Fall sports are fully underway. In every community, we have children of every age playing soccer, football and running track. Some little league sports programs have children as young as five and six competing with each other.
Ideally, athletics are wonderful venues for young people to learn many things. They learn about competition and discipline. They learn how to be team players. Hopefully they learn respect and something about sportsmanship.
Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world. Athletics, which were once above reproach and were activities that transformed children's lives in positive ways, have become infected with violence, hate, poor sportsmanship and lack of discipline. For some, it is not a positive experience.
Thirty years ago you would send your son or daughter off to football or soccer practice. You knew the volunteer coaches would reinforce your basic family values. They would not tolerate crude or vulgar language. Your children were not permitted to smoke and they were reminded of their priority list at every practice. God and family first, school second and football third (in my case). I vividly remember my junior high school football coach benching a starter for an entire game because he cursed when he missed a tackle. We were not happy that our teammate got sidelined, but we would not question the coach's decision. We knew the rules and Jack broke one of them. Jack never cursed out loud again. Today, he is an effective coach and teacher on the junior high level.
Growing up in a competitive, athletic family, all of my brothers were athletes and are coaches and athletic directors today. As a former athlete and basketball coach, I remember my years as a competitive athlete well. I remember the discipline and respect my coaches demanded from us. They expected us to be leaders on the field and in our schools as well. I remember a few times a season our coach would give us a pep talk about how we should live. We were told what behaviors were not acceptable for athletes, especially if we wanted to play ball for coach so and so.
During these years, I would never question my coach's expectations. He expected that we be respectful and disciplined men, on and off the field. That did not mean that he expected us to be holy rollers and not have fun. What he expected was that we played hard and fair. Cheating in any arena was grounds for immediate dismissal. We were expected to go to all classes, be cooperative and hand in all homework. We were not expected to be perfect or academic shining stars. Most of us really tried to meet those expectations.
As I think back on those great years, I know a lot of my personal discipline really developed then. My capacity to work with others and treat all people with respect developed at home, but was clearly reinforced and underscored on the playing field.
Winning was always important, but it was not the only thing. Over the years, some of my coaches would risk a game, even when we were in the running for a league or division championship, in order to teach us a life lesson. I learned many valuable life lessons during those important years.
Unfortunately, much has changed regarding the quality and context of childhood and teenage athletics. The priority list has been lost or buried on purpose. In too many middle school and high school athletic programs, winning is the only priority. The character building and discipline has gotten lost in the astro turf of the present age.
Family is being pulled in five million directions. Young athletes are being held hostage by sports programs and coaches that mean well, but are not supporting some basic family values.
Junior and senior high school athletics are not professional ball players. They are kids. We need to put the fun and enjoyment back in competitive athletics. It is only a game. It should not be the be all and end all of a young person's life, especially if it is at the expense of family life and school.
School sports used to support family life. Kids should not have to choose between a sports activity and religion, or between being sanctioned by a coach over an important family event. Practices should not run six days a week through the dinner hour. What was once a positive experience is developing a negative twist.
Probably the most disturbing part of contemporary athletics is that in some cases it is not building character, instilling discipline and fostering teamwork. Rather, it is giving kids a real mixed message.
Coaches and parents need to set a positive example by how we act in public in front of our children. Enthusiasm is a great gift, unless it becomes reckless and hurtful. Cursing and harassing coaches, league officials, other parents and even athletes is reprehensible and counterproductive. It is a sad commentary on our society when a demographic region passes a bill on sportsmanship that parents must sign before their children participate in athletics.
It is equally disturbing when an athlete is badgered by his coach because his parents sidelined him for a game when he cut a half day of school. The parents' rules were clear. If you cut class or miss any school illegally, you will sit out whatever social or athletic commitments you have over the weekend. In this case, there were no surprises, except for the coach urging his player to beg his parents for a reprieve.
Too many high school sports programs tolerate academic non-compliance and social conflicts by athletes. They also coexist with athletes smoking cigarettes and pot and will ignore underage drinking. Our indifference in these areas, especially as they relate to athletics, is counterproductive. It undercuts the positive, life-giving opportunities athletics can offer developing young people.
Competitive sports are an important part of our American tradition. They have been infected and need to be healed. Addressing sportsmanship is a first step. We also need to reclaim that old priority list for every athlete: family first, school second and the team third. That priority list must be lived with passion, commitment and conviction.