Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The folly of youth...sports

My insider posse is crossing their demonic fingers hoping for a blog about this wedding I've got coming up in five days. There have been some too-good-to-ignore events and comments and gaffes and I will give them my full attention before the big day while they are still fresh in my mind (and raw in my soul). As a teaser, 'dis bitch don't wear white...no way, no how. I'll leave you with that.

But there's something else pretty fresh on my mind as well, a little more pressing, and it needs to be addressed before we all put away our football/soccer/other contact sports jerseys for the season. Before winter settles in and we all start the mad frenzy of trampling each other at Walmart to get a hooker-murdering video game to jam in the sugar-filled stocking of our darling 5-year-olds, we need to address...or rather I need to address the madness that has become youth sports in America.

Be warned, this may offend all people. Also know, that I am the mother of two sports-oriented children and I have tripped on, rolled over, and accidentally washed those goddamn cleat balls. My grocery bill has tripled, my laundry machine is in constant use, my car smells like ball sweat and cat urine, all of my frozen vegetables have been rendered null and void because they are now used to ice knees, shoulders, necks, ankles, backs and groins. We lovingly refer to one particular bag as "crotch corn". So know this, since the time they could walk, I have been a "sports mom." I am not speaking from some didactic point high above. My lawn is filled with divets where soccer moves have been practiced over and over. I have been forced into playing goalie, catcher, pitcher, lineman, quarterback, attacker and slide tackler.

Here's the deal. Common sense in youth sports is dying a quick death and we, the parents, are letting it happen. Straight up. I had inklings of this when I reluctantly (think teeth being pulled out through your butt) allowed my son to play pee wee football when he was 9. He had been playing soccer up to this point and decided it wasn't his thing (while his sister excelled and he scored accidental goals for the other team and chased butterflies at half field--for years). It was a disappointment to me. And a horror. I knew a little bit about head injury statistics and what have you. But not enough to arm myself with a sound-proof argument.

Every clash of the helmets made me want to puke. I had a full three months of emergency runs to the bathroom. Every day, headlines from high schools across the country blasted across my computer--Junior dies from severed spine, head injury renders varsity player brain dead, paralysis for college all-star. And yet, my son played on. He complained of neck pain about three weeks in. Then migraines and more nosebleeds...the machismo ER doctor just gave my son a manly clap on the shoulder pads and said "Welcome to football, kid."

Meanwhile, my daughter, who was just starting 7th grade, was launched into playing JV soccer. She suffered a knee injury about a month in. I demanded that she baby it. Ten days on ice, no practice, elevation, Advil. Our house was starting to look like an infirmary. But they loved their game. Each one, despite the obvious trauma, loved being on the field. Yet my concern, was not with my daughter. Her coach was great. She insisted that the knee heal. She saw into Anna's future, and didn't want this to be a game-ender for her. Football, on the other hand, was a totally different beast. Play 'til you puke. Play 'til you bleed. Play 'til you die. One kid broke his arm. He was back on the field in two weeks. Another fractured an ankle--back out there three weeks later. My son had a bad lung infection at the very end of the season, so couldn't play the last (unofficial, mind you) game of the season. His neck was still bothering him, he was on antibiotics, coughing. We still drove an hour to the game so he could support his team. He sat the sidelines (in the rain/snow) and cheered. And do you know what his coach said to him. To this little 9-year-old kid..."You should be suited up and out there with them..." gave him a look of disgust and walked away. Nine years old.

Three ambulances came to that game. A pee-wee fucking football game. Parents cheering and screaming and some yelling at their kids to get back out their and "how bad does your leg really hurt, c'mon, toughen up, it's the last game of the season."

Pee-wee football, guys.

(I think it warrants a second blog about the coach calling the kids "retards" and the assistant coach screaming at his ex-wife, for all to see, calling her a "fucking cunt" in the parking lot while she was dropping off their son to a game on a nice sunny Sunday at the home field...but I digress...they still coach, by the way.)

It was such a relief when he decided to join baseball. Yes, the games were excruciatingly long. But it was fun. The kids were having fun. They hung out, they learned the game, they did a little conditioning. They were kids. I, as the traumatized mother of the previous football season, was amazed at the difference. Nobody got hurt. Not too bad anyway. And my daughter played her first season of tennis. The knee flared up, as I expected. But, again, there was a general mutual feeling of understanding that it was our jobs, all of us, to keep the kids safe, teach them sportsmanship, and preserve their bodies while they grow into athletes of their own choosing.

Now, fall, again. No football for Lucian. His neck hurts. Still. His pediatrician just shook her head and said "You want your son to be a battering ram? These injuries don't get better if you play more. They get worse." I almost got the sense that we were borderline child abusers even allowing him to play the one season. And who's to say we weren't? Who's to say we all aren't? What the hell are we waiting for? A death blow? My 13-year-old has an orthopedist. She plays entire soccer games without a sub. She's still growing. And people keep asking me why she's not on the weekend league in addition to the JV team. Are you nuts? Because I want her to actually be able to walk on Monday. Look into the future...

I saw a parent last week, he looked more bummed out than his kid. She has to have surgery on her ACL and will be off the field for 10 months. She's not even 17. Did it just so happen that this child had a freak injury, or is it from years and years of constant play: practice every day, games during the week, games on weekends, school league, special spring league while also playing another sport, skiing then rushing off to basketball practice or vice versa...do we honestly think that this stuff won't somehow catch up. And not to us, but to them? What about plain old burnout? I would be heartbroken if Anna decided one season that she was just done playing soccer. Heartbroken. I love watching her play. But who can blame a kid for calling it quits if they've played for three teams and on weekends since they were 8 years old? I'd say fuck it, too.

In this case, it is up to the parents to look into the horizon. We are dealing with growing bodies, and growing bodies are fragile bodies. My daughter's knees can't keep up with the rest of her. So, it's my job to watch her gait during games, it's her job to respond to pain. They will only love the game so long as the game loves them back. If you force them to play it, be prepared for backlash. I know plenty of parents who force their kids into sports. I admit, I practically begged Anna to go to one tennis practice.

"Just one," I said. "If you don't like it, you don't have to go again. I promise. Just try one."

It's not even the end of soccer and she can't wait for tennis. Am I stoked? Of course. Would I have forced her to go? No way. Same goes with my son. I asked him if he would be willing to try martial arts/self defense as a substitute for football (we don't like to have idle seasons around here, the devil finds work...) He said sure. Now he's in his second month of MMA and loving it. On his own terms. And no ambulances in sight. And with such respect in the air with his instructor.

They say that youth football will be obsolete by 2020. That the injury rate will be so high, it will be banned forever into eternity. But why wait until others make the decisions for our kids? Why wait until your kids knees are torn to shreds internally and they've had three concussions and one shoulder surgery and foot reconstruction to finally say, "Shit, they're just kids. Maybe we should let them be kids. And play sports the way kids play sports."

It's not the Olympics, people. Very few get to the big leagues. Sports scholarships are infrequent. And fickle. I thought the whole point of all this was to keep fit and build character, not to burn bodies and kill dreams. Let them play. Let them compete. But in the end, always, in the end; You are in charge. So be in charge. You think it doesn't kill me, this baseball-obsessed former pitcher, that neither of my kids has taken the mound or has even an inkling of interest in doing so? It stings. It stings that they both hate basketball (oh love of my youth) and fishing and archery and competitive singing and Irish punk bands and neither has any interest in learning how to play the piano. Kills me. But I won't live out the wayward dreams of my youth at the expense of their bodies. Or their own dreams. I run this ship. To me, you are Messi. Right in my own backyard.

It's an honor to trip over your cleat balls and bring you frozen corn while you do your homework.

1 comment:

  1. I know the feeling, Nichole. I did not play sports when I was in school but it is a risk every time they take the field. It can be rewarding though, if they are dedicated and determined to succeed. Anyway, it's my 35th birthday in a couple of hours and I intend to celebrate big time tomorrow.

    Best wishes,

    Jon Swartz