As adults, it can be surprising to realize how some of the smallest moments in our lives affected us. As parents, it’s sometimes frightening to think about those same things—to acknowledge that nearly everything we say or do (or don’t do) in front of our child can shape him the rest of his days. I’ve almost always had an indifference to sports, and in my mind, that is directly attributable to their constant presence throughout my youth. My Dad was a little obsessed with sports from the time he was a child, and he carries that with him to this day. I’m not certain “obsessed” is exactly the right term, but that’s how it always felt to me. He coached kids in different sports all throughout my childhood, attended just about all the local school team events—regardless of whether any of his kids were involved—and whenever he was at home, our television was tuned to a game or a match. I don’t mean just football or baseball or basketball; it was virtually any sport being shown at any given time—boxing, golf, swimming, diving, hockey, fishing—if it was a competitive sport, it was on our television. And if it the television wasn’t on, he was discussing sports; teams, players, stats, rules, facts, minutiae; he knows the answer to pretty much any Trivial Pursuit sports question there is. I don’t think at the time I begrudged his behaviour much; I just didn’t understand it or care. As an adult, I’ve pretty much stayed away from televised sports; I do enjoy a live game now and then.
Growing up in a reality that for many reasons I longed to escape, my inclination was always to turn to books and films so I could be swept away to another world, and imagine myself a different life. One day I had a conversation with my Dad that I’ve never forgotten. I asked about what kinds of films he enjoyed (turns out, not too many), and his answer was that he’d much rather watch sports. What was interesting though, was his explanation: “Why would I want to watch something that’s made up? I’d much rather watch something real. Sports are real.” After my initial bewilderment, I thought about that statement, and it’s always kind of stuck with me. At that point in my life (teens), the idea was completely foreign to me; sports were the opposite of real life—they were games. They’re finite competitions that ultimately have nothing to do with reality; in my mind they were about as real as Pac-Man or Tetris. You watch a game, it’s over, you go back to real life. You might be the “best” at something for a fleeting moment, but then you walked off the field and into real life. For me, sports held little significance, but I hadn’t thought much about their impact on other peoples’ lives.
In a place like Steubenville, Ohio, a sport—football—could mean everything. As with many cities and towns across the country, athletic ability might hand a kid the winning ticket to a different life. In small towns where the economy isn’t exactly booming, standouts on local teams carry the hopes and dreams of people who never got out alongside their own. Sporting events can represent a fantasy life for people whose own aspirations never came to fruition. A star athlete might put his hometown on the map; high school champions can bring a national awareness to a place no one outside ever thought about before. A winning season could change peoples’ lives. Suddenly, sixteen year old kids, barely aware of themselves as people, are elevated to a celebrity-like status.
By now, most of us have read of the grisly rape story, some horrifying public responses, the apparent ignorance of what constitutes rape (what happened to sex education?), the trial and its conclusion, sentencing, and even worse behavior by both media and the public. It’s been a little too much for many people to handle; even trying to articulate our own feelings can be overwhelming. Not long ago we watched a similar—yet different—situation play out with Penn State University and the sexual assaults committed by Jerry Sandusky. In both cases the hometowns were places where, for many people, sports are real life—real enough that wrongdoings are defended (or covered up), rather than victims. As naive as I may have been about what “games” mean to peoples’ lives, there is something seriously wrong in our country when people are calling for victims to be physically harmed or killed because they’ve “ruined” perpetrators’ lives, or have somehow cast a pall over an entire town and its sports club. The sane among us know this anger is completely misdirected, but beyond that, these events let us know we all need to take a look at what we’re teaching our children. (As I was writing this piece, another case of sexual assault by high school football team members hit the news.) The culture of excellence in sports has spawned a dangerous elitism. Pride has evolved into something dark and ugly, fueled by greed, ego, growth hormones and advertising contracts. Somewhere along the way, honor was dropped from the sportsmanship code of conduct and nothing matters but the win.
Following the Steubenville rape, of the disturbing quotes that made their way to the media, one of those that hit me hardest was: “Some people deserve to be peed on.” There is not any situation where I can ever imagine saying those words—no one deserves to be peed on. And no one deserves to be treated the way that girl was treated, nor videotaped, nor ignored and not helped by anyone watching. The person who made that statement was only sixteen years old, but those are not his words alone, the people who raised him also bear responsibility. The father of Trent Mays (one of the convicted rapists) described his son as “a good child, an outstanding student and a credit to Steubenville High School.” I’m sorry, Mr. Mays; of the three things you mentioned, only one can be true. Because a good child doesn’t do what yours did to that girl, and under no circumstances could your son be a credit to his school. Somewhere along the line, your child—and others—got the idea that there are people beneath them, people who don’t matter enough to be treated with any sort of dignity or care. Somehow while your boy was being put up on that pedestal, football in hand, he never got the message that he was still just a person like the rest of us. He’s learning that the hard way. Lance Armstrong has been struggling with that lesson too. Though on the outside, his situation bears no resemblance to a rape, underneath it all, ego rages. Not only did Armstrong believe everything he did to win was okay and that doping was “not cheating,” he also believed he was so much more important than the other people whose lives he was ruining with slander and lies. He was more important than any rules set forth; more important than the companies and non-profit organizations he represented. His ego overrode everything, including all the kids who looked up to his standard, the impact of his doping on their ideals, and the effect his actions might have on the future of cycling. Indeed, life has shown me that sports are real, unfortunately, in ways I never would have thought or imagined.
Last night I attended my daughter’s fourth grade school musical program and as I sat listening to the songs about character, integrity, trustworthiness, citizenship and respect, I wondered when—in the growing up process—it all begins to go so wrong. When and how are we letting our children forget all those ideas they’ve been practicing since preschool and kindergarten? What happened to the golden rule? As a nation, we need to to ask ourselves, what we are doing or saying that would lead a child to see another human being as less than himself. What we can do to change that? We may have cheered these young egos, to the point where they have no choice but to self-destruct (and to takes others down with them). Parents who attend Little League games and inappropriately scream at the referees when little Johnny is the perceived victim of a bad call are setting the stage. Teachers or administrators that dance around a “star athlete’s” poor grades, because he needs to stay on the team are furthering the message. Winning is everything. (Is there an overarching monster we’ve all helped to create; one where self-worth is determined only in the public eye?) Will the Steubenville crime and its fallout be the catalyst that makes us take a good look at the way we glorify and idolize our sports figures, or will we continue on tomorrow as if it never happened? There is no simple answer or solution, but perhaps we can head down a different path by making sure our children realize their inherent value. Last night, as I listened to a group of children head up to the microphone to list their aspirations…”I want to be a skateboarder; I want to be a fashion designer, I want to be a professional baseball player; I want to be a famous actress…” I found myself more curious about what kind of people they would be. Would they grow up to be kind and caring, or might one of them end up a rapist at sixteen?
Maybe instead of asking children what they want to be when they grow up, we should instead ask “Who do you want to be. What kind of person do you think you’ll be?”