Monday, July 9, 2012

Unwittingly Enabling Elitism

There is an undercurrent among the sea of averageness. Can you feel it? This undercurrent is described in various ways, but the word “elitism” seems to appear with some frequency.

The unfortunate truth is that we unwittingly promote and comply with the spread of elitism.

Here is an example. Parents of boys who want to play baseball sign their sons up for Little League. The Little League mission is stated on their website:

Through proper guidance and exemplary leadership, the Little League program assists children in developing the qualities of citizenship, discipline, teamwork and physical well-being. By espousing the virtues of character, courage and loyalty, the Little League Baseball and Softball program is designed to develop superior citizens rather than superior athletes.

Parents read this statement and they think they are getting their boys in on the ground-floor of an equal playing field, one where their sons will have an equal opportunity to learn the sport and improve their skills.

Sadly, the reality is that there is no equal playing field.

My own son played in Little League for three years. For him, they were three years of hell.

He joined because his friends were in Little League. He wanted to play ball. He wanted to play ball with his friends. He never ended up on a team with a single one of his friends.

He started in the whole Little League thing late, as a 10 year old. Fortunately, he has great hand-to-eye coordination. He learned the game, not without some struggle, and many times without any encouragement from teammates. In fact, most of the time, my son was shunned by his teammates, or key teammates, at least.

What do I mean by key teammates? Key teammates are the coaches’ sons and the friends of the coaches’ sons. How does this work? Well, the key players are always put at the top of the batting line-up, no matter what. The key players are placed in in-field positions that they own all season long. The rest of the team is filled out with boys that do not get the attention or the opportunity to show any talent or skill; if these “filler boys”—by this, I mean all the other kids that are selected to fill out the team roster—show talent, they are shuffled to either far left or right field, or they warm the bench. There is no meritocracy; these “filler boys” are only there to fill out the roster, so that the key teammates can play games and be stars.

What I am saying here is outrageous. Many people will object strenuously to my observations, perhaps because they have not had the same experience with their sons. I am happy everyone has not had the same experience my son did. I can also report that my son is not the only boy to experience the worst that Little League has to offer.

How could such a scenario, as I have briefly described, happen? The answer is quite simple: the program is run by parent volunteers, whose sons are enrolled in the program. Everyone from coaches and score-keepers to umpires and the mom that runs the snack bar, and don’t forget the parent whose business sponsors the team. Look carefully. At the end of the year, when the awards are handed out, see whose children receive the sportsmanship awards (it was so blatant in our case—all four sons from one family received the sportsmanship awards), see whose parents receive the volunteer awards.

Sour grapes? Well, it only dawned on me, after my son played summer recreation ball in another town, having a great time and becoming a skilled player, that there was something seriously wrong. I mean, why would a coach bench a player who is good? One who can catch the ball and make plays? Why would a good batter be buried far down in the batting order? Why would kids who cannot catch the ball be placed in positions like shortstop and third base (as happened on my son's team last year), and never rotated out?

It all makes sense when you understand who makes up the inner circle. The key players have a sense of entitlement. They know that they own their infield positions. They know they own their batting order spots. They know that they do not have to worry about anyone upstaging them. The sense of entitlement extends to teasing, shunning, even bullying other kids on their team. The kids that are treated to this have to shut up and take it, if they want to play ball. But these boys don’t really get to play ball; they are just filler. The inner circle boys are treated to extra coaching. Extra practices are extended to everyone, but, mostly, at the last minute, so if you have a prior commitment, too bad.  From another parent, I found out that the inner circle on his sons’ team all went camping together, and had done for years.

Unwittingly, we parents who are not coaching or volunteering in some other big way for the league can report the same experience for our sons as that I described above. Unwittingly, we are paying to have our sons marginalized, even picked on. We are financing the entitlement of a few and the marginalization of a broader group.

The point must be made, with Little League as an example.

Now, I’ll ask you to extrapolate. If it is happening in Little League, chances are, it is happening in the local soccer league. So, where else is it happening? Chances are, it is happening higher up the chain than kids sports groups. How much are you paying to enable the abuse of your good will?

I am asking you to look at the systems you pay into through a different lens. You may be surprised by what you observe. And you may be further surprised to realize that you are paying into systems that give you the short end of the stick, while maximizing benefits to a small group of certain others.

I do not suggest that we all take on the mantle of bitterness over these circumstances, merely that we look more carefully at such situations and learn from them.

I told my son that I was sorry his experience had been so poor; it had taken me three years to figure out this whole thing and see how it really worked. My son ended his Little League career as a champion. The driven coaches and their key player sons really went to town! Alas, my son didn’t care about the first place trophy; all he wanted do was to burn the shirt contained his name and the names of all his tormenters.

I told my son that his experience was unfortunate, and we were sorry that we couldn’t do anything to improve his situation. We had spoken to the coach this year about the bullying, and, in the nicest possible way, he first did not “believe it”, and then claimed my son must have done something to bring it on himself. Isn’t that called “Blame the Victim”? At one point, my son went to one of the assistant coaches and told him that his son was picking on him. The assistant coach told my son “get better, and he’ll stop.” First of all, asserting that my son was a bad player (or at least not as good a player as his son); second of all, letting my son know that he would not censure his son’s behavior; third of all, condoning the behavior.

I told my son that he has to learn how to deal with all types of people and situations. Sometimes, this learning process is not pleasant.

I signed him up for summer recreation ball in a neighboring town. He’s having a good time. I suggested that he might consider continuing with recreational baseball, bypassing Babe Ruth League. If he keeps playing, he could tryout for the high school baseball team.

Meanwhile, I find it disturbing that this is the kind of society we live in. The inner circles make themselves the elite and cut everyone else out of the good stuff, as far as they can. These inner circles move concentrically outward from Little League and soccer to the School Board, your local Municipal government, the Police and Fire Unions, the Democratic or Republican Parties, Wall Street, and so on. Get the picture? This ethos has nothing really to do with volunteer organizations, but it does seem to figure into absolutely every aspect of our culture that involves some sort of prize to be won, whether it is a trophy or a government contract. The extent to which this can be done depends on how much oversight there is. Most of the time, there is very little.

Meanwhile, back on the Little League fields, adults are modeling the very worst behavior and ethics; and they are passing them on by example to their children, and maybe even to yours. On Your Dime. And using your children to reap rewards for their own.

Think about that.

Don’t be silent; speak out.

You never know who you will help by being aware, by getting more involved, and by sharing information.

No comments:

Post a Comment