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.

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