What Poly Prep, Lance Armstrong and Dance Moms All Have in Common
I just finished watching Friday Night Lights for the umpteenth time, a movie that is, in my opinion, one of the best movies ever made. The acting is superb, the music is haunting, and the editing is flawless. Even if you hate football you have to like this movie, it is that good. And, as is the case with any great sports story, the best part is the end, the part where everyone plays their heart out, leaves it all on the field....and loses.
If you missed the movie, I apologize for the spoiler. But yes, you heard me right. My favorite sports movie of all time ends with the heroes losing the game.
Vince Lombardi once said "Winning isn't everything- but wanting to win is." I do not entirely disagree with this. I am not one of those jump rope without a rope parents who thinks all forms of competition are a straight shot to low self esteem and teen suicide. I am all for first place. But it is not as simple as Coach Lombardi's famous phrase makes it out to be. The reason wanting to win is important is that it pushes you to do your best. It makes you work extra hard. And it is this work, not the trophy that comes at the end, that is important.
On January 27, 2012 I wrote this post http://mamommyarchives.blogspot.com/2012/01/point-your-toes-you-fat-cow.html, about the horrible things we will allow our coaches and teachers to do to our children in the name of winning. In it I talked about the wonderful train wreck of a reality show called Dance Moms, which is about an abusive dance teacher and her group of whiny moms. That was a year ago, and the show is still on the air. And yes, (cringe, cringe) I still watch it. And yes, all the kids are still there, despite the fact that every episode includes one of the moms bursting into tears and wailing in desperation, "What are we doing to our kids?"
What indeed. We all know the infamous tale of Jerry Sandusky. Recently, it came out that the football coach at Poly Prep, a very prestigious private school in Brooklyn, had also been sexually abusing kids for years. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/opinion/sunday/at-poly-prep-a-pedophile-in-plain-sight.html. Plenty of people knew, nobody did a thing. Why? "Coach Phil was powerful, intimidating, successful, not to be trifled with. And so for a quarter-century, he freely abused vulnerable boys, virtually in plain sight."
The man who was in charge of shaping the lives of young football players was known as "intimidating" and "not to be trifled with"? Um...how about you fire him! Since when are these acceptable qualities to have in a leader of children?
Oh wait, his team was winning? In that case, abuse away!
Our society is so obsessed with winning that we will tolerate all kinds of terrible treatment of athletes, parents and children. We don't care how many times our football players get slammed in their brains, so long as the game is exciting enough to sell tickets. We don't care how many times the coach calls our child a "lazy fetus", a "whiny girl" or even worse, some kind of racial slur that would result in an instant time out if our kid ever said it himself. It's all good, so long as there are first place trophies involved. Sure, we may express our concerns in whispered conversations with other parents, behind closed doors. But actually challenge the person who is making our child a winner? Never.
Did Lance Armstrong lie about doping during all his years of cycling fame? Yes. Should he have told the truth? Yes. Why didn't he? Because everyone in his sport is doping, a fact that has been confirmed by numerous other cyclists, including a man who used to train at our dojo. A man who claimed he had to quit cycling because it was impossible to compete at that high level and win unless you had a bag of steroids in your backpack. Instead of talking about what a disappointment Lance Armstrong is, why aren't we talking about the fact that cyclists could get the s--t from their coaches, their teammates, even their doctors. Why don't we drug test everyone, in all sports, everywhere? Because if sports fans realized what their superstars look like "au natural", they would stop watching the games. We want our athletes to be superhuman, to be capable of magic feats of power, speed, and grace. We want winners. Perfect winners. Shiny, muscled superheros who never dope, or drink or cheat on their wives. We want role models for our five year olds. But not the kind who work their asses off, who try their best and come in second. We want state champions, Olympic gold medalists, pretty little girls in who fly through the air as effortlessly as butterflies.
The legend of Lance Armstrong should be about a man who beat cancer. A man who raised millions of dollars for a charity that helps people beat cancer. But all we care about is that his wins were not justified. That he somehow tricked us into thinking that magic was real. Shame on him for doing exactly what we asked him to do: win, at all costs.
My little Maya is the daughter of two athletes. If we do our job right, she will grow up healthy, with a love for being physical. Whatever activity she chooses, be it ballet or karate or soccer , I am sure there will be competitions. I hope she wins some of them. But she is my baby and god help any coach who yells at her, belittles her, pushes her past the limits of safety, encourages her to put anything in her body other than Gatorade, or touches her in any way other than a quick congratulatory hug after the game.
As parents, we are paying you, Coach Whatever Your Name Is, for the incredible job of helping us turn our boys into successful men, our girls into confident women. And while you are working on that, if you have the time, you might try to win a few trophies too.