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Jim Thorpe, All-American


San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Bruce Jenkins writes in an easy-to-read, colloquial style that invites agreement with the point he’s making. But Bruce seems to be getting crankier as he ages. Take his March 22 column opposing the right of 19-year-olds to play in the National Basketball Association.

Jenkins endorsed Commissioner David Stern’s plan to deny eligibility to players under 20. Here’s how he glides over the impact on the workers: “We don’t need any reminders about the evils of age discrimination, poverty-raised kids jumping at the chance to make big money or the fact that in so many cases, the notion of teenage superstars attending college is a complete sham”

Bruce is bugged because the NCAA tournament isn’t as interesting as it was back in the day. “Seasoned fans recall the privilege of watching Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor, or Bill Walton, as collegiate seniors, crafting the final episodes of a long-running story It’s nothing short of an insult that Mayo, Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin, Arizona’s Jerryd Bayless, Indiana’s Eric Gordon, Menphis’ Derrick Rose and UCLA’s Kevin Love are all strong candidates to leave after memorable freshman seasons.”

An insult to who, Bruce? Why should any of them play for free and risk injury? Why solve the fans’ problem on the backs of the athletes? Successful collegiate sports programs are big moneymakers and the workers should be fairly remunerated. We certainly do need reminders that for every kid who gets rich, hundreds get exploited.

Somebody ought to remake of “Jim Thorpe, All-American,” telling the story accurately. Burt Lancaster played Thorpe in the 1951 flick that portrayed Pop Warner -the coach at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School- as Thorpe’s kindly mentor. In reality, Warner manipulated and misled Thorpe, and betrayed him in his hour of need (while helping to develop the mechanisms by which football and other sports teams generate revenue for the colleges that field them).

Jim Thorpe grew up on the Sac and Fox reservation in Oklahoma. He was a beautifully proportioned six-footer, accustomed to running long distances and breaking horses. At Carlisle, a federally-operated school in Pennsylvania, he starred in football and track and field. Like many college athletes at the time, he played semi-pro baseball in the summer (with Warner’s encouragement). In 1912, at the Olympics in Sweden, he won the decathlon and the pentathlon, and was internationally celebrated as the world’s greatest athlete. The following year word of his having been paid as an athlete got out, and Thorpe was pressured to return his medals. His public image was tarnished, as if he had done something duplicitous. Warner, who had never explained to Thorpe that getting paid to play baseball would disqualify him from competing in track and field at the Olympics, pretended that he had.

The modern Olympic games were conceived by a French baron named Pierre de Coubertin. “‘The more the higher classes of different nations get to know one another, the less likelihood is there of their fighting,'” was Coubertin’s lofty assumption, according to Bill Crawford’s biography of Thorpe. “In designing the games for the ‘higher classes,’ Coubertin decided to restrict competition to amateurs. He mistakenly believed that the athletes in ancient Greece participated in the games purely for the honor of victory, uninfluenced by the substantial rewards that scholars today believe they received. Onto this misunderstood classical ideal the baron grafted the concept of amateurism as defined by the British aristocracy, who invented the ideal of the amateur athlete primarily to bar the lower classes from their athletic events.”

The poet Marianne Moore was hired in 1911 to teach typing, stenography, bookkeeping and English at Carlisle. Thorpe was in a group of students Moore referred to as “my salvation, open-minded, also intelligent.” Thorpe, specifically, she recalled as “liked by all rather than venerated or idolized. He was off-hand, modest, casual about everything in the way of fame or eminence achieved. This modesty, with top performance, was characteristic of him, and no back talk I never saw him irascible, sour or primed for vengeance.” Moore noted that Thorpe “wrote a fine, even clerical hand -every character legible; every terminal curving up -consistent and generous.” She described his appearance on the playing field as “Equilibrium with no strictures … The epitome of concentration, wary, with an effect of plenty in reserve.”

I had just finished Crawford’s biography of Thorpe when Bruce Jenkins’ sour commentary about 19-year-olds turning pro hit the doorstep … Here’s another item from “All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe:”

“Army played hard behind the running of their halfback, Dwight David Eisenhower In the second half, Carlisle took control of the game. The blocking of Guyon and Thorpe succeeded in taking Army’s Devore [an All-Amercan and the team captain] out of the game. After one play, a frustrated Devore jumped on Guyon’s back as he lay on the field. ‘He only weighed 240 pounds to my 180,’ Guyon later joked. ‘Of course another Indian bit the dust.’ Although Guyon continued to play, the Army captain was thrown out of the game. Eisenhower did not make it through the game either Ike recalled that he and another Army player were going in for a tackle on Thorpe in the third quarter. Thorpe stopped short, and the two Army players collided.”

That would have been something to see.
Elsewhere in the News

Gov. Schwarzenegger is so intent on seeing a toll road cut through San Onofre State Beach that he terminated two members of the state Park and Recreation Commission who had opposed the plan -Bobbie Shriver (Maria’s brother) and Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry). “The move stunned park advocates and other members of the commission,” according to the Chronicle. It wasn’t deemed newsworthy when the governor refused to reappoint two members of the state Medical Board who had evinced support for pro-cannabis doctors -William Breall, MD, and Linda Lucks. The Governator claims to be “for” medical marijuana in the abstract, but his veto of the hemp bill last year showed his true colors. His willingness to off his brother-in-law proves the old adage, “Blood is thicker than water, but Corporate Interests are thicker than blood.”

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at






Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at

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