A slightly different version of this post appeared on the blog awhile back. But it seems that it is time to revisit this topic. Unfortunately.
I just finished watching Friday Night Lights for the umpteenth time, a movie that is, in my opinion, one of the best ever made. The acting is superb, the music is haunting, and the editing is flawless. And, as is the case with any great sports story, the best part is the end, the part where everyone plays their heart out, leaves it all on the field....and loses.
Vince Lombardi once said "Winning isn't everything- but wanting to win is." and I believe this is a fine message to send to our kids. But it is not as simple as Coach Lombardi's famous phrase makes it out to be. The reason wanting to win is important is that it pushes you to do your best. And it is this work, not the trophy that comes at the end, that is important.
Try explaining that to that screaming dad at your son’s next Little League game.
Every week I watch a wonderful train wreck of a reality show called Dance Moms, which is about a verbally abusive dance teacher and her group of whiny moms. In it we see Abby Lee Miller belittling and insulting young children in order to make them the best dancers they can be. The kids stick with it year after year, despite the fact that every episode includes one of the moms bursting into tears and wailing in desperation, "What are we doing to our kids?"
Of course we all know that reality TV is contrived. No real life parent would condone this kind of behavior. No real life teacher would actually treat kids this way.
Remember the infamous tale of Jerry Sandusky? And the years of sexual abuse by a football coach at Poly Prep, a very prestigious private school in Brooklyn? Well, this week’s installment is about Mike Rice, the men’s basketball coach at Rutgers who is shown on videotape both physically and verbally abusing his players. Every story ends the same; plenty of people knew, nobody did a thing. Why? In the case of Poly Prep, one former student had stated that "Coach Phil was powerful, intimidating, successful, not to be trifled with. And so for a quarter-century, he freely abused vulnerable boys, virtually in plain sight." (Eric L. Lewis, NY TImes, Jan 12, 1013) Mike Rice was seen “kicking his players, hurling basketballs at them and taunting them with homophobic slurs.” (Steve Eder, NY Times, April 7, 2013)
The man who was in charge of shaping the lives of young football players was known as "intimidating" and "not to be trifled with"? A role model for highly impressionable college students kicks his players? Um...how about you fire these men! Since when are these acceptable qualities to have in a leader of children?
Oh wait, his team was winning? In that case, abuse away!
Our society is so obsessed with winning that we will tolerate all kinds of terrible treatment of athletes, parents and children. We don't care how many times our football players get slammed in their brains, so long as the game is exciting enough to sell tickets. We don't care how many times the coach calls our child a "lazy fetus", a "whiny girl" or even worse, some kind of racial slur that would result in an instant time out if our kid ever said it himself. It's all good, so long as there are first place trophies involved. Sure, we may express our concerns in whispered conversations with other parents, behind closed doors. But actually challenge the person who is making our child a winner? Never.
We want our athletes to be superhuman, to be capable of magic feats of power, speed, and grace. We want state champions, Olympic gold medalists, pretty little girls in who fly through the air as effortlessly as butterflies.
And if the men and women entrusted to produce superhereos out of children are a little excessive? If they push a little too hard, use tactics that make us a bit uncomfortable? We call it “tough love” and quickly turn our heads to the clouds drifting over the football field instead. After all, he is the coach, right? What do we know?
We know a lot actually. We are mothers and fathers. We know abuse when we see it. And if the people in charge aren’t going to protect our children, it is up to us to step in.
My own child is the daughter of two athletes. If we do our job right, she will grow up healthy, with a love for being physical. Whatever activity she chooses, be it ballet or karate or soccer , I am sure there will be competitions. I hope she wins some of them. But she is my baby and god help any coach who yells at her, belittles her, pushes her past the limits of safety, encourages her to put anything in her body other than Gatorade, or touches her in any way other than a quick congratulatory hug after the game.
As parents, we are paying you, Coach Whatever Your Name Is, for the incredible honor of helping us turn our boys into successful men, our girls into confident women. THAT is your job. If you win a few trophies while you’re at it, well that’s just icing on the championship cake.