Youth and Sports: America’s Blind Side?
I’ve just started reading Michael Oher’s new book, I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond. If you’ve read The Blind Side, Michael Lewis’ absolutely magnificent introduction to Oher, or seen the movie, then you know the basic outline of his story:
- an enormous teenager gains admission to a private Christian academy in Memphis
- he’s taken in by the wealthy Touhy family
- he becomes one of the most highly recruited high school football players in the country
- he becomes an all-American offensive tackle at Ole Miss
- he’s a first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2009
- he’s now the starting left tackle for the Ravens
Even more amazing, to me, is what was left out of The Blind Side: Oher, whose IQ was measured at 80 when he was in the Memphis public schools, made the dean’s list twice at Mississippi, and earned a bachelor’s degree before he moved on to the NFL. (By “left out,” I mean it wasn’t yet known at the time Lewis wrote the book.)
So now we come to this question: Did sports “save” Michael Oher from a life on the streets of Memphis? Did the Touhy family and the community at Briarcrest Christian School save him? Or did Oher save himself, using sports because it was the most convenient venue for his escape from the inner city?
In The Blind Side, Lewis writes about how Oher saw himself as the next Michael Jordan, and played basketball for hours a day while rarely attending school. While other big kids eventually come to own their size, walking with a lumbering gate, Oher never thought of himself as a load, and as a consequence moved like a kid half his size. (It helped that, being homeless, he rarely saw himself in a mirror.)
This may be my favorite passage in the entire book:
He devoted so much time and energy to defying his own size that it couldn’t help but yield results. Even as he became one of the biggest human beings in Hurt Village [a housing project in Memphis], he remained quick and agile. He willed himself to be graceful — to remain a little man inside a big man’s body. Later, college coaches who came to watch him would see a freak of nature. But where had nature left off, and nurture taken over?
Later in the book’s final chapter, Lewis mentions a study that reached this conclusion: “for every six public-school kids with the ability to play college sports, five failed to qualify academically.”
I find it ironic, as a middle-class parent, that so many of my friends and neighbors dream of raising kids who qualify athletically — who get scholarships to play college sports. Qualifying academically is a given.
Is that a good idea?
Freakonomics co-author Michael Dubner addresses that question here, and raises interesting questions without finding an answer:
I am constantly surprised at how many of my kids’ friends spend most or all of their weekends on travel sports teams. I would have loved to play baseball every weekend of my life when I was a kid, and to force my family to build their schedule around it, but that didn’t happen. That said, I have a daughter who, at 9, is a good and devoted figure skater, so yes, I’m becoming one of those bleary-eyed rink dads you might see some mornings.
The question of opportunity cost is, to me, the most interesting one. I have heard of some parents who had a strong inclination to send their kids to a religious school but decided against it because they worried their religious studies would cut into their acquisition of secular knowledge. The same concern could obviously be applied to the hours and hours spent on youth sports.
It’s not really a worry for us. We have two kids in karate, which involves two or three classes a week into infinity. It’s great exercise and great discipline, and the kids love it. But nobody gives scholarships for martial arts that I know of. Even if they did, I can’t see myself pushing either of them in that direction. I put in my time as a soccer dad, and while I miss parts of it, my daughter doesn’t miss playing at all. Not one tiny bit. If she tried competitive karate, she’d probably stop enjoying it as well.
So how much emphasis should parents put on sports?
First off, it would be crazy for me, as a fitness professional, to not stress the importance of physical activity in my own home. None of my kids enjoyed team sports, so I’ve done all I can to encourage the activities they prefer. Currently, that means karate for the older two and dance for the youngest.
Second, I think every kid should have some baseline sports-related experience. Off the top of my head, I think American kids should know how to:
- ride a bike
- kick a ball
- hit a ball with a bat, tennis racket, or golf club
What do you think? Did I leave anything out?
Parents, how much emphasis do you place on sports? If you have kids with ability and interest, how far do you push them?