Friday, January 25, 2002
A Sporting Life
My happiest memories of sports in highschool are of sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea and eating mother’s sustaining fruitcake with my friend, Helen. After years of supervised and compulsory sports, at age seventeen, school allowed us to choose our own Friday afternoon exercise, and we elected to ramble through the waist-high bracken on the moor, right back over to my house. Officially, we were running cross-country.
I was never much of an athlete at school. Being short sighted and preoccupied, I disliked sports that involved the close approach of fast-moving objects such as field hockey balls. And I didn’t much care for running, jumping or catching either. Team sports were a moral trial to me, and I still recall the mortification of having let the team down yet again.
Still, I was early trained in the English custom of nice healthy walks in the drizzling rain by my mother who, to this day, chases her grandchildren out of the house “to get some fresh air before supper,” regardless of the weather or TV schedule. So I distinguished between sports, which I scorned, and taking exercise, which I approved of and liked. Exercise included swimming solitary laps in the local pool as well as going for long walks and, later, serious hiking in the Lake District. In college, I joined an eight, and decided to classify rowing as exercise not a sport, since one sits down throughout the whole activity.
I make these autobiographical remarks in the interests of full disclosure. Perhaps my childhood sporting traumas have warped my perceptions. Or perhaps my problem is just that I grew up in a different culture. For I am puzzled by the American mania for sports in highschool and college.
At the Post Office last week, I overheard a soccer mom’s in-depth and impassioned critique of junior’s coach: his techniques, commitment and career stats. Her friend responded with an equally-exhaustive account of her packed schedule as fund-raiser and chauffeur for her child’s sports team. Neither spared a comment for their children’s academic instructors.
My local paper regularly devotes a section to highschool and college athletics, but reports on science projects and theatre productions appear only sporadically. A helicopter makes the rounds of local highschool games, so the TV station can broadcast sporting highlights with the evening news. I don’t understand this passionate interest nor how schools justify this relentless promotion of sports.
One line I’ve heard is that playing sports builds the student’s moral character: it teaches one to play fair and win honestly in the great game of life. But there’s something puzzling here. My American sports-fan friends will readily concede that professional and even collegiate sports are fairly corrupt businesses. People agree that there’s a problem when Coach Knight throws another temper tantrum, or when O’Leary falsifies his credentials. Yet, somehow, this admission doesn’t lead to the question whether sports training - as such - really does teach the virtues of emotional self-control or honesty.
Another claim is that exposure to sport in school is the basis for a life-long commitment to physical health. But while the talented few may be trained and supported, the majority of students will never make the school teams. When the whole school turns out to cheer for the Homecoming game, most of the students will be relegated to the sidelines. This strikes me as good preparation for a lifetime of spectatorship, not activity. I wonder, too, whether optional tai chi every morning would have a more calming and healthful effect on more students’ alertness and attitudes than a bi-weekly stadium filler, where most are just warming the benches.
My complaint isn’t against sports in school, nor even against spectator sports. After all, if education in part prepares us to appreciate human excellence, perhaps we should learn to appreciate physical virtuosity as well as intellectual and aesthetic prowess. And with the incidence of childhood and adolescent obesity rising rapidly, schools surely ought to focus on students’ bodies as well as their minds.
With the Thomas Junta case in the national news, and the squalid tale of coach Chris Woods and his student-girlfriend circulating locally, my question arises more vividly. Under what conditions can students get the purported benefits of sports participation, while avoiding some problems associated with organised sport?
I think back to my pleasurable moorland rambles. With some encouragement, as a young woman, I was able to find some healthy activities that I liked and the habit of exercise has persisted, though I have no crowds to cheer me on. And I hope that my un-sporting counterparts in local schools are equally lucky.