Davis Park, Fire Island is a piece of heaven. The ocean, the beach and the peace in the early morning hours are invigorating. No matter how hectic my day and/or week have been, as soon as I get on the Davis Park ferry a sense of quiet descends upon me. For the past five summers, I have had the privilege of being the pastor of the Catholic community at Davis Park. Each summer has enriched my human experience beyond words.
A few weeks ago I was taking an early morning ferry. The day was sunny and very hot. The ferry was extremely crowded with wall-to-wall beach goers. I was sitting on the upper deck and a mother with three school age children sat next to me. She recognized me from her parish on the North Shore. We started to chat. She spoke of the challenges of raising elementary school children today.
This fall, her youngest child, a girl, begins full day kindergarten. She is thrilled, but also expressed some anxiety as to what she was going to do with this extra time. She spoke about a variety of possibilities, everything from going back to work to volunteering in a local hospital.
As we continued this conversation, she spoke about how busy life was, even with all of her children in school. They are all very involved in extracurricular activities and little league sports. She indicated that she and her husband are running in a million directions just to get their children to all of their sporting commitments.
As we continued to talk about her children's activities, she said she was grateful that they loved sports. Her children are natural athletes who enjoy discipline and competition. However, this mom also started to express her frustrations about all of these sporting activities. At times she fears they are too competitive and too intense. It almost seems like the fun of being a kid and playing sports is being lost in the process.
Some of the volunteer coaches treat their teams like the pros. They practice every day of the week except when they have a game. Unfortunately, many practice during dinner hour. This makes it difficult for families to gather for a consistent dinnertime. They psyche our kids up to the point that if they don't make every practice and give their very best, they are hurting the team.
Herein lies the potential problem. The discipline and commitment to the team effort are clearly positive values, unless they are carried to an extreme. We need to remind one another that our children are still children. There is more to life than a little league game. It is important, but not more important than family life.
We need to revive the dialogue around what is important regarding a child's growth and development. As parents and coaches, we need to reinforce the same priority list. Child athletes should not be punished if they choose an important family event over a practice or in some cases, a game. A child shouldn't have to choose between Confirmation class and football practice. The list of potential conflicts is endless.
For many of us, the most memorable growing up experiences involved sports. For my siblings and myself, football, baseball, softball, lacrosse and basketball contain tremendous memories for each of us individually and for us as a family. However, I also remember that I was never put in a tough spot when it came to choices. My coaches always knew that God, family and school came first, then sports. I heard that litany, in that order, in every sport I played.
Unfortunately, that litany has gotten lost in the shuffle of time. At times, as I listen and observe, I am not clear on what the priority list is, or if one even exists.
As a surrogate parent of a number of teenagers who play sports on both the high school and college level, I am deeply concerned about the attitudes and values contemporary athletes are conveying to our young adults.
The discipline and commitment of yesteryear has clearly changed. High school and college age athletes do not seem to possess the same passion of previous generations. They clearly love their sport, but don't put the same discipline into preparing for that sport.
The equation of school first, then sports, clearly does not exist. I see that firsthand with the college athletes I teach. I am willing to make certain adjustments to support our athletes, but I will not compromise academic integrity for the sake of a sports team, that is where the discipline comes in.
Too often on both the high school and college level, we have a double standard when it comes to grades and to student discipline. There is a general student population's code of conduct and then the unofficial code for our athletes. That injustice only further breaks down overall school discipline and basic respect for authority.
On the high school level, athletes are often not challenged academically. On paper there may be academic standards for athletes, but depending on the sport and talent of the athlete, that standard is often compromised.
High school athletics are not the pros. We need to revive that priority list and communicate it to all of our athletes. They need to reclaim their position as student leaders and positive role models in our schools.
Athletes do not have to be perfect. However, we should expect that they behave in school, go to class and make an effort. They should also be expected to be drug and alcohol free, since both behaviors are against the law for high school students. They should be held accountable and the consequences for their actions should be clear and enforceable.
As adults, we have to step up. It is not enough for us to espouse these pious platitudes. We need to practice what we preach and do what we say, even if it is uncomfortable!