Try saying this out loud: “Family and academics are more important than sports, until sports conflict, then sports win.”
I don’t personally like the way that sounds — but yes, I’ve had children skip school, and left my parents to be driven to the bus by a friend after a holiday visit, for hockey tournaments. I love my children, and they love hockey, and that sometimes leaves me making choices that are hard to square with what I say are my priorities.
In “There’s No Off in This Season,” my colleague Bruce Feiler describes how “Friday Night Lights” have become Every Night Lights, with team sports the behemoth that’s consuming American childhood. The quote above paraphrases James Emery White, the pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., who has spoken out widely on the dangers of sports eclipsing family life. “Parents are so insecure,” he is quoted as saying, “they feel like whatever other parents are doing, they have to do. If it’s soccer, then my kid has to play soccer. We have elevated sports into a cultural religion. The fact that it clashes with family life is not surprising.”
Those clashes are often infuriating (read the article for more on missed vacations and the near-complete loss of August as part of summer), yet, Bruce writes, few parents are willing to stand up to coaches and reclaim lost weekends and break time if it means risking their child’s place on the team.
It will take more than a few parents to change the culture that allows coaches to make Augusts and Saturdays mandatory. Even for less intense towns, schools and sports, the creep of practice, tournament and game time is hard to resist. The tournaments I’ve allowed my children to miss school for weren’t “mandatory” in any sense of the word. There would have been no individual repercussions for them had they missed them — but because of the size of their teams, their absence could mean the team can’t play, or loses, in part, because they just didn’t have the numbers to keep up. I might have sent the league a message about the importance of academics over sports, but I would also be sending my children a message about letting down a team I’d allowed them to commit to. Suddenly, that simple-seeming dichotomy — academics or sports — isn’t so simple.
Just the fact that games, tournaments, tryouts or practices can be, and are, regularly scheduled during time that is traditionally family time or indisputably school time forces choices parents and students shouldn’t have to make. If you would like to see changes in the sports your family participates in, now, as things are getting organized for the school year, may be the time to speak up at introductory meetings or even attend early meetings of league boards or town recreational programs; for fall sports, now is the time to figure out when and how you can work for changes next year.
Commonly, the people who volunteer to organize leagues and teams are those for whom a sport is a passion and therefore a priority. That may feel as if it makes conflict inevitable, but any change starts with taking the time and making the effort to speak up before the coach who’s genuinely excited to spend spring break taking the team to a tournament has circled the dates on the calendar, and with appreciating that enthusiasm even while looking for a happy medium.
No practice or game time will work for every child, but that shouldn’t mean families should have to make any time work.