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Grey Matters: Good Sports and Bad Sports

by Jackie Orsi

Years ago when I had a two-year old and a new baby, I didn't have time to do all the things I wanted and needed to do. Since it was not possible to extend the length of the day, I settled for eliminating the wasted time in my life. After a conscious search for the trivial uses of my time, I deliberately gave up sports. Not that I was an athlete -- oh, hardly! What I had been was a sports fan, and I deliberately stopped being one. No more afternoons watching football and baseball, no more mornings spent reading the sports page, no more turning on the tube to hear the scores.

In all, I recovered several hours a week -- and never since have thought I am missing anything. After all, sports are just a bunch of people in pursuit of a spherical object. There's no intrinsic value or meaning to sports. Sports are fluff. Fluff can be nice. We all need some fluff now and then, but we should keep in mind that fluff doesn't feed the hungry, cure the sick, or elevate humanity in any real sense. It's just a few people chasing a ball, throwing a ball, kicking a ball, and millions of people sitting on their butts watching the ball go back and forth.

Sports are values-neutral, in and of themselves. They can bring out the best in us, or just as easily, the worst. We sometimes successfully attach some noble values to these ball interactions -- like teamwork (which can also be accomplished through many other activities). Sometimes sports give us an opportunity to display a kind of fairness and benignity that we've come to call "good sportsmanship." But just as often, we attach some of our most debased values, like "victory at any cost."

Sports can be a vehicle to health and fitness, or they can destroy a person utterly. My father badly damaged his joints playing high school football. He played part of a season on a broken ankle. He was in pursuit of his only way out of the Depression, hoping for a football scholarship. Even then a bright person had a better chance at a scholarship for athletic prowess than for academic promise (which he had -- oh, how much promise he had!) By the time he reached middle age, dad was stricken with osteoarthritis. By his late 50's he was disabled, forced into an inactive, unproductive life, and the depression that accompanied it. When he reached his late 70's, he put a gun to his head and ended his unremitting physical and psychological pain.

In 1931, in the precise year my father was destroying his future on a gridiron, H. L Mencken wrote, "The popular belief in athletics is grounded upon the theory that violent exercise makes for bodily health, and that bodily health is necessary for mental vigor. Both halves of this theory are highly dubious. There is, in fact, no reason whatever for believing that such a game as, say, football improves the health of those who play it. On the contrary, there is every reason for believing that it is deleterious. The football player is not only exposed constantly to a risk of grave injury, often of an irremediable kind; he is also damaged in his normal physiological processes by the excessive strains of the game, and the exposure that goes with playing it."

In the seven decades since Mencken wrote, America's obsession with sports has not abated. Mencken wrote, ". . . it is somehow immoral for college stadiums to cost five times as much as college libraries." In a recent editorial in a college newspaper a student observed that his university's new stadium was over budget by nine million dollars, an amount sufficient to pay a year's tuition for the entire student body. We're farther than ever away from assigning sports its proper place in our society. Have you ever heard of college recruiters scouting freshman and sophomores for the mathematical geniuses, the foreign language whizzes, the brilliant writers, and the dedicated biologists? No, just linebackers, point guards, goalies, and forwards.

Seven decades after my father's shattered ankle set the stage for his shattering legacy, his granddaughter, my sister's child, is heedlessly following him. As a high school senior, she is a soccer star. Her picture is in the paper often, and a couple of colleges in the Midwest have dangled tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships so that she will play soccer for them. She might have been recruited by a Big Ten school but she missed most of the season last fall with an injury. During a game, her arm popped out of the shoulder socket. Then it popped back in and she finished the game. When the shoulder repeatedly dislocated in the following weeks, surgery was necessary to repair it. Chasing a ball is already taking a toll on my niece's health at age seventeen. But that doesn't stop her.

Nothing stops her, least of all, her parents, who do not seem to have noticed that soccer owns their family now. For ten years their life has been one continuous soccer season. When the scholastic season is over, the private leagues begin. Outdoor soccer goes indoors in the winter. They and millions of other parents spend their weekends in lawn chairs at the edges of playing fields across the country. In the past presidential election, pundits speculated about what Soccer Mom thought about the issues and the candidates. Take it from me, Soccer Mom thinks about nothing but soccer, near as I can tell. She can tell you all about the league, the sectionals, the regionals, the semifinals, and the finals, and never once notice that you have sunk into a drooling stupor. I have been similarly anesthetized by Swimming Mom, Tae Kwon Do Mom, and the dreaded Cheerleading Mom.

I read in the newspaper a couple of months ago that "heading" the ball (advancing the soccer ball by means of butting it with the top of one's head) causes measurable cognitive impairment. I personally suspect that sitting one's butt in a lawn chair at too many soccer games also causes cognitive impairment. How else can you explain that my sister and her family found it perfectly acceptable for their daughter to miss the family Christmas gathering for the last three years because she was attending a soccer tournament in Florida? The tournament organizers have held the event on December 26 drawing kids from all around the country away from their homes on December 25. Apparently, there hasn't been enough squawk from parents for the organizers to schedule it otherwise. It must be cognitive impairment on a national scale that allows soccer and so many other children's sports to dominate millions of families as it now does. I know of a town in New York where pastors of all the denominations jointly published a letter pleading with parents to abolish sports on Sunday mornings. I don't know if the letter has helped boost Sunday School attendance or fill the pews in the sanctuaries, but if I had to bet, I'd say not. The God of the Ball is a mighty god who holds many people in his thrall.

My sister says that her daughter has benefited from the discipline of her soccer team. It is quite true that the girl keeps to a clean lifestyle and has stayed out of trouble because that is the particular ethic of her peer group, her team. There is no doubt that she relates principally to her peers, and secondarily to Coach. Her parents come in a distant third. Let me tell you: As a homeschooling parent I'd never settle for anything other than first in my childrens' lives. My niece's team is a bunch of great kids, I gather, but they might as easily be a cruel, arrogant crowd of the sort that tormented Dylan Klebold (a Columbine assassin) to murderous anger. Teen peer groups usually become autonomous and self-sustaining, so it's not always possible for parents and coaches to know what is going on within them. The line between a team and a gang can be all but imperceptible, especially when their internal loyalty relies upon the exclusion of outsiders. A study by Alfred University found that 80% of college sports teams practice some form of hazing as a rite of initiation.

The discipline my niece responds to is not necessarily a healthy kind of discipline. Submitting to discipline of others is not the same as developing self-discipline. Her coach is a Vince Lombardi wannabe. When the team lost a game, he decided that the team hadn't communicated with each other enough. He made his point by making them practice for two hours with their mouths taped shut. When my sister told me this, she seemed anxious to impress on me what a tough coach he is. She got my attention all right. I revived from my stupor long enough to feel slightly sick inside. Kids who are bullied become bullies. The psychic cure for pain and humiliation is to inflict pain and humiliation on others; that is the lesson of Columbine.

I have no illusions that my opinions on sports are going to precipitate a retreat from our national obsession, but I hope to reach some homeschooling families with my cautionary words. Homeschoolers are parents who make thoughtful choices, and sports are an arena where parents need to stay alert.

Sports can be a good thing if they are kept in proportion. They must not be allowed to jeopardize a child's health. They must not undermine or replace the fundamental ties of the family. Family first, always. Every day spent at the side of a playing field needs to be examined for its "opportunity costs", to borrow a term from economics. For everything you do, you should consider, "What else could we be doing? What else should we be doing?" Ten consecutive Saturdays can be spent at a playing field or they can be spent as a family participating in projects, traveling together, cooking together, reading together.

Sports can be a good thing if they are not allowed to take on a life of their own. I spoke recently with a fellow who coaches a sixth-grade basketball team. He shook his head as he told me about being chewed out by a mother because he let the kids hang loose and have fun. Adults are typically the first ones to lose perspective; children don't start with perspective; they learn it from adults. No, it is not okay for someone to tape your child's mouth shut. No, it is not okay to become verbally abusive of the kids' coach when the team doesn't perform up to your hopes. You need to repeat over and over to yourself: "It's a game and the players are children."

Maybe your kid is the next Michael Jordan, but probably not. If you put some restraints on him so that sports are kept in proper proportion and perspective, he and your whole family will be able to take the good that sports have to offer while enjoying a healthy, balanced life. A healthy, balanced life with attention to intellectual and social attainments predestines who your child will be when the vigor of his youth fades. And fade it will.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media