Monday, February 6, 2012

Games Won and Lost

The kids moved well but couldn’t shoot. They ran from one end of the court to the other with style and grace, but when it came to making points, the ball went under or over the hoop. The final score after an hour’s play was 16-14 for the white team.

I was there because a friend’s son was playing. The 14-year-old wasn’t as tall as most of his teammates but he had the kind of hustle coaches notice and appreciate. He tried four shots, scored one, ducked under bigger kids and protected his turf ferociously. Though his team had the best player, they lost anyway. I suspect the loss had something to do with a reticence to share the ball. Time and again, one kid or another would go the length of the court, thread and elbow his way through the competition and miss the easy lay-up. The two or three potential three-pointers never made it either.

The game was held in the gym of a Northern Virginia high school, a monstrous space that accommodated four basketball courts, all in use by competing teams so that play took place in a cacophony of referee whistles and dribbling balls. Parents sat in folding chairs or leaned against the gym walls and watched their kids dribble shoot miss, dribble shoot miss. The coaches—parents themselves—occasionally showed a hint of temper but the parents were mostly laconic, a sigh here, a shake of the head there.

These weren’t high school teams. A parent explained to me that when a high school has a two thousand-plus student population, only the very best get to compete with the school’s own teams. The rest of the hopefuls end up playing on inter-county teams like the ones I was watching. The problem, said the parent, is that they only get to practice once a week. The rest of the time, the school teams take up the courts or fields. It’s serious business with scholarships to top colleges riding on the success of the school’s athletic program. In an area with spiraling college tuition costs and associated expenses, schools like the one I visited to see a game need to foster the talents of the very best, often at the cost of the not-quite-very-best.

It struck me that this was sort of sad, this shutting out of average kids in favor of the superstars. We’re starting the weaning out too early. Admittedly, the high schools are wedged in a Catch-22 situation.  High-visibility schools with superlative athletic programs lure the best athletes, and not necessarily from the immediate area. Such school can demand higher budgets, which re-enforces their reputations. As outstanding athletes move on to colleges that pay their tuition and room and board,  the schools are able to justify the time spent on the top tier players at the cost of the less gifted.

I’m not sure if this helps or harms the academic programs, but I do know it persuades the average kids not to participate in school sports activities. Somewhere along the line here, we’ve forgotten that sports are games, and games are supposed to be played as children play them, for the shear fun and enjoyment of running around with other kids your age,  and having a good time.  

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