Monthly Archives: March 2012

A sporting chance

Competitive inter-school sport occurs only at the high-school level in a typical American school district. This realisation took me by complete surprise when moving here twenty months ago with a teenager and a near teen. I had assumed that, like in South Africa, inter-school sports started at the elementary level and continued through high school. It turns out that local clubs nurture youth athletic talent and provide formative competitive sports opportunities in the United States, not primary and middle schools.

Americans are as fanatical about sport as any others. Presently, the American sporting world is preoccupied with “March Madness”, the annual elimination competitions of both men’s and women’s college basketball that take place in March. For both genders, “March Madness” begins with 64 teams, continues with 32, then the “Sweet Sixteen”, the “Elite Eight”, the “Final Four”, and then the championship game.

President Barack Obama’s choice of teams most likely to succeed in each “bracket” of the competition was canvassed and has been widely reported. Obama also whisked off British Prime Minister David Cameron to Ohio last week to attend a game during the latter’s official visit to the United States—and apparently taught Cameron about the game throughout.

The scale of the tournament is huge, in terms of commercial value and TV viewership. Fans’ university and regional loyalties come to the fore, with many office pools being created and wagers won and lost.

For the athletes, a successful collegiate sporting career also means an entrée to professional sports. American basketball legends such as Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan became household names through their exploits as college players before playing professionally.

A revealing aspect for me is how the women’s collegiate competition is as highly valued as the men’s. This is thanks to “Title IX”, the civil rights law President Richard Nixon signed in 1972 that forbids discriminating between genders in education if that educational institution receives direct or indirect federal aid. Although sport was not explicitly mentioned in the legislation, Title IX’s biggest impact has unquestionably been on high school and collegiate athletics for women.

Before generalising about how local clubs foster interest in sport and develop talent, I should note that physical education is offered during the school day at American elementary and middle schools, but in a very low-key way when compared to school sport in South Africa.

For sport-oriented young Americans, neighbourhood clubs try to offer different levels of competition. A “select” or “travel” league would be geared to the really talented, and these elite teams literally travel around a region to compete against each other. A “house” league would offer general participation, although “A” and “B” leagues may be differentiated. “Try outs” may also be required to generate teams of relatively balanced ability. House teams typically compete against each other in the local area. A “development” league might be offered for the beginner youngest age groups.

These clubs are all about partnerships. Local school facilities are typically used for weekday practices after school hours and weekend games. So, for example, the local basketball club, the county school district, and the PTA of my daughter’s school teamed up to cover the cost of replacing the floor of the school’s gym.

But the key way in which these clubs reflect the best of a community working together is in the fact that they are volunteer dependent. Parent volunteers typically provide most of the coaching, although high school and college students coach too. A remarkable commitment is asked of these volunteer coaches: weekly practices and weekend games for a full season. Having observed parent coaches for the sports in which my two children have participated over the last twenty months, it is very clear that most coaches greatly enjoy the experience, do a simply terrific job, and really give their heart-and-soul to guiding the children in their care. One can also observe some taking it far too seriously, with some behaving as if they were coaching a high-powered college or professional team…

In an aside, in addition to being an avid follower of the game and a keen “hoops” player himself, President Obama is also known to attend his daughters’ basketball league games and sometimes step up to coach temporarily. How he must love such moments—the joy of feeling like a “regular” suburban dad!

Participation in these clubs requires a nominal fee, to cover the cost of officiating and the team shirt. Scholarships are always offered for those who would like to participate but do not have the means to do so.

When games are played, umpires or referees are usually provided, and they are paid a token sum. The refs are usually adults, but many times they are not. Providing teenagers with the opportunity to learn how to officiate is another great role these clubs play. For some American teenagers, officiating club games might be a first job.

Certainly, there are also many opportunities for young Americans to have private and more individualised coaching in the different sports. The cost of such training keeps it the preserve of the few—those who can afford it and those who are uniquely gifted. The majority of Americans learn their sport through local clubs.

Advertisements

Pious politics


Rick Santorum, one of the conservative Republicans vying to be the GOP presidential nominee, has hurt his chances of being selected by espousing views on religion that alienate many Americans. In contrast, a recent civic exercise for 12-year-olds illustrated a positive approach to teaching social and moral values.

Volunteering at an “Ethics Day” for 12-year-old school children turned out to be a rewarding way to spend a morning. A local, secular, civil-society coalition organized the half-day event; a nearby Jewish temple provided the facilities; and all sixth graders from two area elementary schools took a break from their regular school day to participate. The point of the exercise was to stress how ethical choices determine the kind of schools, communities, and world in which we live. Ethical dilemmas were presented for discussion, and the challenge of reconciling what one could do in certain situations, what one would do, and what one should do was highlighted.

Every religion, faith, and creed could endorse the universalisms that underpinned the deliberations. It was agreed that integrity comes from living basic values like honesty, trust, fairness, justice, compassion, responsibility, and respect. The tenor of the presentations and discussions was practical and respectful, yet also idealistic and inspirational. The approach was non-theological, nondenominational, and non-divisive. It showed how moral conduct and civic duty can be inspired in a pluralistic, diverse society in a way that is sensitive and doesn’t cause offense—and supplements moral and religious guidance provided through family and private faith.

Rick Santorum and his evangelical supporters would likely find the formula followed at “Ethics Day” to be wanting. He recently said he didn’t “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”, and he accused President Barack Obama of “advancing a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible”.

In what has effectively become a two-man race between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and himself, Santorum’s elevation of divisive social wedge issues is also clever politics. Part of Santorum’s recent rhetoric is unquestionably belief—he is a deeply religious man. Part of it is also deliberate strategy. Some of the continued lack of enthusiasm for Romney among the core of the Republican Party relates to mistrust of his Mormonism and his reluctance to speak about his faith and how it informs who he is. By speaking so forcefully about his own faith and views, the Catholic Santorum is intentionally making this contrast with Romney. While Republican voters are also unsure whether Romney is a real conservative, Santorum assures all he is a “full-spectrum” conservative.

The politics surrounding the presidential campaign also explains why Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the other conservative Republic presidential hopeful, berated President Obama for apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the disrespectful burning of the Koran at the U.S. airbase outside Kabul. Obama’s apology had struck me as totally appropriate and, in fact, essential after the inflammatory treatment, albeit not intentioned, of Islam’s holy book.

This overreach and heated rhetoric on social and religious matters has, I think, backfired for Santorum. He already has the evangelical vote sown up—although there is still some dwindling support for Gingrich—so continuing to hammer away on these themes is counter productive for his presidential ambitions. The brighter prospects of the U.S. economy also partly explains this pivot from focusing on the economy, but highlighting religion in the public sphere and social issues is not a winning strategy for Republicans for the general election. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, lost his 2006 senatorial reelection campaign by 18 percentage points largely due to his views on faith and gay rights.

The longer the divisive Republican nomination battle continues, the less likely Republicans will unify for the November election against President Obama, and the greater the possibility of a third candidate emerging to contest the election—which would split the conservative vote.

A protest poster at a recent Santorum rally said it all to me: “America is a democracy, not a theocracy”. Long live separation of church and state.