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The Sporting Life


It’s no secret that I’m not a sports fan. Not any sport. At all.

Oh, I’ll admit there is a certain nostalgic charm in sitting in a ball park on a June afternoon. But I was raised a Phillies fan, so usually my enthusiasm is hard to maintain into July. And, really, once you’ve eaten the hot dog, downed the over-priced beer and shouted a desperate “Charge!” a few times, the idea that you could be sitting in the shade with a tall, cool Tom Collins and a book begins to sound infinitely wiser.

So I wasn’t going to mention this weekend’s college football fiasco since I already consider the whole sport corrupt and barbaric. The only thing surprising about the Florida International/Miami game ending in a brawl is that is doesn’t happen more often.

Now before you assume that I know absolutely nothing about the whole sporting concept, understand that I am married to a sports writer. Dirtman makes money being a soil scientist. But in whatever capacity he was toiling away at dirt, he always supplemented our income by being a sports writer. And, so that his part time job didn’t interfere with “family time,” the kids and I were always along for the ride (If you ever attended sports events in the Northern Virginia/D.C. area, I was the woman sitting in the stands with the two toddlers, knitting or reading a book while the kids colored. Hi!).

During that time I’ve observed how athletes are treated from their first induction into T-ball through college ball and, occasionally, beyond into the pros. But more importantly, I’ve watched the behavior of the adults who surround them and the mixed message being taught during the entire process.

Sports notwithstanding, as a culture we can’t decide whether or not we want our children to grow up fast and be able to take on adult-like responsibilities with adult-like demeanor, or whether we want them to remain children as long as possible. A lot more than the sports world suffers from this indecision.

You can have one or the other, but not both successfully. Because right now we want them to react maturely to issues we haven’t, in the interest of “letting them enjoy their childhood,” prepared them to deal with.

It becomes worse when you have adults who have an emotional – and financial – stake in the behavior of an 18- or 19-year-old whose volatility and anger on the field wins the games that boosts alumni egos and ensures job security for coaches.

Even at the midget football level, players having their picture taken are instructed not to smile so they look “tough.”

As naïve as it may sound, I respectfully point out that college football is supposed to be an extra-curricular activity. College football is not the point of college. Dirtman used to argue that, were it not for sports, some of these players wouldn’t be able to afford college. So, instead, our universities are used as farm teams for the NFL as players who are ambivalent about a degree take the place of more academically-minded students.

This attitude had trickled down through the high school level. I was annoyed when I watched the first episode of Friday Night Lights (Dirtman again. . .) that one key point was left out that was stressed in the book and to a lesser extent in the movie: that, while the football stadium was state-of-the-art and the sports program received funds for new uniforms and equipment, the school itself was decaying and the teachers were severely underpaid.

Again, there is that “party line” chant that “this is the only way these kids can get a scholarship to college” because they don’t do well academically. Considering the condition of their educational system, it’s no wonder.

What no one wants to point out is the unspoken truth that it’s “cooler” to have a kid who is a football star than a geeky nerd good at math. Oh we make the “children are our future” and “education is the key” noises, but even the newspaper, the local literature of the community, devotes page upon page everyday to high school sports. The honor roll runs as space is available in 6-point type (which, if you are unfamiliar with type size, is the size of most newspapers’ photo credits).

None of this is lost on kids. They are fully aware that the kids involved in sports are given a wider margin for error that gets wider as they get older, especially if they show a modicum of talent.

That a Marcus Vick exists is not a surprise so much as that there isn’t more like him. And there probably is, only they didn’t receive the kind of attention granted the little brother of another NFL player who used a university as a practice field until draft time.

So I frankly don’t care what the punishment for the FIU and Miami players are. We’re going to see more and more incidents like this until one day when you say the name Notre Dame or USC, you think “academics” and not their standings in the Bowl Championship Series.

(In all fairness, I admit I had Dirtman read this ahead of time to make sure I didn’t say anything ridiculously stupid regarding sports in general. He showed amazing restraint, considering he graduated from Virginia Tech and is, therefore, obligated to disagree with my assessment of college football. To his credit, he was among those who wrote to the Tech president demanding Marcus Vick’s exit last January.)

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