I’ve spent most of my life in the sports world. I ice skated, skied, and swam as a kid. I was a sports reporter for about 15 years. For the past four decades, I’ve officiated amateur sports: mostly football and baseball, but I’ve called basketball, ice hockey, and soccer games, as well.
So, I feel qualified to take a good hard look at the American sports scene. And what I see isn’t pretty, which is upsetting for someone who’s always believed that participation in sports makes us better people, endowing us with skills needed to be successful in both our personal and professional lives.
I read a book recently that crystalized some of the issues affecting sports in the U.S. In Norwich, a story detailing a tiny Vermont town that has produced an inordinate number of well-adjusted Olympic athletes, New York Times reporter Karen Crouse writes, “(T)he parents of Norwich learned through trial and error the best methods of nourishing happy athletes: by valuing participation and sportsmanship, and stressing fun, community, and self-improvement.”
Anyone who has attended a youth-level sports competition over the last two decades must surely know that idyllic communities like Norwich are about as common as unicorns. The “winning is everything” adage is on display in the behavior of parents, coaches, and fans even when children are in elementary school, a time when sports competition should focus on teamwork, building friendships, and learning to win and lose gracefully.
What has changed? Dollar signs. Parents see pro athletes in an 11-year-old Pop Warner football player or a Little League pitcher. The inevitable leap to specialization and year-round club teams all in the hope they will spawn the next major leaguer is both sad and disturbing.
I have spent the last 19 years teaching in an inner-city high school in Phoenix. Way too many of my students say they want to be professional athletes. I explain they should have a Plan B, since statistics clearly show most will never play organized sports after high school, and that, even if they receive that rare college-sports scholarship, the chance of ever getting a professional tryout is like winning the Powerball lottery.
Why do my students want to be pro athletes? They imagine that multimillion-dollar lifestyle. These kids – like the previously mentioned helicopter parents – seem to care only about the fame and financial riches to be gained. When I point out that pro careers are difficult, generally very short, and that the vast majority of athletes are not banking millions and living in mansions, they scoff.
According to Crouse, children in Norwich are not raised to believe that the raison d’être of sports participation is material gain. “(T)he social tapestry of Norwich represents a triumph of nurture over the natural order of the modern world, which has given us a wealth and acquisition model that favors autonomy over relationships and independence over community.”
The point in encouraging children to participate in sports has never been about money and fame. It’s about teaching them to be happy, well-adjusted adults. Competing in sports teaches discipline, respect for authority, persistence, teamwork, dedication, self-esteem, and, perhaps most importantly, how to cope with failure.
However, forcing a child into a single sport, in order to chase dreams of college scholarships and a pro career, ignores the possibility that they might excel in different areas if given the opportunity, and often produces injuries, burnout, and depression. This strategy differs greatly from that of the parents of Norwich who, “When in doubt, erred on the side of giving their children freedom. They were determined not to be like the parents who control their children’s choices for reasons having to do with their own egos or anxieties.”
Young people need to have the opportunity to try new things, which is the first step in determining what they might like to do in the future. While I encourage my students to compete in sports, I would be remiss if I stopped there. I want them to take art and music and drama and woodworking and culinary arts and any other subject that stirs their imagination. These experiences will help guide their decisions for the future, when they must consider what they like, what they’re good at, and what someone will pay them to do.
I am sometimes reminded of a moment I witnessed while refereeing a high school football game. At halftime, the marching band took the field. And there, in the horn section, was a football player — sans helmet and shoulder pads — playing the trumpet. I wanted to applaud him for branching out, and congratulate his coach for granting the player the opportunity to pursue music.
I wish I could say sights like this are common, but sadly they’re not. I only mention it because I think the people of Norwich would have been proud.
March 2, 2109
Small Towns Big on Sports
Karen Crouse Norwich
John Branch The Last Cowboys
University of Arizona Bookstore
On March 2, 2019, in Tucson, Arizona, I will have the honor of moderating a discussion between Karen Crouse and John Branch, both New York Times reporters, who have written books about special communities that have organically produced incredibly successful athletes. Crouse’s book, Norwich, details a tiny Vermont town that has supported and nourished young athletes, and produced a stunning number of Olympic competitors over the years. In The Last Cowboys, Branch writes about a ranching family living in the wilds of Southern Utah that has dominated the rodeo scene for several generations. As the modern world encroaches, both of these communities face change. Come and join us for the discussion and Q&A session. Crouse and Branch will sign copies of their books following the event.