Youth Football: Human Development on the Cheap

We often talk about cities being rebuilt on the cheap. Like casinos and convention centers and urban strip malls becoming catchalls to the reasons our societies are crumbled. What’s less talked about is how we build our humans on the cheap. “Football as a way out” is an example of this.

From eHow, in article entitled “How to Escape from The Ghettos and Poverty”, Instruction 4 states:

If you have a talent or gift, use it to your advantage. If you can sing really well or if you are a star football player, use these gifts as a stepping stone out of the ghetto and onto a bigger and better pedestal in life.

Elaborating, this method of social capital development goes something like this: a kid’s athletic talents are honed early. Feats of physical skill become the child’s burn, not to mention a source of affirmation that is perhaps lacking elsewhere. The four years of high school turn into an indoctrination to commitment, with weightlifting, in- and off-season workouts, pep rallies, and games taking up the lion’s share of the educational experience. You get recruited (see the video below). You enter the learning environment of a campus. You play or don’t but your books and tuition are paid for. The NFL is probably not an option but you leave learned, evolved from the society that bore you.

The problem with this method is that it’s based on a foundation of hypocrisy and bullshit.

First, a fraction of kids who play high school football will ever make it to the college level. Even less will go on to the pros. Also, see the pyramid below (stats from the North American Sports Institue Survey, 1999). It provides a telling visual showing the narrowing of youth who actually make it “to the top”, with the byproduct the sheer number of young shed from this particular track of youth development.

Where they land often becomes tragic. Recently, Canton, Ohio’s own two-time Mr. Football was arrested for an alleged robbery and sexual assault. Hell, just Google “mr. football and arrested” and it reads like a who’s who of perpetrators and victims that have unfolded in the shadow cast by big time athletics.

Second, kids are set up to fail. They enter a pressure cooker without the social, intellectual, and interpersonal tools to sustain the heat. Even those physically gifted—the stars—they not only have a populace to win over, they got pariahs lurking around high school and college campuses that make a living out of naivete. Tattoos are traded for game-worn jerseys. Sex parties happen on boats. NCAA laws are broken. Scholarships revoked. Education as a fall-back is not an option because the path was of an athlete to fame with education the virtuous cover for the fact that we are chewing up our young. Said Mark Yost, author of the book “Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics”:

We never as a culture talk about those 97 or 98 percent of kids who end up at college, and they don’t make it to the NBA or the NFL. They end up spending two or three years at college, they come out with 60 credits, and they don’t know how to read or think. And then we’re shocked when these kids end up in a dead end, with nowhere to go, and unfortunately that’s the story that never gets told, but it’s what happens to the vast majority of NCAA athletes. They end up with no pro contract, no degree, and no prospects for the future.

Lastly, the context that is sports fandom in general, and “football as a way out” in particular, well, it has recently been exposed more rotten to the core more than previously imagined. Penn State, the campus and the coach once held up as the ideal of the making of men out of the mold that was football, even they proved ultimately and horrifically hypocritical. (Note: for more on the Penn State scandal I point you to this piece I wrote for the The Classical.) While Penn State owns the apex of this deceit, both high school and college

athletics have long existed with tentacles tied to an underbelly that–when all is said and done–is built off the exploits of youth. Which begs the question, when we say “a way out”, a way out to what exactly?

Look: fame and dreams and achievement have always been a significant part of the American experience. I get that. Football and touchdowns and clapping and sweat are terrific escapes to the severity that can be the life experience. But the dichotomy that is the two-track system of human capital development in this nation’s educational system has got to stop. Its like raising a child for the hope of the lottery versus raising the child on the wisdom that: with education, you are eliminating the need for the sliver of chance.

We in the Rust Belt know the consequences of such an approach perhaps more so than any other region. Poverty and pigskin should be our regional flag. Perhaps we can use the present as a moment of non-bullshit reflection. Vince Lombardi—a regional icon—once said that it was all about God, family, and the Green Bay Packers. Seems like we believed him. But there are no short of a thousand other things that should be third on that list.

Sadly, it will be business as usual by daybreak.

–By Richey Piiparinen

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