I have a lot of readers who don't like football and who don't watch any sports on television at all other than cultural holiday-type events such as the Super Bowl and the Olympics, and from time to time they will ask me some version of the question "What is good about sports exactly?"
That's a hard question to answer because a lot of what's good about sports is pretty ephemeral. And very often when someone is asking you that questions, they are not asking you that question from a position of neutrality; they have concrete experiences in their background against which they are going to weigh your answer. Experiences like the ones that Jonathan Martin endured at the hands of Richie Incognito in the Miami Dolphins locker room.
If you're lucky enough to be unfamiliar with this story, here are the basics: a successful, wealthy player named Richie Incognito carried out a campaign of systematic bullying and abuse of a lesser player on his team named Jonathan Martin. Martin did his best to tolerate the abuse, but after Incognito organized a "practical joke" of convincing the rest of the team to refuse to sit with Martin at lunch in response to some mistake Martin had made on the field, Martin's emotional state prompted him (thank goodness) to check himself into a hospital to be treated for an undisclosed psychiatric condition.
These stories, even more than stories about NFL players with post-concussion syndrome or baseball players using steroids to gain an unfair advantage, make life very hard on those of us who love sports and think they can be a positive force in people's lives. That's doubly true because, while the Dolphins organization has condemned Incognito's treatment of Martin, many football players believe that it is appropriate and even beneficial to treat teammates in this way.
This attitude unfortunately trickles down throughout sports even to the very lowest youth levels. Parents and coaches bully and berate kids and tolerate bullying of weaker kids by stronger ones. Many of them profess to believe that this makes the kids better at sports, but it doesn't. It's just an excuse bullies use to try to avoid being called on their behavior. In fact, this type of bullying can prevent kids from learning the most important lessons sports can teach.
Last Tuesday I played goalkeeper for a soccer team that needed a win over a superior team to advance to the spring tournament in a Richmond amateur soccer league. They were much better overall but our guys outplayed them in the first half and we went into halftime up 4-2. They made some adjustments at halftime and in the second half they came storming back.
If I had played adequately, we probably would have hung on to win, but I made several mistakes and we lost 6-4. On the sideline my teammates were quietly encouraging, thanking me for my effort. We all knew I hadn't played well enough. There was no need to needle me about it.
Over the course of the next several days I had to put the performance behind me. The most important job of a goalkeeper isn't to stop goals, it's to have a poor performance and let your team down, but walk off the field with your head up and get ready for the next game. Having an important job means that if you screw up, it hurts. But it's not the end of the world. It's a lot easier to learn that lesson when the people around you are helping and supporting you instead of piling on and making it worse.
So if you point to something like this and say "this is why I wouldn't want my son/daughter playing team sports," I unfortunately don't have a rebuttal. That makes sense to me. I hope one day we can get this crap out of sports so we can all play together and have fun.
Your assignment is to find someone who's down and help them up so they can try again.
I had a reader complain that she doesn't like the assignments because she doesn't like to be told what to do, so whatever I say to do it makes her want to do the opposite. For people like that here's an auxilliary assignment - spend thirty minutes thinking of all the things you're doing to screw up your kids and stunt their growth until you become so irritated and anxious that you snap at your spouse for doing something completely innocuous.