Wednesday, November 7, 2018

18 years on Saturday’s fields

This autumn Saturday, more than 3,400 NCAA football, soccer and rugby teams will meet on fields throughout the nation. More than 846,000 high school soccer players will play this week, along with an even 1 million high school football players on approximately 13,800 teams.
Factor in 2.3 million youth soccer players and 1.2 million youth footballers – and then consider the tens of millions of total spectators. 
These are staggering numbers of participation and competition – there is no voluntary endeavor like it in American society today.    
I know these Saturdays well. Because for the past 18 years, I’ve spent every single one of them on a field. My three sons have played on various athletic teams - nearly three seasons every year - from the ages of 4 to 22.  Indeed, many weekday afternoons I attended a practice or a game or drove to one or the other; then, there were the dozens of tournaments and college recruiting camps, from Maine to Florida. In this age of big data, I recently calculated that collectively, my kids played on  approximately 147 teams, attended more than 8,700 practices, and played in more than 2,300 games.
But I’m hardly alone: Three out of four American families with school-aged children have at least one playing an organized sport — a total of about 45 million kids; 61 percent of boys’ ages 6 to 12 play a team sport. It’s even higher for females at 64 percent.
Certainly athletic participation occasions the usual tropes: discipline, personal satisfaction, alertness of mind.  For example, as the Women’s Sports Foundation notes, female high school athletes are 92 percent less liked to get involved with drugs, 80 percent less likely to get pregnant, and 3 times more likely to graduate than non-athletes. 
But there’s a deeper benefit.  As a supercharged, 4th-grade lacrosse coach once lectured me and other parents sitting in bleachers on the eve of what he called “a make-or-break” season: “Folks, this field is the only place your Johnny puts himself out there to be judged by a bunch of strangers. And half of them want him to fail.” Coach Firebreather could have been talking about almost any young person on the fields today. 

And amen to that. In an age of adolescent relativism and softness, on-field competition is where Johnny succeeds or fails, and he does so in direct relation to his preparation, resilience, and teamwork. No excuses. There’s no app for grinding.
Twenty-three hundred games later, what I recall most is the adversity: My kid in the soccer goal stopping 23 shots, but allowing another eight to get by; a kid fumbling near the goal line and losing a championship game. And oh yeah, a kid never leaving the bench, even in the fourth quarter of a blowout game.  Kids choked up, parents dismayed, coaches in shock, the echoes of cheers from the winning team and crowd - all of it excruciating.

But I know that the recovery from disappointments made my boys much stronger than the elation of victories.  And today, I bet few of the spectators today, except for parents, have even an idea of what it takes to play on an NCAA Division I team, even a Division III squad.  As the NCAA notes, “Of the nearly 8 million students currently participating in high school athletics in the United States, only 480,000 of them will compete at NCAA schools.” What the NCAA left out was that maybe one fourth of those competing will get much playing time.  I know. Firsthand.
Ultimately, rewarded by grinding, one son played four years of Division-III lacrosse on a team that twice had a Top 20 ranking in the ESPN/Nike College poll; another was cut from a Division I football team and played on a club lacrosse team that won a national championship. The third is the only one to break through to D-1, playing rugby, though he will be in that  “three-fourth’s” participation category.

However, this Saturday will be the first time in 18 years in which I’m not on a field somewhere, enjoying the athleticism and sweat and rugged American competition.  And, yes, the adversity. That’s because exactly one-half of the millions of young people on the fields today will be on the south side of the final score.  

But that doesn’t really matter. They’re out there, being judged, even if it isn’t a make-or-break season.

Friday, June 8, 2018

U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 2018

Ensign Braden Nelligan and President Donald Trump

One year ago I attended the Faber College commencement for Nellie Junior, at which the speaker informed the crowd that “If you were born a straight white male, well, congratulations, you hit the jackpot.” At the time, I immediately thought of my old man, who at age 15, was hauling ore in a Union Carbide vanadium mine underneath the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “Gosh, Dad,” I mused, “You never knew how good you had it.”

However, the thoughtful female Nigerian poet hadn’t even hit stride: “If you are a white woman, you are privileged because you are white.”  C’mon sister!  Perhaps at a celebratory event at an elite school, it verges on psychotic to denigrate 60 percent of your audience – you know, those privileged sad sacks who keep the school financially secure so that the oppressed can attend.  Nah.  The remaining 40 percent seem to nod vigorously while the colorful Third World shawls and scarves worn over traditional black gowns flutter in the carnival atmosphere. Now I know full well this “courageous” woman is entitled to freely her speak her opinions – after all, this is America. Not Nigeria. 

With that fatuous, comic nightmare a year old and the serious kids like mine and his pals heading off to old-fashioned work and paychecks, this year I attended another commencement, for Little Nellie, at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis.

Coincidentally, like my old man, the speaker’s Dad had started as another one of those jackpot-winning laborers; unlike Nellie Sr., he ascended to astronomical success.

President Trump spoke to the United States Naval Academy Class of 2018 and it was all that could be hoped for – that is, by the Midshipman and parents of Midshipmen who had seen their kids endure four years of military discipline, barracks life, tough physical tests, three summers away at sea, and mandatory softball courses like Electrical Engineering, Calculus, Thermodynamics, and Chemistry.  Seventy five percent of my middle son’s class (including him) are STEM majors. No B.A.s in Dance or Latino Studies or Gender & Sexuality. Or Poetry, alas. 

President Trump talked about “the path of hard work and sweat and sacrifice….the word impossible does not exist, because the Navy never quits.  You don’t give up. You don’t give in. You don’t back down. And you never surrender. Wherever you go, wherever you serve, wherever your mission takes you, you only have one word in mind, and that’s victory. That is why you are here. Victory. You are now leaders in the most powerful and righteous force on the face of the planet.” Bombast to be sure, but then again, even if you dislike him intensely, he didn’t insult his audience. And I don’t think he said, “I was also writing short stories and sending them out to journals.”  

Both at Faber and USNA, the brainpower is acute, but perhaps the rigor debatable. Approximately 13 percent of my kid’s class was forced out in the years following Day 1 of Plebe Summer. At Faber, if you get in, you stay in – the only way you leave is if you knock down a faux shantytown constructed by some kid wearing a guitar or if you fail to appear at an OWS rally.

Nevertheless, the intellects and ambitions do intersect. While it seems an increasing number of Faber kids opt for exploring their “creativity,” asking what this artistically starved nation can do for them, many of the Faber kids go on to use their privilege in finance and law and medicine to add value and economic vitality to the national engine. How do I know this?  The Faber Board helps manage a whopping $2.3 billion endowment, which I guarantee you is run by those “jackpot guys” whose sweat and skills allow the social justice warrior grads to stand on shores pleading for the oceans to recede all the while giving voices to the voiceless.

The Annapolis grads enter into a different realm. They are all almost immediately responsible for the welfare and lives of thousands of sailors and Marines and untold millions of dollars of equipment, some of it lethal. No time for performance art, comrade, when you’re sitting atop ordnance that can reduce a thousand voiceless bad guys and their shrines to ashes in a righteous instant.

What’s so compelling is that given these two institutions represent the extremes, their commencements represent the tenor of the times. At Faber, for an immigrant, no less from a flailing state (goodness, you cannot make this stuff up), it’s all about the introspection, the self-absorption - this desperately flawed nation the graduates are forced into; the recitation of a laundry list of all the tired and reflexive tropes – social validation, gender injustice, those without voices, evil privilege, and oh yeah, “calling your elected officials” – it’s the faculty lounge in full grievance mode. A majority of the crowd endures the “dialogue” with the stoic condescension it deserves.

At the Naval Academy, the language is swaggering bravado for certain, but it’s also resolute, confident, uplifting; it recalls heritage and sacrifice and heroism and a genuine acknowledgement of what the Midshipman have accomplished and a reminder of the responsibilities they will soon confront all over the globe.   

Our Faber speaker, in an incredible turnaround almost completely indicting her past ramblings, closes with a quote not from Maya Angelou or Gabriela Mistral, but from a 19th Century paragon of white female privilege, Emily Dickinson: “`Hope is a thing with feathers.’  It makes me imagine hope as something both breakable and forceful.” C'mon sister! The eye-rolling is palpable as this tepid charge to the graduates echoes around the now half-full venue.

In Annapolis, it’s pure sound and fury: “You’re among the finest people anywhere in the world, the smartest, the strongest. You know you will make us proud. You are warriors. You are fighters. You are champions!”

And instead of feathers, all we get is the force of the Blue Angels blasting over the crowd at 300 mph, with yes, the woke sound of freedom.