Our local paper recently editorialized in favor of high school sports. They were inspired to take this bold stance by Greenwich High School’s softball state championship, an event the paper regarded as something of an inspirational Hollywood story. You know, the one in which a bunch of girls from a small town get together on a team organized and paid for by their school district in order to play a game with a bat and ball against teams of girls from other small towns. It is a heartwarming tale of “will and determination and a fighting spirit,” plus the allocation of scarce education resources and the tremendous importance we ascribe to athletics.
There’s nothing wrong with teenage girls working together to play softball well and to do it competitively, and in the realm of high school softball a state championship is something to be proud of. Games can in fact provide people with a way to learn how to work, how to work together, how to live with losing, how to deal with the tedium of preparation, how to delay gratification. And playing games can be a source of joy, as well as a better way to stay fit than sitting around texting and reading Justin Bieber’s tweets.
But there is nothing inherently right with it either. There seems to be a common view that sports are in some way fundamentally moral, that by their nature they teach those who participate in them essential lessons about fairness and cooperation and selflessness. To play a sport, according to this view, is to be inculcated in a system of basic values that apply to all of life. Or as our paper put it, sports “develops the minds and bodies of our young people for the future.”
Well, to be fair, sports can do that. Just not necessarily in positive ways. Two kids on Will’s soccer
team–two thirteen-year-old kids–got concussions this year, which could certainly have an effect on their developing minds. An opposing player, after being stripped of the ball yet again, told one of Will’s teammates “I am going to kill your mother.” I watched kids grab jerseys, swing elbows at necks, jam cleats into shins, argue with referees, refuse to shake hands after games, cry about losing. The bad behavior did not predominate, not any more than the good. Most of the time the kids were neither good nor bad, just playing soccer. But the bad behavior happened often enough to indicate that the game was not necessarily teaching positive lessons.
In fact, it was pretty clear that the game itself was not teaching any particular lessons. The game may have provided the opportunity for whatever lessons were being taught. But the notably bad behavior (and the notably good behavior) occurred most often amongst players on specific teams, suggesting that they were being encouraged to play that way by some force outside the game.
It is possible that organized, competitive sports are good vehicles for teaching kids useful things about how to live well–as well as for teaching them how to be jerks. But it is possible that lots other activities will serve the purpose just as well, and quite possibly with less risk of brain injury. Debating, for instance, or engine repair or modern European history or cooking or maybe even farming.
Imagine those girls from Greenwich had just won a major onion growing competition. There would be a picture of them gathered around the prize bulbs in matching overalls, smiling proudly, and an article detailing how they had worked together as a team right from the day the seed packet arrived, describing the long, hard hours of weeding and watering that had played such an integral role in their victory, the way they pulled together when times got tough, how when the late spring hail storm made it look like their whole season could go down in disaster they had rallied and worked even harder to overcome the obstacles to success. What an inspiring tale it would be, what a testament to the value of vegetable cultivation as a way to form the citizens of tomorrow. Surely even in these tough times as school districts are forced to make hard choices and do away with music and art and books and teachers, even now every high school student should have the chance to grow an onion and dream.
I doubt we will see a lot of school districts deciding to start competitive interscholastic vegetable farming teams despite the useful lessons growing food can teach and the fact that we are more likely to need people with farming skills than softball or soccer prowess. And actually, that is fine. I don’t really want to see vegetable farming turned into yet another commercialized outlet for our obsessive competitive instincts, replete with expensive specialized gear, intense training regimens, grandiose tournaments, corporate sponsorships and inane media coverage.
And, come to think of it, perhaps we could apply this notion to food production too, and start asking more questions about how our food was produced and what the consequences of that production system are for eaters and workers and worms. Perhaps then we could start to shift away from an agricultural policy obsessed by production to one a little more focused on practices. Instead of trying to win the world corn growing championship every year we could aim for a record reduction in top soil loss or nutrient leaching and honor growers who protect habit and treat their workers well. Sure, it sounds impressive that we grew 13.2 billion bushels of corn last year, but it is a little harder to celebrate that when you consider what we did to achieve that.