Game that matters.