Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Our Sports Culture

I didn’t care for sports as a kid. My oldest brother loved sports. The next brother in line seemed to enjoy sports as well. By the time I hit little league age, my parents assumed they had the pattern for boys all figured out. I was enrolled in baseball and then football. Somehow, I escaped basketball. Many homes in my neighborhood had driveway basketball standards. I pretty much avoided having anything to do with those things.

Unlike today, when kids can be involved in a very broad variety of sports, we had three sports available in my community: baseball in the spring-summer, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. Everyone played baseball. If you didn’t play baseball, there was nobody to hang out with while all of the other boys were playing baseball.

I spent three seasons playing baseball. I didn’t much care for it. I was always placed in right field, because few little leaguers hit balls out there; thus, my chances of harming the team were minimized. I was bored out of my skull. At practices and at games I’d stand (or even sit) in right field and swat at gnats, daydream, pick dandelions and clover, imagine shapes in the clouds, and other similar activities to pass time. And time seemed to pass so slowly. I was rarely aware of the score. I frankly didn’t care much.

Then we’d line up to bat. I paid attention to where I came in the batting order. During my three-season little league baseball career, I occasionally managed to get on base. Usually that was when a bad pitcher walked me. On a few rare occasions I managed to accidentally hit a ball.

I think my experience as fourth string right offensive guard when I was eight years old pretty much assured that I would never play little league football again. I never missed a practice or a game. Yet I only played in a single game during the season: four plays in the last five minutes of the last game of the season. My dad was sitting in the car in the parking lot overlooking the field. But he had fallen asleep and hadn’t seen me play.

My lack of athletic acumen as a child didn’t stop with league sports. Throughout my school years I was consistently one of the last picked for playground or gym games of dodge ball, kick ball, and even four square. To this day, I have nothing but contempt for dodge ball. What is the positive purpose of a ridiculous game that is designed to injure and humiliate people?

My experience as a kid left me pretty bitter about sports. I could definitely agree with Orson Scott Card’s assertion in this article that team sports are a “system of establishing hierarchies based on your degree of skill in a meaningless pursuit.” I’m not sure if I failed to excel in sports because I could see no value in doing so or if I found no value in sports because I failed to excel at them. Perhaps each fed into the other.

Card takes exception with the idea that some important life lessons can be learned only through sports. Teamwork? Card suggests trying to put on a play, or joining an orchestra or a chorus. Learning that enduring hard work pays off? Card says, “I suggest the clarinet or violin. Or poetry.” Sportsmanship? Try Monopoly. “Strategy? Chess. Eye-hand coordination? Videogames.”

You can sense Card’s bitterness about sports when he writes, “You want to spend your later life crippled by injuries you got in grade school or high school or college? Well, I guess sports beats all the other activities.”

By the time I was a young adult, I would have been happy to never have anything to do with sports for the rest of my life. And then I got married and we started having children. Oh, how perspectives change. My kids started showing an interest in sports. Regardless of my feelings about sports, I didn’t want to deprive my kids of opportunities they desired.

So when my oldest son turned five, we signed him up for AYSO soccer. He made it two seasons, and then decided it wasn’t for him. He played baseball for a few seasons and did OK, but he eventually dropped that as well. In fact, he’s pretty much sworn off team sports of any kind. He has become excellent at pencil drawings. I marvel at his art, especially since I’ve always been lousy at that kind of thing.

My second son found that he rather enjoyed soccer. But he excels in so many other arenas as well, including academics and music (he plays a number of instruments and composes music). Unwilling to limit some of his other pursuits, he has avoided competition leagues. He still plays AYSO soccer. He’s never been a star player, but he is always a very strong member of his team. He dropped baseball a couple of years ago.

My third son tried soccer twice, but decided it wasn’t for him. Basketball was fun one season, but he didn’t want to sign up the following year. He has played baseball for a number of seasons, and he’s OK at it. But he has a sportsmanship problem. He acts badly when his team is losing. He tells me baseball is the sport he dislikes least. He’s pretty good at drawing for his age. He also just composed his own piano recital piece.

All three older boys did karate for a while. We dropped that program when their interest diminished as progressive levels became increasingly demanding.

My fourth son quit soccer just as I thought he was starting to get the hang of it. Practices were OK, but it turned out that games always conflicted with Saturday morning cartoons, which is a sacrosanct ritual for him. He has played baseball for a couple of seasons. He’s not very good, but he’s not the worst kid on the team either.

My daughter has been too young to start in formal sports. (Many families start their kids younger; we don’t.) But she seems very athletic, especially when matched up with other girls her age in the neighborhood. I’m guessing that she will enjoy team sports, but only time will tell.

I’m glad that my children have had the sports opportunities they have had. I am a die-hard supporter of my kids’ sports efforts and I attend most of their games, but I still don’t like engaging in sports myself. My wife is the one that plays catch with the kids.

While Orson Scott Card thinks non-organized sports are fine, he writes, “I don’t think Little League is playing. It’s work. It’s a job. Maybe you like your job, but you’re answerable to a boss and you can lose your job — your position — if you don’t compete and win.” He has a point. But much the same can be said for taking part in a play or joining a musical group. And learning that kind of thing at an early age is not all bad.

Card is particularly unhappy with the status that high achieving athletes are accorded in our society. “[W]hat I hate about sports [is that] these physical games get treated, by kids and adults, as if they mattered more than activities that are just as valid, just as competitive, just as rewarding — and maybe more so.” He continues, “For every kid whose life is saved by sports there’s a kid whose life is damaged by the way we handle sports in our culture.”

I don’t know that this cultural tendency is going to change anytime soon. Professional (and collegiate) sports demand a huge following. They obviously offer a significant entertainment value to a lot of consumers. It’s a massive industry. The effects of this cultural valuation filter all the way down to the little leagues.

Being somewhat of a sports agnostic, I’m not eager to push my kids into organized sports or to pressure them to excel at it. I’m happy to be supportive. But I’m equally happy to be supportive of other efforts that can help teach important life lessons. Different people have different talents. They excel at different things. Our approach has been to give our kids varied opportunities so that they can find where they have interest and talent, and then to encourage and help them pursue the areas they find most fulfilling. Sometimes that includes sports; sometimes not.

Having experienced little league sports as a parent, I am not as negative about it as I once was. While I might have agreed completely with Card two decades ago, today his article seems a bit over-the-top. Sports can be a valuable part of a child’s development, but they don’t have to be. I’ll never pressure a child of mine to play a sport, but I will support him/her if they choose to do so.


Bradley Ross said...

Someone recently wrote (though I can't remember who or where) that celebrity news coverage if a good thing for society. The same reasoning that argues for Paris Hilton coverage leads us to the professional sports culture: it gives people who otherwise share little in common something to talk about and analyze together.

It is easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger about sports. It is easy to talk about the players and the most recent game and the prospects for the future of the team. Unless, of course, you don't follow sports at all. Then you miss out on a useful bonding opportunity.

I don't follow sports, but I sometimes wish I did.

Anonymous said...

Like Scott, I was never dedicated to sports in my youth. I grew up in a house of all boys and I participated, but never really identified with sports.

I never understood the idea that there were things that only sports could teach you, but as I have grown older I have com to believe that sports can be a good means to teach some lessons - even if there are other avenues to those lessons.

Now with my kids I am conflicted. I want them to have the opportunity to play sports if they want, but I see all the athletic programs, even rec leagues, becoming too demanding. I don't want an enjoyment of soccer to be spoiled by having it conflict with the rest of my child's interests.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Good comments. I miss out on the bonding because I not only don't know who the players are, I don't even know the team names or host cities. I understand the general rules of the games, but I can't really talk sports with 'the guys.'

David, I felt much the same way you do about how demanding even rec league sports are -- until I had a kid that desperately wanted to be involved and was willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Then we learned to make the needed adjustments. So far, we have not had a child that was sufficiently committed to join a comp league team.