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CTE is scary. And so is a torn ACL. And a broken collarbone. And a sprained ankle. But potential injuries only partly explain why my wife and I want to keep our 4-year-old, our tall, skinny, sweet-natured future architect/dancer, away from contact sports (if not forever, then at least for the next 13 years). We simply don’t find anything redeeming about the brutal essence of sporty competition: little ones trying to physically overpower other little ones, spit flying from their mouths, eyes rolling back shark-like into their heads, merely to cross a goal line, bury a puck, or dunk a ball. Can kids win trophies for being kind? For sharing? For saying please and thank you? No? Count us out.
Our decision is also inspired by me. To a 44-year-old bro who started playing football and hockey when he was 10 and continued terrorizing the gridiron through college (mostly from the bench), the whole world now is now one big battle royale. For the first spot in line at the bank. For the cushiest cube at work. For the biggest, juiciest slab of garlic-parmesan sirloin at Golden Corral. The stress— Am I going to win? Am I going to lose? Am I going to lose again?!— has easily taken several years off my life. My already monumental self-loathing would eclipse Charlie Brown-ian levels if I knew that I was contributing, even if only microscopically, to a future for my son in which similar damage is self-inflicted upon his mind and body. And his soul.
Our country’s crass fixation with winning also factored into our decision. Yoga — a form of exercise based on the Buddhist principles of letting go, mindfulness, and attaining peace — is now a competitive sport. Full disclosure: Dana and I will not let Apollo watch World Girl. The title character of the popular PBS cartoon is way too sassy for our tastes. Fuller disclosure: At our house, backtalk from a little boy is becoming a minor problem.
Insulating Apollo from “Win! Win! Win!” has not been easy.
And most of the blame falls squarely on the once-broad shoulders of the former college jock of the family.
But what does anyone expect from me? Look at the culture to which I was subjected in the 1980s and ’90s as a teen, a lonely, desperate romantic who yearned constantly for the perceived stability of adulthood. What I’m trying to say is that my dream was to be a soccer dad. Waking up early on soft, sunny weekends, brewing a pot of coffee while casually tousling my luxurious head of salt-and-pepper hair, helping my little guy or girl into their cleats — it all just seemed so wholesome and quintessentially American to me. To think: I could be just like Jack Butler or Alan Matthews or that guy in the Folgers commercial. Though I had never played soccer (and still don’t care to), I eagerly bought into its appeal: lots of running, few breaks, and minimal physical contact with an off chance of fun.
Children do not need football, hockey, or basketball to learn that life is not fair.
After our first season last year, I’m not too sure there’s going to be a second season.
Imagine watching 20 Premier League clubs playing one another at the same time on the same field. That’s kind of what it was like every Saturday morning at North Park in Haltom City, Texas. The chaos — the yelling and screaming, the flailing of tiny arms and legs, the whistles, the cheers, the major meltdowns — was absolute and unforgiving. My son could only follow the pack and gnaw nervously on the hem of his jersey, trying his best not to break a sweat or embarrass his mini-dictatorial self by doing what every other kid was doing. Participating is just so beneath His Majesty, King Apollo.
Way worse than the hectic atmosphere or my son’s spectacular lack of interest were the coaches. After every goal — and in Apollo’s 3-to-4-year-old league, a ball rattled a net every 20 seconds — these grown men and grown women would huddle with their players and talk strategy for what felt like 15 minutes.
“This isn’t the World Cup!” I would sing from the sidelines, my wife tugging on my arm from behind me, her chin buried in her shoulder. “We only got 30 minutes to play! We just want our kids to exercise! That’s what all this is all about. Exercise for our kids. Not trophies and interviews on ESPN. Let’s go!”
I am not a complete Pollyanna. I am aware that athletics can lead to teachable moments, good opportunities for parents to quash their toddler’s totally age-appropriate dreams of despotism, maybe, or help him or her overcome self-doubt. While a kid can learn a lot from winning — like how to smile for cameras or balance herself joyfully on teammates’ shoulders — losing forces her to stare into the abyss and confront reality.
And there she will see: Winning isn’t everything.
And then there’s the Buddha: “When you move your focus from competition to contribution, your life becomes a celebration. Never try to defeat people, just win their hearts.”
Children do not need football, hockey, or basketball to learn that life is not fair. There is always school. “Sorry, Brayden, but studying all night does not entitle you to an A.” There is also work. “Sorry, Cash, but while your working overtime all last week is appreciated, it does not entitle you to a raise. Or even a day off.” And then there is young love. Brrrgggh! Let’s save that talk for another day.
Way worse than the hectic atmosphere or my son’s spectacular lack of interest were the coaches.
“Crushing it,” “killing it,” “murdering it” — those are phrases that pop up occasionally in my Facebook newsfeed from my parent-friends about their athletic children in action. And I could not be prouder to say that the only thing Dana and I want Apollo “killing” is AP calculus. Or hunger and homelessness in our community. Or a photorealist oil painting of his super-attractive parents.
The scariest thought is that at some point in his future our son will feel that being last in line is a negative cosmic comment on his worth as a human being, causing him to shift in place agitatedly and grunt repeatedly while waiting to pick up his lithium, risperidone, and Zoloft. My wife and I want our dear boy to be solid enough emotionally to “press the pause button.”
“Press the pause button” is an inspiring phrase from a professional talker that Dana and I cling to as a way of remembering to afford everyone on the planet, including our son, the benefit of the doubt. Yes, that woman is swerving all over the road because she is texting while driving, but maybe she’s just learned that her dad has been diagnosed with an incurable disease or that she’s going to be fired if she misses another day of work to take care of her asthmatic kid, who keeps getting sent home from school for being sick. Press the pause button, folks. Press it good.
In the early 1950s, not long after my teenage father transported his mother, father, 2 brothers, and 2 sisters to the United States from Italy, he took up boxing. The sport was fashionable among the young, the male, and the immigrant-y. Leonardo Mariani could have been great, remembers the baby of the family, my Z’Pete, but my dad was “a-too nice! He’d knock the guys down and then go over and a-help a-them up!”
Leonardo also did not own a TV until he was 25. So that was around the early ’60s, eons ago, back when our social problems were massive enough to be addressed head-on, by voting or going to public meetings. Now we wait for the media to atomize our important issues into skirmishes that can be dealt with in 140 characters or fewer. Or in whiny Op-Ed pieces.
Anthony Mariani is Editor of the Fort Worth Weekly.