Monday, July 17, 2000

Sudden death

It's long been apparent that American parents have a perspective problem when it comes to kids and sports. We hardly needed someone to die to drive that particular point home. But that's what happened recently in Lynnfield, Massachusettes, when two fathers got into a fight over some rough play on the ice. Their own rough play ended with one dad dead and the other headed to jail for what will likely be a long time. So much for good sportsmanship.

What is it that spurs moms and dads to be so insanely competitive about what is supposed to be fun and games? What makes them shout demeaning phrases from the sidelines? What makes them sign their offspring up for every sport offered? What makes dads hound their sons to play better? What makes moms define themselves by the soccer games they schlep their kids too? We're a nation that's serious about its sports, to be sure, but even professional football players don't try to kill the people they play against. People they live with, maybe, random pedestrians on the street, but nobody in the game. That sort of bleacher rage is apparently reserved for rabid overreaching parents.

And that may be why, though I've come close, I've never signed my daughter up for competitive community sports. I've used her special-ed status as an excuse, but really, I'm scared of those other parents. She seems to have some athletic skill, but not a lot of game-sense to go with it. At soccer camp, she very deliberately, and with concentrated effort, kicked the ball into the wrong goal, with no clue she'd messed up. Since it was an informal game, the parents didn't rip me to shreds, but I'd hate to take that chance at a real game.

I didn't yell at her for mistaking the goal; she was so proud of herself, and I was proud of her for trying. I didn't yell at her when she managed to roll gutter balls even with bumpers in the children's bowling league she played in, either. Her form was bad, her scores were sad, but she was having fun. That wasn't enough for some of the dads who came to watch their sons play, though. They'd stand at the back of the lane berating them for bad balls, shouting at them to watch their wrists or the placement of their feet. I was embarrassed for them; for heaven's sake, it's just bowling. The kids, to their credit, seemed to mostly ignore them. And after a while, they'd go back to the bowling alley bar and have another beer.

There were no dads like that at the games my daughter played with the Challenger League, a softball league for children with special needs. For most of the kids, just getting around the field was an accomplishment, and the crowd responded accordingly. Both teams' worth of parents cheered for both teams, regardless of superficial affiliations. The one time I heard someone making negative comments, they were roundly booed. Each child got to keep swinging at the ball until they made contact, and the inning ended when everyone made it home. At the end of the season, every player got a trophy. Several trophies, actually. My daughter has the beginnings of a proper trophy shelf after that year of play.

But she didn't play anything this season. We felt that she was possibly a little too capable for the everyone-plays, everyone-scores atmosphere of the Challenger League, but not quite capable enough for the play-if-you're-good, score-or-you're-out atmosphere of regular Little League. She's now made it through a week of mainstream basketball camp with a good report, and so in the back of my mind I'm thinking--maybe she can be on our town's girl's basketball team. Maybe she could do that. Maybe she could hold her own. Maybe I could put everything else on hold to drive her to night games that will make her unable to do her homework or get a good night's sleep, and maybe I could do nothing on those nights but sit and watch her warm the bench.

Then again, there's a lot to be said for sitting sports out. Worked for me when I was a kid. Guess I'm just not a team player, or a team parent. It's a whole lot safer that way.

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