The Littlest Victims of Fanatic Competition

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‘Bounties’ split Tustin Pop Warner club (ocregister.com)

As a culture, modern America is not very self-reflective. Maybe it’s a natural outgrowth of our previous national tumults, or maybe it’s a symptom of our ever-shortening attention spans, but when something bad happens to us as a nation, we usually don’t spend any significant amount of time after the problem to think about the underlying circumstances that might have caused it, and how we might go about altering those circumstances so that future problems are at least ameliorated, if not eliminated. At best we look for a quick-fix solution without thinking about how that solution might need to be tailored for that particular problem. At worst we just walk away and say it’s someone else’s problem, or some may even celebrate the problem for the harm it causes people they don’t like because of their religion or social class or what have you.

It’s difficult not to get discouraged when a particular problem keeps creeping up in our culture and not enough is done to solve it. Teen suicides are still legion in this country, and so far the most prominent response that has been mustered to this problem is to have celebrities tell teens to just hold on and keep dealing with the crap because “it gets better” when they get older, essentially telling the kids that there’s nothing we adults can do to ease their suffering and the conditions that lead to all these suicides. I can remember the first stories of parents getting violent at their kids’ sporting events in the nineties; even after that first story and the sad commentary it was on our culture, I desperately hoped that this would be one of those moments where we all took a step back and said, “Whoa. What could cause people to do something like this?” These incidents only increased in numbers over the years, though, and it’s only when a new wrinkle appears in the story — like a death or, as in the article above, an alleged bounty system where ten- and eleven-year-old boys were offered money to injure players on opposing football teams — that the story even makes the news.

While I’ve been teaching this term, and as other things have popped into my mind, like some of the stuff I went through in my earlier school days (which I talked about a bit in the latest .musecast), I’m struck more and more by the need to model behaviours for others, particularly when it comes to attitudes and actions that will create a better and more just world. This is true for people of all ages, but it’s especially true for younger people who are more likely to be forming attitudes that will shape the rest of their years. If you see me walking down the street and you go out of your way to avoid me because you don’t like the way I look, I could care less; when you pull your kid away from me, though, that’s another matter entirely. When you teach your children to avoid people like me simply because you don’t like our looks or our identities, that is teaching those children intolerance and prejudice. Children are not born with the desire to hate others; that hatred is taught by parents, and teachers, and religious figures, and friends who have been negatively influenced by other authority figures in their lives. In ten years I, or someone who looks like me, could have an accident in public and need help, and we may not get that help because that person was taught at an early age to avoid “people like that,” no matter what “that” you can imagine.

We can, and certainly should, talk about the individual factors that have led to this rash of parents getting violent at their kids’ sporting events, but there is something much deeper at work here that underlies all these incidents. For all the potential benefits of a capitalist economy, an irrationally unrestrained capitalist economy creates tremendously harmful effects on a society, especially when it pervades a culture as much as it has America’s. Competition, one of the core elements of capitalistic markets, has the potential to drive people to work and innovate, and it’s certainly led to a lot of important advancements. When competition becomes a way of life, though, and every opportunity to be competitive is seized upon by people and turned into something just short of a life-or-death struggle, then these incidents at youth sporting events are, sadly, all too logical a result of that kind of thinking.

Sports and sporting rivalries have the tendency to bring out the worst in some people, and it’s not just as American phenomenon as all the soccer-related violence in Europe attests to, but there is something deeply profane in bringing that mentality, and the actions it results in, to children. When you consider that we’re now seeing the result of a generation that grew up during the “reality television” boom, who could easily have been led to believe that they key to getting ahead in life is being able to eat more raw yak testicles in a minute than anyone else, and you see how little is done to discourage students from thinking that everything in life is just one big competition and winning is the only thing that counts, it’s kind of amazing that there are so many well-adjusted young adults out there.

Nowhere is the sheer horror of this kind of thinking more evident than in the “Tiger Mom” craze of recent years, this idea that kids have to be pushed to be number one at almost everything, not tolerating anything less than perfection, and shutting off avenues and opportunities for children because parents don’t think that their kids should be doing those sorts of things, whether playing basketball or learning the guitar or what have you. The “first place is all that counts” mentality is absurd enough on its own because it’s so obviously unsustainable in a culture where multiple families practice the philosophy, but not allowing your children to pursue (legal) opportunities because you don’t think your kids should be doing them is the height of arrogance, and only reinforces the growing use of children as status symbols to be displayed to other parents, like an expensive ring or luxury car (and don’t think for a second that these young people don’t see just how they’re being used when they are treated like this). Again, it goes back to competition: Whose daughter won the big science trophy? Who scored the winning goal in the high school league championship? If being a good guitar player means nothing to the parent, then who cares how much the child wants to play the guitar?

As I find myself saying repeatedly these days, if you do not provide atmospheres and situations for young people that empower them, giving them the spaces they lack elsewhere to explore their inherent creative powers, and providing them with the tools and opportunities to create new dynamics that work better than the ones we have now, then we can hardly expect our lot as a whole to improve. For those who have power in our current systems, it’s understandable why they work so diligently to maintain their power and preclude the possibility of future generations even being able to think about alternatives to the current ways of doing things, but for those of us who suffer at the hands of the powerful — and we outnumber those in power by far — there has never been a more urgent time to model for others different ways of doing things, ways that are more just and more respectful of people and their abilities. If young people grow up so entrenched in this idea that everything is a competition and winning is the only thing that matters, that task will become exponentially more difficult.

This isn’t to say that we should remove competition entirely from young people’s experience; competition can produce good results, but only in the  right circumstances and only when it is taught alongside the perspective to see that a Little League umpire’s bad call isn’t worth resorting to fisticuffs over. We should certainly encourage achievement and hard work, but not at the expense of ignoring young people’s desires and preventing them from exploring avenues that might help them find what makes them happy, things that they might like to do, because nothing beats true passion as a motivating force to get people to do their best, regardless of age. Results are important, but when they are overemphasized, as so often happens when a society draws capitalistic financial maxims into their culture, it only increases misery because not everyone can be Apple.

The only way this is going to happen, though, is if we take a moment to reflect on the current state of affairs, really think about what caused them and how to make them better — I’d never claim my ideas are the only valid ones out there, and I want to hear others — and consciously work towards making things better for our culture and our world. Our younger people deserve at least that much from us. If preteens possibly being paid to injure other preteens over Pop Warner football games isn’t enough to make us step back as a nation and have that collective moment of self-reflection, though, I don’t know if we’ll ever do anything like that.

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