Sunday, April 25, 2010

Advice on how to run sports from the oldest, slowest, fattest would-be pole vaulter ever. (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

I think it's time to pay kids to play sports.

That's where I ended up in my meandering thoughts today. It's a rainy, cold, foggy day -- The Boy's 18th birthday -- and I'm thinking about a mixture of things that I could write about today. My mind is wandering from But Is It A Sport?: Cup-Stacking to wondering how many great rock and roll songs there are about sports to the NFL draft, which I think is still going on and which one day will rival the NBA Playoffs for sheer mind-numbing length...

... and I keep coming back to thinking about how there are people who like to play sports, and people who are really good at sports, and how lots of times those people don't comprise the same group. If it was diagrammed in a Venn diagram -- something I only learned of 20 years after graduating, when helping the kids with their schoolwork, it would look like this:

As it turns, out, too, The Boy's 18th birthday, the NFL draft, and my liking sports all tie into one thought, which is what I said: We should pay kids to play sports.

It's about time we just set up professional leagues for sports from about age 3 on.

I'm totally 100% serious: I think that from the time when kids start to walk, or thereabouts, there should be two types of sports leagues: Professional leagues, and leagues for the rest of us. That's the only way I see to let people continue to enjoy sports while also allowing people to really excel at sports -- excel without wrecking it for the rest of us.

I've never been good at sports. Not even a little. I am, as an athlete, a complete train wreck. I missed a lay-up, when I was in 6th grade -- and while that happens, occasionally, to even good basketball players, the way I missed the lay-up was spectacularly awful -- dribbling the ball about shoulder-high, awkwardly running to the hoop, trying to dribble and watch the ball and the backboard and the wall at once, then flipping the ball up over the backboard, arcing it up so that it missed the backboard structure entirely on the way up, bouncing off the wall, then off the back of the backboard, then down through the bars that held up the backboard. It was so bad that the gym teacher ordered me to try it again, saying that so loudly that everyone in the gym stopped to watch me blow the next one, too -- although I didn't do it quite as badly.

In football, I'm weak-armed and slow. In baseball, I have trouble with depth perception and so can't quite catch the ball; I'm as likely to get hit in the face as I am to make the grab. In golf, I have a tendency to lift my head to see where the ball's going -- and usually it's not going much of anywhere, and rarely is it going in the direction I'm looking.

But for all of that, I love sports, as do many people. I like to get out there and play basketball. I love golf. I played football every single day on recess from 4th grade through 8th grade.

Then came high school, and with the start of high school came the end of my athletic career, such as it was. In high school, wanting to play were no longer enough. By high school, at least at my high school, you had to be good, too -- and you had to start out being good, because at the high school level, even back then in the shoulder-padded, big-haired, collared-up 1980s, even back then high schools were competitive at sports and wanted to win. There was no time, in high school, to take a kid and make him into an athlete. If he wasn't an athlete already, they weren't going to waste time trying to make him one. If he was an athlete, they'd work on making him better, maybe -- but only if he could go from "really pretty good" to "really even better."

So when I showed up for soccer tryouts, I got scoffed off the field by other players and got cut almost immediately by the coach -- because I didn't know how to play soccer. I'd thought they'd teach me, the way I'd been taught baseball when I joined Little League.

They wouldn't. And I didn't make the team, and never learned soccer. When, in the spring, I went out for track with the goal of being a pole vaulter, the coach (also my algebra teacher) eyed me warily. "You want to be a pole vaulter?" he asked.

I did. I wanted it really badly. At that point, I was probably the fattest, slowest, pole vaulter-wannabe around. The coach noted that, and gave me a day to try to work out with the track team: He said "Come on," and they all left on a two-mile warm-up run. I made it a half mile -- lagging behind terribly -- before walking back to practice. "Better try shot put and discus," the coach said. That was where they stuck the fat guys: shot put and discus.

The coach -- even on the track team, even for a small school -- didn't want to teach me to get in shape and compete at pole vaulting. He wanted kids who could pole vault. So instead of working with me to make me a faster, better-shaped runner who might pole vault one day, I got sent off to shot putting with the other fat kids.

I tried out for only one more sport after that, baseball, at the start of sophomore year. I got into the batter's box and hit the first three pitches pretty well. The fourth pitch -- from one of the kids who'd been on the team the year before and who didn't want me on the team -- hit me in the temple. "Keep in there," the coach said, even though I was dizzy and couldn't really see straight. I didn't hit another ball, and didn't make the team.

I didn't stop loving sports -- I just stopped trying out for high school sports. I made it through high school without playing any sports, and in college joined a fencing club. I learned to roller blade. I took up jogging and swimming and finally got in shape. I played football and softball in law school, playing pick-up games with friends who would let me be on their team and not make me the all-time center. I played racquetball, and then I got into coaching: I formed my own softball team, with one rule: anyone can play, and a corollary: anyone can play any position they want. I coached my kids' teams and let them play any position they wanted. I taught my kids to golf and took them golfing with me, and avoided golfing with friends who were both better than me and too competitive. I played basketball with The Boy, because he didn't mind beating me 38-3 and giving me some tips.

But I never really got over the high school experience, or lack thereof, with sports. I didn't get a letter, and my only chance to have gotten one, really, would be to have been in shape and been an athlete by 8th grade, so that the coaches could take a chance on me and let me play the sports I loved and teach me to get better at them.

They couldn't do that, though -- and they couldn't do that for a couple of reasons. First, it was obvious, then and now and always, that I was never going to amount to much, athletically. Fat kids with glasses and lazy eye who like comic books and D&D do not, on average, grow up to lead their team to victory in the Super Bowl. They don't win the Masters. They don't stand on the podium with a gold medal at one of the constantly-going-on Olympics.

Investing effort into my athletic skills was not likely to lead to a big payoff. Hours spent with me were going to at best turn me from a not-very-good wannabe to a not-as-very-bad wannabe. I got that. I didn't think, deep down inside, that I was going to go from not being able to run a half-mile to pitching Game Seven of the World Series. (Game 4, maybe -- if our team was up 3-1, say.) The coaches, I'm sure, saw it that way, too -- they figured that there wasn't a lot of potential there, and so they didn't try.

They didn't try, too, because it would interfere with their real goal. Coaches -- at the high school level and beyond -- who were supposed to be developing athletes didn't want to make one from scratch, as it were. This was, after all, their job, and they were paid to coach their teams and they were rated on how well their teams did -- so spend too much time teaching chubby Briane Pagel how to actually kick a soccer ball, and your team is going to suffer and you're going to be doing drivers' ed instead of soccer.

I got that, then and now -- I know it was, but I resented why it was and that it was, at all. There were my teachers, and my coaches, after all -- and whether or not the high school team was going to win shouldn't have mattered as much as whether or not high school students got to participate in sports.

But it did. It did matter. High school sports -- and beyond -- mattered a great deal, to the school and the coaches and the kids and the school board. Everyone placed a huge emphasis on winning and so the marginal athletes, and the people, like me, who aspired to be marginal athletes, got shoved to the side because we weren't going to help them win, no matter how hard we or they worked.

It's a dumb way to run a sport -- and a dumb way to run a high school. Imagine if we took kids in the classroom and did that. Imagine if my algebra teacher, instead of giving me the fish-eye and daring me to run 2 miles, the very first time I ever tried running at all, had done that in the classroom: I'd show up on the first day and say "Teach me algebra, Mr. Mulrooney!" And he'd give me that look and say "Okay, here," and given me a proof of the Riemann hypothesis to work out, and then, when I'd struggled with it, had said "Well, maybe you should just try English."

Nobody would put up with that, right? Nobody would say that's the way to run a school, but why not? We let coaches -- teachers -- get away with that at the high school sports level, because we want winners on the field, so why not let them weed out the stupid, slow kids in math, and english, and science, too? Don't we want high schools to be known for having the absolute top-notch science scores?

Things haven't changed, which is one reason I'm mulling this today, as I continue to hear bits and pieces of draft-news fluttering around me: It's The Boy's birthday, as I said, and The Boy recently took up rugby. And soccer.

I found that surprising -- as to both of them, because The Boy hasn't been all that energetic lately, and because The Boy used to be all into football and basketball.

The Boy actually played football from about age 7 on. He played in a league that had pads and helmets and tackled and sometimes even threw passes, at a young age: kids who got bussed around the local school districts to play other little kids. The Boy kept at that through middle school, and then through high school, too: he made the football team his freshman year, and then made the Junior Varsity his sophomore and junior years.

From the start of The Boy's high school career, I didn't think much of his team or his coach. They practiced all the time, far more than I could imagine was good for high schoolers who also had jobs and homework to do. Practices went until 7:30 at night sometimes, and the kids watched film and worked out in the weight room in the summer, and none of this was voluntary; The Boy had to go do that. He didn't particularly want to do those things -- but he wanted to play football, and so he did them because the team he played for, the Middleton Cardinals, is a powerhouse among high schools, routinely making the state playoffs and winning a lot.

I didn't think much of his coach, the winning notwithstanding, because of the things I saw, and the things I heard, about his coach. The coach told The Boy, once, that he had to choose between his job and his football team -- when The Boy had a conflict with his work schedule and a sudden practice the coach had put on at the last second because the team had underperformed on Friday night. That's not fair, I thought, to people like The Boy, who need their jobs for spending money. And it's not fair to employers who employ those kids and work around their schedules already.

And I didn't like the coach, either, because of the time The Boy told me about when the team was on the way home from a game they'd lost. Two kids had been talking or laughing, and the coach had snapped at them something like "What are you smiling about? You just lost!" The Boy told me that after losses, the team was to ride home silently, mulling over the losses.

It didn't surprise me, much, that The Boy quit football at the start of his senior year -- despite the fact that he'd made the varsity team and was a starter. He'd worked all summer, going to the weight room and the film room and in general working as hard at football as if he were a Green Bay Packer, and made the team and was slotted to start, when right at the start of the season, he quit.

"It's no fun anymore," he said. And it was over: 11 years of football ended just before his big year, a year the team went to the playoffs again and he'd have started on a playoff team, all over because it was no fun.

The Boy -- and Middle and Oldest -- are not like me. They are good at sports. They pick them up quick, and they're athletic and agile. They've done golf and gymnastics and softball and football and basketball and now, The Boy is in soccer and rugby -- joining clubs that play these games instead of playing them at the high school. He's never played soccer or rugby before this year, but he's worked hard enough at them to start there, too, and he's scored in those games and gotten injured and treats them very seriously, but he plays them because he gets to play and because it's fun, he says.

Middle went through the same thing: She played on the golf team, and was pretty good at it. She wasn't great, though, and had the misfortune of being on the team when two genuinely great golfers were also on the team -- so Middle was routinely passed over to be one of the golfers in the "big" tournaments. The golf team, which theoretically was "no cut," actually picked five golfers for the major tournaments, and those five only got to compete in the real parts of the sport.

Middle was never picked -- and, admittedly, she wasn't one of the best five golfers on the team. She just liked golf, and was only okay at it. Being only okay at the sport wasn't good enough to get into a tournament, because Middleton placed a higher priority on winning those tournaments than it did on teaching Middle to play golf, or on letting Middle have fun playing golf.

Right now, many of you are probably saying "Well, yeah, that's the point of sports: to win, to excel." And it is, kind of.

That's the point of professional sports. Professionals are paid to win; people competing at the highest levels of sports (including Olympians, who want to believe they're amateurs but they're not as they're paid to compete in their sports, mostly, by sponsors) are paid to win and it's only right that when you're a professional you are required to win.

I question whether that's the point of high school sports, though. Winning isn't the goal of high school, or even college. Teaching is. We get that, generally speaking, in the rest of the areas we school kids in: we set up remedial classes for kids who need a little more help. We have advanced classes for kids who don't need to be held back by the rest of us. We let anyone take wood shop and biology, even if they've never built a birdhouse or dissected a frog. We even require that kids take things like languages and math and sociology.

But then, when we put a sports team in at the high school or college level, all of that goes out the window, and it's win win win, it's don't bother trying out if you're not already good, it's "Sure, we'll say we're here to teach sportsmanship and the rules of the game but really, that one kid's going to be quarterback and you're not."

We help kids who really want to learn how to be a chemist be a better chemist; but we don't help kids who really want to learn how to play basketball learn how to play basketball, and I'm not sure why that is.

I may not be sure why we do things the way we do at the high school and college and, now, probably grade-school level, but I'm sure it's a bad thing that we do. I'm sure it hurts more kids than just my fat, glasses-wearing prior self -- hurts them not only socially, but also emotionally: how many times can you tell a kid you're not good enough to even try this thing before he or she says I'm not going to try anymore?

In my case, that number is "an awful lot." I got told that I wasn't even good enough to try a whole mess of times and I still haven't given up. There's still a part of me, deep down inside, that is 100% certain that before long, I will be in a Buffalo Bills' uniform, quarterbacking them in their first Super Bowl victory. That's the part of me that also is pretty positive that any day now one of my novels will be a best seller and that someday I'll be a rock star who's big enough to have U2 open for him.

But I'm different -- I'm less sinkable than Molly Brown. Other people, I've learned, don't have my unbridled, naively stupid optimism, and those people suffer from being told You've got no chance, because we won't give you a chance.

People suffer, too, because they're deprived of the fun of learning how to play the game they want to be better at; nobody ever bothered to show me how to do a lay-up the right way, until my kids tried to teach me... when I was 35. (I turned out to be pretty unteachable, but they did get me to be able to dribble with my left hand.) I never got to play basketball, or learn how to play it, any more than I ever got to try pole vaulting (something I still want to give a shot.) I never played soccer -- because I never got a chance to try it. I was cut on the first day of practice and sent home, and not invited to play soccer again until two weeks ago, when my boss suggested I try to join his league. "I don't know the rules or how to play," I said.

Before you think this is just the lamentation of the oldest, slowest, fattest would-be pole vaulter in the world, I should point out that I'm not just thinking of me and the people like me, but also of the pretty-good high school and college athletes, and the really good high-school and college athletes, who also suffer from the system as it is.

Consider a kid named Jean-Pierre Tokoto, who not long ago held an "Open Gym" to show off for Division I big-time schools ranging from Duke to Kentucky to Stanford. Tokoto, who must look pretty good on the basketball court, plays for Menomonee Falls High School in Wisconsin, and for the "Open Gym" night he played a couple of pick-up games against teammmates... who then filed out of the gym so that Tokoto could have the place to himself with the college coaches and recruiters, before the teammates came back out for a couple of wrap-up games.

When I read that, all I could think of was that scene from Teen Wolf, when the kid who's not Teen Wolf talks to Teen Wolf about the basketball team, and complains that even though they're winning, it's all Teen Wolf hogging the ball and nobody else gets to play.

Tokoto has a profile on a website, and is ranked number one on the kind of sites that bother to rank high school basketball players, and all I can think of is I wonder if his teammates enjoy having him on the team. I bet they're winning -- but are they winning the way Teen Wolf won? Would they like to maybe play more, even if it meant winning less? (I don't know for sure that Tokoto hogs the ball -- I've never seen him play and don't follow high school basketball. I'm just speculating.)

The pretty good athletes, the ones on Tokoto's team who were good enough to warrant their coaches actually trying to teach them, may be suffering because they're teamed up with a once-in-a-lifetime talent who's head-and-shoulders (pun intended; he's 6'6") above them. They're going to get the ball less, they're going to have games planned around Tokoto instead of them, they're going to not get taught as much because Tokoto is on their team.

And what of Tokoto? What's going to happen to him? Tokoto, growing up in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, isn't likely to see much Division I-caliber competition, let alone NBA-level competition. He's going to be so much better than almost everyone around him that it's not going to be much work for him to excel, even without all the extra coaching and extra attention he's no doubt gets.

(In the four pickup games Tokoto played at his open gym, he scored 8 points, 9 points, 16 points, and 9 points, in order. Those seem to me to be pretty good numbers for a high-schooler -- and the recap notes that in the 16-point game, 12 points were on "highlight reel" dunks, so Tokoto was so unchallenged that he was able to showboat in the third game of the night.

What happens to the Tokotos when they first hit real competition? The results are mixed. Maybe they rise to the challenge -- or maybe they fold under pressure, pressure they've never faced before.

Clayton Hanson was a kid from Reedsburg, Wisconsin -- and not just a kid, but probably the greatest basketball player Reedsburg had ever seen. Celebrated by Reedsburg, Hanson went on to play for the Wisconsin Badgers and did well in his junior and senior years -- a pretty good career, all in all, for a kid who didn't fold under pressure.

Contrast him with Jeronne Maymon, who played at Madison Memorial and was a standout. Maymon was recruited to Marquette, a traditional big-time Division I basketball school, only to drop out of the program early in his first year when he wasn't "happy" with his role on the team. Is that the fate that awaits Vander Blue, another highly-talented Madison Memorial basketball player whose high school career has already been controversial and high-profile?

People ask the wrong questions of kids like Vander Blue and Maymon and even LeBron James, who made the jump from high school directly to the pros. They ask Should we be paying this much attention to a kid? Or they ask Should this kid be treating this like a career instead of paying attention to school?

The answer is, of course, to both. School is there to allow you to learn enough to contribute to society and make a living, and people who are extremely talented in sports can do both at a young age -- providing entertainment to us while they get paid for their talent. Whether Vander Blue or LeBron James or anyone should be a high-profile athlete at the high school level isn't the question at all; they should be, and they should be allowed to be paid, in fact.

Now the other hand wringers are coming out: Pay high school athletes? Everyone will have a conniption over that -- but we should.

Paying high schoolers isn't out of the question; we pay high schoolers all the time. We pay them to flip burgers, mostly, but we pay them. Paying high schoolers of unique talent and luck a large amount of money isn't out of the question, either -- all those Disney kids make millions, and nobody is really worried about them (nobody who counts, anyway).

So why not pay high schoolers to play basketball? Or football, or whatever they're good at? Why is it okay to pay The Boy to work at Panera, but not to pay him to play football?

The answer is there's no reason not to pay high schoolers -- no reason beyond the fact that we've gotten all muddled up about high school sports and college sports and the rest; we've allowed high school and college sports to become professionals, without treating them like professionals; and, because we still think of high school and college sports as being academic, somehow, we recoil -- you recoil -- in horror at the thought of paying high school athletes.

But you shouldn't. You shouldn't be horrified at the thought of paying kids to play sports; instead, you should be horrified that we don't do that, and that we instead pretend that sports are somehow linked to academics, and that in doing so, we mistreat pretty much every single person involved.

We mistreat the people like me, who don't get to even try a sport because high schools and colleges are focused on winning because their programs are professional programs even though we don't say so.

We mistreat the pretty-good athletes who could be a little better but they're overshadowed by their already-great teammates and so they suffer as role-playing backups, shuttled out of the gym when the real show starts.

And we mistreat the great athletes by holding them into leagues that don't challenge them and by denying them the right to earn money by doing what they do best; we tell them we'd rather they wear a paper hat and flip burgers than do slam dunks or throw touchdown passes.

All because we think sports at the high school, and college, and now grade school, level, are academic.

They're not. The sports are treated, in our schools, like professional sports in every single way they can be, except one. We treat the coaches as professionals: we pay them and rank them on their wins. We charge admission. We make kids watch film and work out in the offseason. We rank the athletes on nationwide scales. In every single respect, school sports are professional sports except that we don't pay the athletes.

And in every single respect, school-sports have nothing to do with the actual goals of a school. They don't teach everyone, but only a few elite players. They don't even aspire to teach people; they try to weed out the losers as quickly as possible so that they can focus on the good kids to win games.

That's exactly the way a pro organization should run, and exactly the way a high school should not. Schools should teach, and should be open to everyone, while kids should be free, at the same time, to make money doing what they do best.

Which is why I proposed what I proposed: Pay kids to play sports. Specifically, set up a professional sports league in every single sport, beginning as soon as kids can walk. Let parents get their kids into professional golf, or gymnastics, or football, or basketball, when they're still toddlers. We already let them do it for show business, or music, or other hobbies. Why not sports? If Tiger Woods could be golfing at age 3, why shouldn't he be paid for it? Michelle Wie was a millionaire before she could move out of her house, legally -- the same as the Olsen Twins.

Doing that would get the good kids -- the great kids -- off to the pro leagues, getting them the competition they need to be better and freeing the rest of us to just play sports for the fun of it, the way we want to, playing for our grade school or high school or college teams because we want to play the game and learn it and have fun.

Under this system, there'd be private, professional leagues that would pay kids -- say, "NFL Junior" -- and there would also be school teams, so the good kids could be Junior Jets while the kids like me would have been Arrowhead Trojans. And I'd get to play, but wouldn't get paid, while the good kids would get paid for their work.

I'm not stupid, though -- I know that the good kids will also work the system, that there will be kids who would go into the high school leagues just so they could play against inferior talent and look better than they are, for whatever reasons. People will always do that -- when I played in a racquetball tournament a few years ago, I signed up for Intermediate. There were three levels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert. I wasn't a beginner, but I wasn't an expert, so I signed up for my level.

And got whooped. People killed me. I found out from the third guy I played that most players in the tournament were expert level but they didn't want to play against the "real" experts, so they signed up for intermediate.

I'm sure there are people who will always do that -- sign themselves, or their kids, up for inferior leagues so they, or their kids, are the standouts, the number one player. But I've got a solution for them, one that's sure to keep most of them out of there. In the school leagues -- the non-pro, non-paying leagues, I'd impose this rule:

Anyone who signs up gets to play any position they want, and everyone on the team has to play an equal amount of time in each game. So if I decide I want to be a quarterback, and Brett Favre, Jr., joins the high school league as a quarterback, we're both going to play -- and we're going to play equal time.

If Brett Favre, Jr., wants to play in my league with those rules, then so be it; at least I'll be playing, too. And with the rules set up in advance like that, and with pro leagues competing in the same sport at the same level, winning will no longer be the most important thing in high school, or college, sports.

It's not a perfect system... or, wait, it is. It would allow people to actually profit from their talent, even at the high school level (or lower). If the Olsen Twins can be paid, at age 3, for acting, why can't Phil Mickelson Jr. be paid at age 3 for golf? Why can a high schooler work at McDonald's but not as a baseball pitcher?

And it would let high schools, and grade schools, and colleges, remember what they're actually there for: to teach kids, not to win games. Somewhere along the lines, schools forgot that they are not supposed to just teach science and math and reading, but they were also supposed to teach the rules of the game and sportsmanship and getting into shape. They forgot that -- and they focused on winning, making sure that only the best even got a chance to play...

...And leaving fat kids with glasses staring longingly at the pole vaulters, wishing that there was a better way to run sports -- and, if we start paying kids to play sports, there will be.

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