Here’s hoping the pathetic, tragic story of Penn State football encourages a wider discussion about young people and sports. Yes, that is quite a generalization, and leap from what’s happened at one university, but I think it’s justified. And we’re about to see huge attention paid to Olympic athletes. It’s a good time to talk about this.
In just one recent day, a quick scan of sports news found:
• The University of Michigan suspended a running back on suspicion of drunk driving;
• An Oklahoma State player was convicted of sexual assault;
• The Detroit Lions cut a cornerback because he had been arrested for assault, the second time he had been arrested during the off-season; and
• An NFL hockey star was found guilty of careless boating.
Before continuing, it’s worth noting that over the last 50 years, I’ve seen great value in youth sports. As a participant (including varsity player at high school and college levels), parent and coach, I’ve gained and witnessed many pluses. At best, young athletes learn to work together, win gracefully and lose without becoming defeated. They gain practice in setting, working very hard toward and sometimes accomplishing goals. These are potential and sometimes real benefits.
Having said that, there is plenty to question. For example:
Is it necessary or desirable for some youth teams to “run-up” the score, winning by 40 or 50 points in football or basketball? I’ve seen youngsters on losing teams devastated by this kind of thing.
In some youth baseball and softball leagues I’ve coached in, there’s a “10-run” rule. If a team is ahead by more than 10 runs at a certain point in the game, that’s the end. Isn’t that possible in other sports?
Part of the problem is that I think we give so much attention and adulation to sports stars.
Do we, as community members, service groups and school “boosters” give as much attention to young people who excel in some form of art or academics, as we do to the star quarterback, goalie or center? Have groups been formed to help a math team travel? How much local support is there for the band? Are local businesses advertising on community posters that have the fall academic competition schedules?
Everywhere I go in Minnesota and many other states, I see seasonal signs advertising high school teams’ athletic competitions. OK. How about equal time for academic teams?
Yes, sports can be enormously entertaining. They can bring together a community and produce great pride.
Is this a stretch from the tragedy at Penn State? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s the unfortunate conclusion of a society that puts a huge value on winning in sports. It’s not enough to criticize the coaches and administrators at Penn State.
It’s time to rethink how sports sometimes operate. It’s also time to give more attention to young people who achieve in different areas.
Joe Nathan, formerly a high school and college athlete and coach of various basketball, baseball and softball teams, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome via e-mail at [email protected].