Wednesday, January 14, 2009


It seems as though everybody I know has a four-year-old these days. It's like four-year-olds are the new black. "Where did you get that? It's charming." "Oh, we made it at home with some things we had laying about." I like them. Four-year-olds, I mean. I wouldn't want one of my own (I have nothing to wear with it) but Amanda and I don't mind borrowing other peoples' from time to time.

Anyway, four-year-olds are perfectly splendid until their parents do a stupid thing and decide it's time for them to start playing sports. The terminus of this decision is invariably a form of postmodern sadism called dodge-ball. Dodge-ball was the first and last recourse of every hilariously stereotypical gym teacher I ever had, the agonizing hour when subliterate troglodytes who should have been held back got to take it out on the rest of us - which is to say, on those of us who could count to ten without using our fingers. (That is why the one-handed pushup was invented, incidentally, so that people who can do one handed pushups can count the number they've completed using their other hand). What sick mind invented this game? What kind of sick mind gets children to play it? Well, that's not hard to answer: subliterate troglodytes who should have been held back, but who managed to make it through some shady teacher's college and who are now, vicariously, taking it out on the rest of us - which is to say, on their students who can count to ten without using their fingers.

It doesn't end there, either. I once suffered through the indignity of being on an academic softball team. One would have thought the purpose was to have some fun and then have some beer, but, no. A gaggle of mostly male, mostly pudgy historians seemed to have a real interest vested in winning, and the competition was unpleasantly fierce. Oh, there were women, too — one friend was a machine in the field, nothing got past her, and she rarely came away from the game without significant and hard-won cuts and bruises — but some of the men, at least, seemed to resent their very presence. I recall one game, when we were getting the hell beaten out of us by a chain-smoking gang of economists (seriously, they smoked running around the bases, apparently on the premise it makes good economic sense to pay gigantic tobacco companies to kill you), and a teammate suggested to me that we should change our line-up to keep the "girls" from getting a chance at bat. Fun, hell: winning, and thus manliness itself, was at stake. I don't think we changed the batting order. But we did lose.

Well, I've never been terribly sensitive about appearing all that "manly". That ship sailed a long, long time ago. In my case, it departed during a fifth grade sports day-camp, when, after the locker-room tortures became too much to bear, I begged and received permission from my mother to spend my summer days working in the back room of her flower shop instead. I learned a lot about flowers back there, and about work ethic, because my mother was far less tolerant of lazing about when it came to her business. By contrast, as I've said before, I think there's good evidence that the argument that sports help teach children the virtues of character, teamwork, and fair play is often the opposite of the truth. In my experience, sports encouraged boys to be vicious, taught them that aggression is its own reward, and above all conveyed the impression that to be academically rather than athletically inclined was to be effeminate by definition. I actually know a parent who has said that he doesn't want his four-year old to be involved in such things as music and drama and dance, because kids who are get picked on. Better that he play sports, and be the one to do the picking.

For my male friends and I, our youthful encounter with school and extracurricular sports also taught us — or attempted to teach us — that girls were not merely different but actually biologically inferior. I'll never recall the two weeks that the boys were wrestling on one side of the gym and the girls were square-dancing on the other. Why not have the boys square dance, too? And have the girls learn some wrestling? Some dancing skills would serve me well nowadays: like most middle-aged male academics, I dance with the approximate grace of a rhinoceros. By contrast, I have little use for the wrestling "skills" I learned , whereas I had female friends in high school, who, in all seriousness, could have used some wrestling skills to extricate themselves from more than one date that turned ugly.

Okay. There's an element of hypocrisy here, in that I practiced martial arts enthusiastically for about fifteen years, and have done so on-and-off ever since. But I took up karate in the first place in order to protect myself in gym class. Strife is part of life — schooling should naturally be attended by a certain degree of anxiety. But in my case — and I know I speak for a great many friends here — gym class was attended not by mere anxiety but by actual fear. It was the place where smart kids were bullied and intimidated, and as much by the teachers as by our Alpha-Male classmates. As it turns out, the karate didn't help (it was actually the subject of more ridicule when it became generally known). By contrast, quitting gym as soon as I'd taken my requisite three credits did help. I should note that, as I got older and the karate schools opened their doors to progressively younger and younger students, I witnessed the replication of gym-class behaviour inside these clubs, too. I also witnessed something I'd never seen first hand, because my overworked parents never forced team-sports upon me - parental bullying, and this is worse than any other, because it continued after the game was over.

Oh, I know that there are parents who put enormous pressure on students to perform academically, too, and I wish they would strike the right balance in that regard also. But at least math and French and chemistry can get you something in life. What does hockey and soccer and football lead to, in the long run, for most young boys who take it up or play it for any duration? For one in ten thousand, a professional sports career. For the rest: well, injuries, of course. And memories of being pushed around in the locker room, of being yelled at by other parents and perhaps by their own, and, if they play long enough, the very real probability of academic underachievement. Sarah Palin joked that the difference between pit bulls and hockey moms is lipstick. Not so. The difference is that hockey moms are actually likely to harm children.

1 comment:

Andrew Denstedt said...

You seem to have it in for the game of dodge ball. For full disclosure, I will admit it from the beginning: I love dodge ball. I was part of a team last year at Carleton with a group of people who were anything but subliterate troglodytes.

I spent yesterday playing floor hockey, volleyball, and a sport I’d never heard of called rugby basketball in the PEC at Queen’s. I’m getting up at an ungodly hour tomorrow to do it all again. I haven’t had this much fun at school since I got here. I’ve met about thirty new people the in past 24 hours. Some of them are great athletes, some of them are not, most of us are right in the middle and that’s just fine. The point is, sports can bring people together. You don’t have to be a superstar or making millions to get something out of it. Sure, some people might dread it, but that’s no reason to write sports off. Nor is it correct to assume that scholastic endeavors are always superior to athletic pursuits. As you mention, balance is vital. It’s important to cultivate both your mind and body. I think some Greek philosophers, who I know you hold in high regard, had something to say about that.

I think your most important qualifier was “In my experience”. You clearly have had a bad time with team sports and that’s unfortunate. With respect to that experience, I think you’re dead wrong to suggest that sports usually teach the opposite of the “virtues of character, teamwork, and fair play”. I learned to be part of a team on the field. I learned how to lose in hockey arenas. I learned how to win on the baseball diamond. I learn just as much about myself and the world playing sports as I do sitting in the library or giving papers at conferences.

You know what I learned in the seminar room? Okay I’ve learned lots of things. I wouldn’t be at Queen’s if I hadn’t. I love learning and I love debating. Still, it’s a lot easier to get noticed for hurling an intellectual dodge ball at someone you disagree with than it is to simply nod your head and pat someone else on the back for saying something you agree with. I’ve seen debates in historical journals that are far more furious and petty than anything I’ve ever seen on the field (and they’re about things that are just as trivial as whether or not someone stepped out of bounds).

Lastly, my mother is a hockey mom and my dad is a hockey dad. They have never harmed me in any way. There are very few people on this planet who I know truly love me, but they are at the front of that line. They paid thousands of dollars and got up at 5am on Saturday mornings to drive me to the arena so I could do something that I loved. That’s noble. That’s good parenting.

You criticized your friends for not letting their son dance because they thought it would shield him from persecution. You are guilty of promoting the same crime.