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.