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McFeely: 'Shirts and skins' taught real-life lessons

Whenever I go to the wonderful Minnesota State University Moorhead wellness center to get an old-man workout—walk around the track a few times, "jog" on a treadmill—there are college guys using one of the two basketball courts to play pick-up games. They yap, they laugh, they argue. Just like the good old days.

There is one noticeable difference in the modern version of pick-up hoops, though, at least in the case of MSUM. There is a sign posted next to the court reading "Shirts are required." And indeed, nobody on the floor is shirtless as they're running back and forth chucking 3-pointers.

This struck a long-ago pick-up basketball devotee as odd, because ever since Dr. James Naismith first hung a peach basket, gym rats divided teams by the universally accepted standard of "shirts" and "skins." Players on one team kept on their T-shirts; players on the other took off theirs. Easy.

So why no longer, at least at MSUM?

"The no shirtless rule is considered a best practice nationally from a health perspective and is pretty common at university health and wellness centers," MSUM spokesman Dave Wahlberg said. "Wearing a shirt while sweating reduces the risk of exposure to a communicable disease from sweat drops."

So worrying about playing unprotected basketball is a thing. Are full-body condoms next? But, OK, makes sense in this age of healthy living.

The bigger issue, as I see it, is the life lessons for young people that are being lost. There are things that can be learned only when a larger-than-average, chronically sweaty dude with more back hair than Bigfoot peels off his shirt and your teammates immediately say, "You guard him."

This becomes character-check time. You learn things about yourself and your friends when facing the prospect of being slimed by a half-man, half-gorilla.

You could be the consummate team player by accepting the assignment, knowing you were going to spend the next 15 minutes cozied up to this guy's wet, furry back in the low post. Taking one for the team, it's called.

You could use negotiating skills to escape the misery, saying your team would be better off if somebody else guarded the man-beast. Put the pressure on your pals.

You could play hardball and walk off the court, demanding somebody else do the dirty work or they'll have to play a man short. Show them who's boss.

Or you could resort to begging. Or bribery. Whatever it takes.

This is a time for choosing. Which angle is best played to achieve your objective—whether it's making friends, winning the game or attaining power? This is a tutorial not attainable in a classroom. This is real life, gymnasium-style.

But it can't be learned if everybody is wearing a shirt, absorbing sweat and covering back hair. I'm not sure the health benefits gained outweigh the real-life skills lost. Finding a way out of guarding the grossest guy on the court is a talent that will serve anybody well the rest of their days.

Readers can reach Forum columnist Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5379

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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