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Early on a sunny afternoon -- March 20, 1954 -- along with some of my junior high buddies, I walked a couple of miles from downtown Jonesboro to the gym at what was then Arkansas State College. We wanted to assure we were the first to get in when the doors opened for the state high school basketball championship game and to get the best possible seats. We succeeded and watched an undefeated (34-0) Jonesboro High team win the state title, defeating Van Buren in that final game. For a hometown fan and aspiring player, it was a notable occasion.

Many years later I have vivid memories, can still quickly recite the names of the players and recall games during that season, particularly a 55-54 win over the Tigers of Little Rock (later known as Central) in their gym. (Jonesboro also defeated Little Rock in the tournament semi-finals, despite the play of Tigers' star Brooks Robinson, who went on to be an all-time baseball great with the Baltimore Orioles.)

A few days ago I was among the first to find a seat in the Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs to watch an undefeated (32-0) Jonesboro High beat El Dorado for the class 6A boys state championship. And that set off a lot of memories, and some reflection on current affairs. .

These championships were remarkable achievements, a source of community pride and inspiration. There are many dramatic and moving sports stories that stick with us, as exemplified by the classic movie "Hoosiers," based on the story of an Indiana high school basketball team that overcame great odds to win a state championship.

These sports triumphs, as well as heart-breaking defeats, have been an integral part of society, as we are reminded by the current March Madness and the beginning of another baseball season. These are part of the traditions and norms that have characterized and contributed to American life, including the values of teamwork and mutual respect, dedication and determination. These characteristics have gone well beyond sports and have been at the core of our public affairs and politics.

Organized sports are certainly not without flaws and issues, as we see in lots of small and large ways. And I'm not necessarily arguing that "things were better in the old days." However, it is fair to ask: Have we entered a new epoch? Are we abandoning or pushing aside the aforementioned traditions and norms?

There's no doubt that some traditions are not worth preserving and others belong on the back shelf.

Common experience is much less common than it once was. Yes, there's the Super Bowl exception and some of last year's campaign debates and events drew large TV audiences, but fragmentation and social media divide us into self-reinforcing and self-satisfying niches. We certainly see this in today's public affairs. Demonizing opponents has become commonplace in the coarsened culture of politics. And there's reason to believe it turns many away from politics as it becomes the "new norm."

The current president disdains traditions, one of which is that former presidents are magnanimous toward each other. He broke the tradition of candidates releasing tax returns. He is known for reckless rhetoric and generally avoids accountability for dubious statements and unsubstantiated claims.

Back to basketball: J.J. Redick, an in-your-face style player who became the target of intensive heckling, is now one of those trying to put more civility in sports, getting friends and foes to drop personal insults from basketball. Redick said, "I created this sort of persona, this brash, sort of gunslinger image and fans reacted to that."

The distinction between peevishness, petulance and passion becomes indistinct as we sometimes see among players, fans, coaches, and even those behind the microphone.

Declining decorum is accompanied by bullying cynicism, and self-aggrandizement -- which have become all too evident in a society where conspiracy theories are given credence by public figures, and where pounding on government and civil servants has become an easy exercise in blame-shifting.

Hard-fought competition, as exemplified in the records of those undefeated basketball champions, is a worthy component of an open and civil society -- a group or community linked by common interests and collective activity.

In the broader society we won't agree on everything, but we should value the verities and virtues, the traditions and norms that have characterized our nation.

(And, by the way, how's your bracket holding up?)

Commentary on 03/22/2017

Print Headline: Old traditions, new norms

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