A crazy thing happened this week in Texas. Last Friday night, Aledo High School’s undefeated football team won their seventh game of the season, beating Western Hills 91-0.
Wait, that’s not the crazy part.
Aledo has won each of their games by an average of 77 points. No, still not to the crazy part.
On Saturday morning, Aledo’s coach was informed that a Western Hills parent had filed a bullying claim against his team — for winning Friday night’s game.
Now we’re to the crazy.
The parent who complained, according to CBS Local Dallas/Ft. Worth, felt that Aledo coach Tim Buchanan should have insisted that his players ease up on the Western Hills team. Buchanan disagrees: “I would never tell them, ‘Go out and let them score’. That’s not what you want to teach kids.”
So did Buchanan let his team run roughshod over the Western Hills players? No. “Buchanan said by halftime, when his team was up 56 points, he began actively trying to keep the score down,“ CBS Local Dallas/Ft. Worth reported, ”subbing in backup players, letting the clock run continuously, and instructing players to make fair catch calls.”
In other words, he coached a fair and sportsmanlike game.
But there must be more to this, right? Aledo’s players must have been trash talking the Western Hills team, acting ugly, getting up to something other than a damn good game of football on the field. Right?
Wrong. Western Hills Coach John Naylor says his players were not bullied, by Buchanan or by his team. “I think the game was handled fine,” Naylor told the Star Telegram. “They’re No. 1 for a reason, and I know coach Buchanan. We’re fighting a real uphill battle right now.”
Buchanan’s team, he added, “just plays hard. And they’re good sports, and they don’t talk at all. They get after it, and that’s the way football is supposed to be played in Texas.”
When you play a sport the way it is supposed to be played, you compete fairly and you do your best. Bullying isn’t about doing your best; it’s about making someone else feel his worst. There is no positive, constructive side to bullying, no bigger lesson about winning honestly or losing graciously. The bully builds himself up by tearing someone else down, and he does it in a way that is unfair and, if you will, unsportsmanlike. A bully’s goal is to isolate and undermine the victim.
That’s not the same as being a better team and scoring more points. At all.
I have one child who plays competitive sports, and one who has been the target of bullying. There is nothing, in my mind, the least bit similar about those experiences. But more and more, I see parents downplaying the value of competitive sports, and overemphasizing the prevalence of bullying. And both of those things make me a little crazy.
I’m hearing a lot of parents lately say that they think the goal of competitive sports should be to have fun. It’s the everybody-gets-a-trophy model, where no one’s feelings are ever hurt and each player is told that he or she is just as good as all the other players. I disagree with this approach; while I hope that sports are fun for my kids, I don’t think that should be the ultimate end goal.
Sports — particularly team sports, and more particularly team sports played at a competitive level — can teach our kids some valuable life lessons, like what bullying really is and how to put a stop to it. But only if we can distinguish between competition and bullying.
Here’s the thing about competitive sports: Someone wins and someone loses. And if you think that the kids don’t know what the score is or who won or what their record is, you’re wrong. They do. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The real test of character comes in how a team plays, not what the score is.
Team sports foster valuable skills, the least important of which, in my mind, have to do with the actual game itself. My son plays baseball and basketball; he has been fortunate to have coaches who have emphasized playing the game the right way. This means both honing his athletic skills and — more importantly — understanding that he is part of a team, and that the success of the team rests not on one star player’s abilities, but on the group as a whole.
I have no illusions that Charlie will grow up to be a professional athlete; that’s not why we’re doing this. I do hope, though, that his sports experience will shape who he is and will help him grow to be an adult with a good sense of fair play and a healthy love of competition. I want him to learn the value of hard work and the importance of taking responsibility for his actions. I want him to treat other people with respect, always. I want him to be a responsible, reliable member of the community.
And honestly, I want him to have the self confidence to intervene if he sees another child being bullied. I think that the kind of community he has created for himself, through competitive sports, will give him the ability to do that. He has adults and other kids he can turn to for support, and I am hopeful that, backed by his team and his coaches, he would be willing to stand up for something he thought was wrong.
I understand that team sports — particularly competitive team sports — can be a breeding ground for bullying. In those cases, I think parents and coaches and schools have an obligation to step up and step in and put a stop to the behavior. But winning is not the same as bullying, and to assert that it is undermines everything we hope team sports teach young men — and women — about fair play and hard work and competition. And equating losing a football game with being bullied undermines the seriousness and the complexity of real bullying.