By tradition in our part of town, one family hosts the spaghetti dinner before each high school track meet. Our high school always has a large team, and when it was our turn one evening a number of years ago, the scene in my home was predictable. Kids everywhere: on the couches, in the chairs, in the basement, on the stairs, splayed out across every inch of floor space.
The coaches helped pump out pots of pasta as quickly as hungry teens — their appetites fueled by countless training miles — could devour it. One was a teacher, one a newspaper guy like me. Another worked with an agency that helped the blind, and one was an EMT who later would be called to search for victims in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Somehow it all worked: a happy whirlwind of sound and commotion that I can recall vividly years after memories of the competitions themselves have begun to blend together.
The next day, or the day after that, a few of the kids would run in the varsity meet, privileged to represent the school. The rest would take part in “B” competitions for reasons all their own: the sheer joy of running, the thrill of competition or because they were part of that closely knit mob on my living room floor.
I bring this up now because of the University of Maryland’s shortsighted decision last month to kill eight minor sports, including men’s cross-country and track and field. Strapped by years of deficit spending, with revenue-producing football and basketball teams that — how shall I put this? — stink, the state’s flagship university also reluctantly axed men’s and women’s swimming and diving; men’s tennis, women’s water polo and acrobatics and tumbling.
I won’t waste your time with another debate about how to spend scarce dollars. But I’d like to offer a parent’s perspective. For the few hundred kids who will lose the chance to be part of these under-the-radar collegiate teams, nothing can replace that experience. Nothing really comes close.
“I appreciate the years of commitment it takes to compete at the collegiate level; the sense of identity and family that is forged with a team; the personal qualities and life skills that athletics can help develop,” Maryland President Wallace D. Loh wrote in a statement agreeing to the cuts.
Exactly. When we spend tens of thousands of dollars to send our kids off to college, we strike a deal with the school. First, the university provides an education that prepares our children for work and to function in society. Second, and nearly as important, it provides a bridge from the sheltered world of our homes to the harsher one our kids soon will inhabit. For those who qualify, at Maryland’s Division I level or anywhere else in college athletics, sports are an irreplaceable part of that transition.
Sports are one of the last true meritocracies in which they will ever participate. Especially the smaller sports, which don’t have millions of dollars in bowl or tournament fees riding on outcomes. Swim faster than the next kid, you win. Hit your forehand wide too often, you lose. It’s straightforward, measurable, comprehensible. Soon enough they’ll be out here with the rest of us, trying to navigate baffling stuff like office politics.
At the same time, kids accustomed to winning state championships in high school may not fare as well at the next level. That may take some getting used to. They may have to come off the bench, or stand on the sideline and cheer, and still be able to bond with their teammates. That’s a difficult, and valuable, learning experience. It’s going to happen again sometime in their lives.
Sports teach kids how to lose with grace and win with humility. There is no substitute for the bonds forged in competition. No offense to intramural sports, but they’re just not the same thing.
Above all else, sports are about sacrifice: determining how much time and effort you’re willing to put in and what you hope to get out of it, then balancing that commitment against all your other responsibilities. Sort of like life.
I have one child who never ran a varsity race, yet stuck with her high school track and cross-country teams for four years. She got in shape, learned discipline that she applied elsewhere and made lifelong friends. My son, blessed with a bit more foot speed, figured out as a high school freshman or sophomore how hard he’d have to work to run with the varsity. Now a college junior, he’s still competing at the small college varsity level, and his devotion to training is the envy of everyone who knows him.
My youngest just completed her first season running as an eighth-grader. She didn’t like it much, didn’t train and came in dead last most of the time.
We’ll see what happens next year.