One father’s perspective on the madness of youth sports
Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash
I leapt from the third row of the bleachers, sprinted across the grass and threw my shoulder into the rib cage of the arrogant bastard standing on the sideline. The force of the blow sent his expensive camera flying onto the field and snapped his tripod in half. I let my full weight grind his cyclist’s frame into the turf, then put a hard forearm across his neck, pressed my nose to his and growled through gritted teeth: “Don’t you ever say another word to my daughter. Ever!”
In my mind.
Play moved to the other end of the field, crisp passes and flying ponytails marking the progress of the opposing team toward our goalie. Sitting beside me, my younger daughter Lila followed the lacrosse closely, as did everyone else but me. My eyes bored into the close-cropped head of the father who, with quasi-journalistic hubris, had set up his photographic gear within inches of the playing surface. He was younger, more athletic and slightly taller than I was. (Over-protective fathers measure this stuff.) He had spent the first twenty minutes of the game slowly building the pitch and intensity of the hectoring he aimed at his own daughter. As his fervor had grown, he had decided to start ‘coaching’ the other girls as well.
My daughter Emma had run up the sideline, cradling the ball and scanning for teammates. When she spotted the photographer’s daughter cutting to the goal, she whipped in a pass that flew just wide and was intercepted. He slapped his thigh, stamped theatrically and barked, “Oh come on! Courtney was wide open!” Emma looked at him as she turned to run back on defense. When I saw this and understood that she had heard him, I actually started to get up. But I caught myself. Thankfully, neither Emma nor Lila were aware of my reaction.
Along the sideline, parents from our lacrosse club sat in lawn chairs that bowed beneath their Disney-fed bulk. As the Orlando sun beat down, they chattered complaints about the long drive from Georgia, the long lines at the theme park and the long odds of our team winning any games in this tournament. It was hard to draw any physical connection between these people and the lithe, talented young women on the field. When a player sprinted along the sideline with the ball, on cue her mother would shriek at the top of her lungs:
Watching the body language of these stressed-out kids, I felt horrible for encouraging Emma to join the team. As a teen, my own sports experience was never about getting a ‘D-1 look’ or anything so connected to the transactional world. Every piece of equipment was issued by the high school, and although our football helmets were in pretty awful shape, it never occurred to anyone that there ought to be a row of tents at our games selling us better ones. The only real pressure came from coaches who wanted us to improve, and fathers who wanted to live vicariously through our violence.
We had driven nearly thirteen hours to this tournament, after spending thousands of dollars to join the team. None of us, least of all Emma, thought it would lead to a scholarship offer. My own hope was that she might gain some skills and have a better time in the Spring on her school’s team in Atlanta. Walking into the massive Florida sports facility, however, I realized how naïve I had been. Disney and ESPN had invested millions in a venue aimed at the youth sports market. Every conceivable thing was being bought and sold, including our daughters’ dreams.
College coaches prowled the sidelines, serious women who looked like they could still pick up a stick and play. Parents trailed after them, networking as shamelessly as they dared. It was a world unto itself, an ecosystem into which we had parachuted without a map. Girls’ sports were, to me, about empowering young women to discover their strength, and to use it to grow as people, bond with friends and gain confidence for life. The relatively recent commodification of girls’ lacrosse felt like an over-correction, as if to gain an equal footing with the boys, the girls had to become transactional too. But there were still anachronisms. The conservative athletic director at my daughter’s school once moved a girls’ varsity lacrosse game off of the main turf field so the junior varsity boys could practice there. Not very long ago in Georgia, boys’ and girls’ soccer were moved to Spring so there would be no ‘distractions’ from football.
These felt like echoes of the old “be a man!” admonitions of my youth. As a skinny, fifteen-year-old defensive tackle, I once endured a three-hour beatdown from a senior who was a head taller and more than a hundred pounds heavier. Walking off the field, I saw tears in my mother’s eyes and shame on my father’s face. Two years later, in a spasm of revenge and to the delight of the fathers who had seen the earlier game, I hit that guy’s younger brother so hard he had to be guided off the field. Looking back, I am proud of the first experience and ashamed of the second. It took nothing for me to deliver that hit, but it took all of my heart and soul to keep getting up each time that kid’s older brother knocked me down.
These are the lessons I was hoping sports would teach my daughters. I am an ardent feminist, married to a strong, intelligent woman, trying to raise powerful young girls to be independent women. True strength is gained through adversity, not celebration, and sports are a safe way for young people to experience that. But as I sat there in Orlando, amid the Under Armour tents and scholarship seekers, I felt very far away from anything wholesome. Each goal these girls scored was met with on-field preening for the video cameras and boastful howls from their parents. The urgent business of showcasing talent had subsumed the players’ team spirit, along with their personal dignity. They were submitting to the judgment of the marketplace, living for external validation. The value of their effort was determined solely by the praise and scholarship possibilities it won them. Watching the girls suffer when these things were withheld made my skin crawl.
As I looked around at the parents, I had a sudden realization: I was no better than they were. Some small part of me had connected Emma’s passion for lacrosse with the experience I had in football, and like any parent, I had begun to wish that she could reap the same benefits that my game had given me. I had signed her up for this. Watching veins bulge as the sideline photographer screamed at Courtney, my own neck flushed with embarrassment. I had never yelled once, but my face in the crowd looked no different than his when viewed from the field. Why should I see my own motives as love and generosity, and the other parents’ as vanity and greed?
The action flowed back to our end of the field and the lawn chairs erupted again. Cameras tracked each feint and cut as the girls worked the ball closer to the opponents’ goal. Emma swung out wide, took a pass and gave a little head fake to her defender. Her feet were a blur as she worked into the eight, then pulled up and spotted Courtney to her left.
“She’s open!!” the photographer screamed.
With her shoulders, Emma moved as if to pass and then ducked into a seam, ran two more steps and buried a goal into the net. Taking a wide arc around the crease, she circled back to our sideline and stared at the photographer as she trotted by. The defiant contempt in her eyes was palpable, even majestic. I tensed, waiting for him to say something; almost willing him to. He stood still, as if cowed by a strength too foreign and unexpected to be believed. Lila and I clapped and cheered, and slapped a high five. As Emma ran by, I smiled broadly and raised one fist, nodding in a silent salute to so much more than one pretty goal. Maybe there was value for her in this experience after all.