Editor's Note: Dr. White was interviewed as part of an article that ran this past Sunday in The New York Times that was built off of a blog he wrote on the interplay of sports, faith and culture. Instead of his usual blog posting, we thought you might enjoy reading it.
When my daughters were young, they had a book we all loved called “Jump into January." Every month was illustrated with a search-and-find painting filled with seasonal items. August's was “Sail into August / come along with me / That sand is soft, the sea is warm / What can you see?" Items included a sailboat, shovel, crab, hammock, surfboard and sand castle.
Have a teenager these days? You'd be lucky to see a sand castle in August. Instead, you're probably spending most of your month schlepping to tryouts, hauling to two-a-day practices, scheduling around mandatory workouts and letting yet another extracurricular activity encroach on once-sacred family time. The youth sports juggernaut, fueled by breathless cable networks, corporate sponsors and power-hungry leagues, is gradually colonizing more and more time: weeknights, weekends, religious holidays and now vacations.
Warning: Gatorade doesn't go with s'mores.
Recently, I spoke with the patriarch of a large family who spent a year arranging a once-in-a-lifetime vacation with his children and grandchildren. The families coordinated schedules, booked plane tickets and paid for hotels, then my friend's 15-year-old granddaughter was told there were mandatory soccer tryouts at her Manhattan school; if she didn't show up she wouldn't be eligible. She skipped the trip (and still didn't make the team).
“I personally feel that the coaches don't give a damn about what the alternative experience is," my friend said. “All they care about is their team. It's a school. They should be able to come up with alternatives, just like if a student gets sick and misses class, they get assignments to catch up."
A New Jersey parent captured the frustration in a comment on a forum for the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district: “If your kid plays football, forget going anywhere in August. If your kid plays basketball, forget going anywhere during winter break. And if your kid plays baseball, forget spring break — and heaven help the family who has a kid that might play two or three sports during different seasons!! Does anyone else out there feel that the school should stay out of our time?"
We've gone from “Friday Night Lights" to Every Night Lights. But in a surprising turn, some parents are starting to fight back, saying to hegemonic sports leagues: “Stay on your side of the Google calendar. I'm taking back my family time!"
Team sports is the untamed behemoth of American childhood. It is the No. 1 out-of-school activity for ages 7 to 10, outstripping band/chorus, religious groups and individual sports. Figures from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association say that three out of four American teenagers play at least one team sport. The total number of children ages 6 to 17 playing sports has been put as high as 30 million.
One of those students last year was Ollie Costolloe, a member of the track and field team at Brookline High School in Massachusetts. The coach required attendance at practice six days a week, including holidays, his mother said. “It wasn't just summer vacation, it was the complete inability to go away for a single weekend during the entire school year without significant consequences," Deborah Costolloe said. She recalled the coach telling students, “If you need to go to the doctor, you need to plan that during class time, because if you miss practice you are off the team." That even applied to family funerals.
“It was so draconian," Ms. Costolloe said. “I'm taking my kid out of school during the day to see the orthodontist when he's having academic issues."
So she complained to the coach, then to the head of the department and finally to the headmaster, who called a meeting last fall. Brookline High is known for its great track team, she said, and many parents refused to join the effort for fear of retribution or harming their chances of getting a leg up on college admission.
“I got a lot of messages from parents saying, 'Thank you for saying something but no I will not attend,' then hanging up the phone," Ms. Costolloe said.
The school agreed to allow three unexplained absences, which she considers only a modest victory. Her son switched to the diving team, where he's thriving.
A group of parents in Houston took their complaints even further: to court. In 2012, the boys' basketball team from Robert M. Beren Academy, a Jewish day school, was scheduled to play in the state semifinals on a Friday night, during Sabbath. The school made two appeals to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, known as Tapps, which administered the event, to change the time. It denied both requests.
A group of parents, led by Etan Mirwis, filed a lawsuit, which the head of school objected to, he told me. “I've always told my children to never limit their dreams," said Mr. Mirwis, a father of seven. He thinks sports are generating increased tensions with families because individuals trained as educators control activities for which they have no experience. “But no one wants to deal with the politics of fighting with them or getting rid of them, because they have a kind of fiefdom," Mr. Mirwis said. “So there's a hands-off approach."
Within minutes of the lawsuit being filed on Thursday, Tapps called and offered to reschedule the game, which was played the next day, at 2 p.m. Beren Academy won, but lost in the final the next night.
I asked Mr. Mirwis what message he would send to parents fearful of making a fuss. “I don't mean to sound like a civil-rights leader," Mr. Mirwis said, “but if the coach or league has a policy that you think is wrong, to accept it blindly is equally wrong. Sometimes you have to advocate for what you believe is right without regard to the personal consequences."
James Emery White, the pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., has spoken out widely on the dangers of sports eclipsing family life. In a sermon and later a blog post, Dr. White said, “Let's say this out loud, in front of the mirror, and see if we like it: 'I will do spiritual things for my child's sake until sports conflict, then sports win.' "
Dr. White said the problem was rooted in the social anxiety of contemporary parents. “Parents are so insecure, they feel like whatever other parents are doing, they have to do," he said. “If it's soccer, then my kid has to play soccer. We have elevated sports into a cultural religion. The fact that it clashes with family life is not surprising." In one study of pastors, he said, a chief reason they cite for the decline in church attendance is sports games being scheduled on Sunday mornings.
So how should parents handle a situation in which they feel their vacations, weekends or religious practices are being threatened? “A lot of parents think they can't be outliers, which is absolutely ridiculous," Dr. White said. “The role of a parent is to be the mature one, not the immature one." Parenting is not a popularity contest, he said. The goal is not to fit in. The goal is character formation.
“Sports can be a part of that," he said, “but when sports takes on an outsized role, when it works against school, family or faith, then sports has taken on a role it should never have had. Sports is a wonderful thing to do for kids, but it should be kept in its place."
-Bruce Feiler, The New York Times
“There's No Off in This Season: Team Sports Are Taking Over Kids' Lives," Bruce Feiler, The New York Times, Sunday, August 17, 2014, read online.