Whistles screeching, balls flying, and girls screaming were served daily for nine days at the world’s largest volleyball event in Orlando, Florida on 177 courts, with 27,000 athletes aged 10 to 18 from all over the country, 40,000 spectators, 9000 coaches, and 502 college coaches in attendance. (AAU Volleyball Nationals)
A friend asked how the players could tell which whistle was for their game versus other teams.With two refs on a court and all courts going, that meant 354 whistles, 354 to 700 or more coaches working, and 2124 players on the court, all at the same time. I suggested echolocation as an answer, kind of like dolphins, that the girls could follow the sound to the ref’s stand at their team’s net or on the floor as the case may be. And when they weren’t sure, they could track it visually.
The 43rd AAU Girls’ Junior National Volleyball Tournament has me thinking about the growing role of sports in our country, our schools, and our daily lives. The investment of time and money and the sports culture and industry, from media to medicine, have changed a lot since 1985 when I joined my high school tennis team and later my college track team. I never had a tennis lesson before I joined the team and I wasn’t part of the track team before my college athletic career.
High School has become the recruiting ground for college, and sports can help with college admissions; note the 502 college coaches who came to Orlando to recruit. They came to have fun too, no doubt, but they were on a mission. They watched my older daughter and her teammates, asked their coaches about them.
Americans and the world have been fascinated by sports since ancient times. And today, from childhood through adulthood, we compete and push the envelope of human experience. At the Olympics, the World Cup, or the Super Bowl, the competition and the thrill of victory drive athletes to be better and faster with new records every year. Nutrition, technology, and resources have given people of every age and background a chance to step into the arena.
In the last few decades women could share this dream, and they have stepped into the arena, onto the courts, and the track. Since Title IX, women’s participation in high school sports has gone from fewer than 300,000 in in 1974 to over 3.1 million today. (The Atlantic: How Title IX Sneakily Revolutionized Women’s Sports). The sports obsession is nothing new, but the level of participation is.
And it is not cheap. Families pay $3750 to join a national volleyball team at our club for six months, and that does not include travel and lodging expenses. Imagine the price tag for multiple years and multiple children? I sat next to a gentleman on a plane once who said he spent north of $200,000 on his children’s athletic pursuits and was paying out-of-state fees for a prestigious Boston college. His daughter was in the process of transferring back to a home state school at a fraction of the tuition. Sports helped her get into college. I thought he could have paid for college outright with all the money he paid for sports.
So why did he do it?
HEROES WANTED IN AN AGE OF VICTIMS
It’s part of the American dream: to be whatever you want to be, to be the best, to go for the gold. If we aren’t doing it ourselves, we’re great spectators. Sports is the ideal venue to flex our muscles and to make the shots. It’s right to be inspired by goodness and greatness, and it’s altogether wonderful to be inspiring in your own right. Success is most visible in the stadium and on the fields.
But there is something else going on. We believed in heroes once. We read about them, studied them, emulated them: George Washington, Ben Franklin, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller. They led people, did things, showed us how to find solutions, rise above circumstances. Modern culture is so consumed with victims, a demonization of the hero is de facto. News and campus topics focus on victims, in the curriculum, the lecture hall, the town hall. A wealthy man was once a successful man, to be sought out and respected, but today wealth translates to rich and that means oppression and guilt. Beware the guillotines.
A culture of victimhood has permeated our schools, the curriculum, and the news. Social justice and identity politics are the latest in a round of navel-gazing and an obsession with the anti-hero, the marginalized, and the weak. Poverty, tragedy, and horrors are a reality in every society and those who suffer deserve our compassion. But there is something else entirely which we need and so desperately seek: struggle and heart and work combined to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness. These inspire.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. (Theodore Roosevelt Citizenship in a Republic speech at the Sorbonne, April 23, 1910)
Sports today is where excellence is rewarded and applauded. Americans admire this, yearn for it, strive for it. Exceptionalism. It is what makes our country great. And nowhere is it more visible than in our sports culture. No wonder the highest rated television shows every year are NFL football games, and the box office blockbusters these days all seem to be Marvel Superhero movies.
And maybe this is why tens of thousands of girls and their parents descended on Orlando for a week of competition. For most it is not a means to an end, since the majority will not play sports in college. They came because they yearned to compete, to win, to have a chance to unabashedly be that hero.
SHOULD ATHLETICS MATTER IN COLLEGE?
Colleges admit athletes early in the fall of their senior year, and exceptional athletes receive offers before that, some in middle school. Making the grades and maxing the tests aren’t always enough anymore and with a population of 323 million in the US and 7.3 billion worldwide (Source: US Census Population Clock), there’s a growing number of students for a fixed number of premier academic institutions.
As an example, our school valedictorian didn’t get into her top college picks. How can that be? The US has over 37,000 public and private high schools ( US DOE High School Facts) and many have multiple valedictorians, so my guess is there are upwards of 40,000 to 50,000 valedictorians, a conservative estimate considering an Oregon school had 21 valedictorians and many schools are giving the title to any graduate above a 4.0 GPA.
Campus brochures boast so much more than academics in their message and admissions teams are looking for something more than academic success, from community service to cultural diversity. And a student athlete adds a type of diversity as well as leadership to a scholarly environment. A school like the highly regarded Williams College in Massachusetts believes so strongly in athletes, nearly half of its student body is playing on an NCAA team.
Why is that? An obvious answer is revenue and the name recognition that comes with a successful sports program. Williams College is division III, and their athletic teams aren’t generating much revenue for the school. Perhaps colleges like this inherently recognize the nobility in someone who strives and achieves, works well under pressure, gets along with different personalities, and figures out how to reach goals despite setbacks and obstacles.
The concept of the Renaissance Man is nothing new and the development of the mind is only one part of what makes us human. The body and the spirit are equally important, because we are physical beings living in a physical world. As a former army officer, my education is rooted in the development of the body as well as the mind, and perhaps most importantly the spirit or soul. Winning our nation’s wars demands a high level of fitness and endurance, and it also requires the ability to work as a team.
Douglas MacArthur said it well. “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”
VOLLEYBALL IS LIFE
My daughter dives out, her body parallel to the ground, gets her hands beneath a loose ball. It floats up above the net and a 6’2″ hitter approaches, leaps into the air, and spikes the ball, crushing it inside the 10 foot line, the sound of the kill pounding into the gym floor, echoing in my mind.
Beauty, confidence, excellence.
** Speech excerpt (full text of “Man in the Arena” speech is worth your while)
The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The role is easy; there is none easier, save only the role of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.
We aren’t AAU parents but do enough golf to most likely qualify for a comment. I believe the difference now from when I grew up was that the kids simply can’t just wander around and amuse themselves these days. A more structured environment which for us means tournaments provides a safe place for our daughters to have an active day. I’m sure there are other reasons but getting them out and about is key in a time when they both would stare at their mobile devices for longer than I care to admit.
The cost of these things is substantial but what if you consider it just investing in great memories and not prepping for college? I’m not sure my daughters will play in college at all but they have a life sport with (hopefully) good memories growing up and competing. Something like 1% of football players (my made up number) go onto the next level and play in college but we support their activities through the school on a year round basis. Why not volleyball or golf or tennis or whatever as well?
Great article as always. Enjoy your 4th!
And Beat Navy!
Children can and do wander around, but many parents don’t let them, and maybe the children don’t want to. My three have played outside through middle school and were outside yesterday, though it’s far lonelier without other kids like we had in our childhood. Sports as a business has a lot to do with it, because the outreach and recruiting start very early. The club recruited our 12 year old for a 14s team and then recruited her for the national team; and we planned to hold off until 8th grade or high school. To your point as a parent, the gaming and social media and digital domination are real and I’m happy to see them exercise and get out. I believe in sports for many reasons: excellence, challenge, teamwork, failure, hard work…. but the controversy in our little corner of the world (“intellectual northeast”) about education is whether athletes should be given preference in higher ed. I tried to show there is good cause to give them, at least, consideration. This is ugly in the other extreme, by the way, the complete abuse by big schools who admit athletes who can’t do the work, much less write a sentence correctly.
Well done with your girls, you are most qualified to comment. Thanks for writing and sharing because I enjoy hearing your perspective and experience. So, do it for just doing it! Go for the GOLD. And for goodness sakes, let’s BEAT NAVY.
Good morning! Throughout my recent trek across the USA – of all the spaces and places and faces that I yearned to stretch out in thought and laughter was with Ma & Pa Shattan. Sadly I had to press on. But good to find your missives assembled here as a sort of resting place. I just wanted to add my two cents to the conversation. My oldest – Jac – is a rising junior at Texas A&M whom you met in the summer of 2013. He earned admission to Georgetown, West Point, and a full ride to Texas A&M’s Mays Business School. He did everything well per the script – student, athlete, community. There was something a bit too clunky in the “accolades are everything” approach with my youngest, now 18 and a working lifeguard at Six Flags. He developed musically and shows an eccentric flare for math and loves gaming. He’s attending UT Austin’s Engineering School in the fall. All his days I waited for him to “grow out” of a certain phase, only to realize that I was casting a vision for him, of him, and not seeing him. This idea matured in his senior year when he declared he did not want to play lacrosse in what would have been his capstone year after 6 years in the sport. We had to face the reality that the sports culture had become our social network. Claudia and I were looking forward to his senior year in lax, yet he was not. The brutish nature of the sport was not his tribe. He thrived as a swimmer. And gamer. We understood it all, but pressed on with some intellectual bullying (finish strong!). He played on for us. He actually did enjoy the game more as a senior, taller and stronger with more confidence and lots more playing time. I think we wanted the dividend of finally seeing him score. So our mantra in the beginning was to use the pathway of sports to provide life skills. We got caught up in the swirl of the sports machine you mention – the professional videos, the traveling tournaments, scouts & scholarships. Somewhere along the path its important to listen for their voice and let them lead.
It would have been great seeing you, but connecting this way is also wonderful. I envy your trip and have wanted to do something similar on a bike X-country or hiking the AT. Thank you for taking the time to share this. You and Claudia have done well for your sons and esp, hearing his voice amid the chaos of modern adolescence. I read this aloud to Mark and hope we can learn something from it. Experience can be a hard school, but sometimes and for some people, it’s the only way.
You are right about the sports culture and social network, though I’m the first to admit I’m a recluse, accused of being a hermit by yours truly MDS on more than one occasion. The thing is, life is short and the world is long on silly people. I prefer hanging out with Marcus Aurelius or Willa Cather. Enjoy your ride and thanks for letting us take it in along the way.