Fitness for the Rest of Us

Metro News
March 19, 2004

Lee Iacocca was an automobile executive who at one time was better known than Henry or Edsel Ford, Orville Olds, Burl Buick, Chief Pontiac, Carl Cadillac, Abe Lincoln, Harry Honda, Tom Toyota, Ed Bozarth or Laird Noller. Iacocca created the Ford Mustang and got that auto empire out of a rut, and then literally saved Chrysler’s rear end, not to mention it’s flywheel.

He was Mister Detroit in 1962 when he had one of his underlings called the national Physical Fitness and Sports office in Washington. Iacocca had a hot idea, and wanted to present it to Bud Wilkinson, who was football coach at Oklahoma, but also President Kennedy’s consultant on such matters, and the boss of the office.

Wilkinson actually spent only the summer months in Washington, so the Iacocca call came to yours truly, the administrator of the operation. The auto magnate wanted an appointment with Wilkinson, so I set it up for a date a couple of weeks later, when Bud would be there.

Iacocca was still with Ford at the time, and one of his nationwide promotions was the “Punt, Pass and Kick” contest that had youngsters and age brackets from pee-wee to late teens competing. They punted, passed and place-kicked in local contests, with the winners going to regional meets, and then the cream-of-the-crop advance to the finals, on national TV, at halftime of a late-season pro game.

The Ford people wanted the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports to officially bless their program, endorsing it as a great contribution to the national fitness effort.

Iacocca and his men made their pitch, then sat in shocked silence as Bud turn them down and told them why. He explained the “Punt, Pass and Kick” program was aimed at gifted youngsters who already were active in participating in sports, and who were in the upper levels of fitness among the nation’s youth.

He pointed out that, in contrast to the Ford program, our efforts were aimed at boys and girls in the lowest levels of fitness – the children who were not active and needed our help. To focus our attention on a glitzy and heavily publicized exhibition by young athletes would amount to turning our back on the national problem we were supposed to be trying to solve.

That meeting took place more than 40 years ago, and the situation has changed only in that it is a lot worse today. Americans talk a good game, as we are doing now on the subject of ever-increasing obesity among children and adults, but the focus in the schools – the place where the foundation for fitness must be laid – still is on the gifted few.

I haven’t read anything about school programs of mandatory participation in the activities designed to work the excess fat off students who need it. But I have read about, and seen, the new million-dollar sports complex which will benefit a tiny fraction of the students in Topeka schools.

In my neighborhood the middle school installed a new sprinkler system for the football field a couple of years ago so the football squad will have a nice turf to practice and play on. The squad is made up mostly of boys who, if they weren’t playing football, will be playing something else. They don’t need help when it comes to fitness.

It’s the same all over the country. Every school has the best facilities that can afford, the best coaches it can afford, uniforms, bands playing, cheerleaders dancing, and the mamas & the papas loving it all as they yell for the handful of athletically talented boys and girls who represent the school.

But do they really represent the school? How many of those schools have mandatory physical fitness periods, featuring vigorous activity, that get the same attention the organized sports teams get? How many of those schools have inactive and obese students who, more than the athletes, really represent the school’s misplaced priorities?

Young people want to feel good and look good. Apparently, many have learned, earlier than their parents did, that smoking cigarettes is like playing Russian Roulette, and that the world, even in its darkest hour, never has run out of beer. Now, there must be a way to motivate them to get up and “give that chicken fat back to the chickens.”

One way might be to challenge them to be a generation that did better than their parents before them. Today’s adults forced the widening of Stadium seats, allowed airlines in theaters to offer one seat for the price of two, and made obesity the main cause of handicapped parking.

In today’s fight against flab the media can alert the nation to the crisis, and parents can set an example, both with their silhouettes and by what they put on the table at mealtime. But only the schools can add the fourth “r” to the core learning: “readin’, writin’, arithmetic and runnin’.”

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