Dave Leitao: A Sports Leader Who Has It In PerspectiveJul. 24, 2008
Society sometimes puts too much emphasis on entertainment figures, especially as it relates to their undeserved celebrity status and personal lives. This is includes sports. Sadder still is that the 24-hour sports television, radio, print and Internet media has ensnared college athletes into the same celebrity trap. "Big-time" schools and conferences make a mockery of their mission of higher education, where recruiting farm teams for the pros and earning millions for huge stadiums and athletes-only facilities dwarf the importance of recruiting Rhodes Scholars or Nobel professors.
Unfortunately, this spring and summer have seen an almost daily list of multiple criminal activity from student-athletes at these powerhouse sports colleges. Coaches aren't exempt either. Some barely rise above the absurdity of their self-absorption. (Perhaps no one is more important or more influential in an 18-year-old athlete's life — away from home for the first time, with the added pressures of the campus and media spotlight — than his coach.) Those in sports who do rise far above the manipulative, win-at-all-costs, career-ladder mentality are noteworthy, especially coaches. Sports cannot reach its true fulfillment without the accompanying life lessons that an adult can give the youth in his charge, a responsibility too many in athletic authority ignore.
Fortunately, one of the good guys, who has it all in perspective for himself and his teams, is here in the Old Dominion: U.Va. Basketball Coach Dave Leitao. He knows there are more important things in life than Ws and Ls and is not afraid to impart the relative insignificance of sports to his players. In January 2007, on his own, he took his Cavaliers to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to visit injured soldiers and Marines. In the summer of 2006, he went to Japan with the USO to coach our troops there in a tournament. But this past June, he and a few other NCAA basketball coaches went on a USO trip to Kuwait, Iraq and two military hospitals in Washington. It doesn't seem like he needs much perspective, but he told The Richmond Times-Dispatch it helped:
"I think I was a little embarrassed that we use war terms when we're talking in sports," Leitao said yesterday, but the soldiers' response lifted his spirits.
"They said, 'Hey, it's your battle, it's your war, so we don't feel bad for you saying it.'"
"I think, to a man, we all left saying we'd happily go back again," Leitao said. "Whether I do or not, only time will tell. But it's something that affected all of us."
More insights from Coach Leitao are here, at a journal he kept during his visits. Unlike the coach who, a few years ago, left one big-time college program's big bucks for a huge program and its megabucks, and didn't even tell his players "goodbye" — despite the fact he convinced them to trust their college years to him only to desert them — the ennobling side of sports leadership (and pop culture in general) isn't profiled more often. If it did, perhaps it would send the positive messages so urgently needed, not only to sports fans in general, who take things much too seriously on occasion, but to people within the profession as well as to the public at large.