SPidge Tales

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Jock Culture

Nothing in life should last more than three hours. Any activity worth doing can be done in under 180 minutes. Imagine life’s precious moments: a nice movie…a candlelight dinner…a slow walk on the beach…a baseball game…a friendly card game…your wedding…the birth of your first baby…making babies. All wonderful joys, but none should last over three hours. No enjoyable leisure activity remains fun when done consecutively for longer than that time span. Which brings me to my recent week at basketball camp.

I worked at basketball camp, Monday to Friday, 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. I earned a paycheck, but I can’t say it was “fun.” Could it be, that after a summer spent at an overnight camp acting silly and playing the role of gym class hero, I had a letdown in the role of refereeing and coaching, barely getting a chance to show off my “skillz” competing against kids half my age and two feet shorter? That’s certainly part of it, but the bigger issue is witnessing the lack of fun in the kids themselves. Summer camp should be silly, laid back, with a rotation and variety of activities. Instead, they play the same sport for eight hours straight, save the lunch break. Silliness time is limited, because as we all know, basketball is SERIOUS (and so are the other sports, as I’m sure campers at various other sports camps hear). The kids are told to work hard so they can play Division I ball and save 35 thousand dollars a year in tuition through that coveted athletic scholarship. Laid back fun must be replaced with SERIOUSness since basketball camp is infested with Jock Culture.

What is Jock Culture? Jock Culture is simultaneously sanctimonious, superficial, and full of shit. To be a jock is to see your sport or sports as overly important and meaningful, giving a monk-like devotion to excellence in your game (the sanctimony). This monk-like focus does not extend to a jock’s personal life, though. Off the playing field, he considers himself God’s gift to women, letting the girls fawn over him. The rules at school don’t apply to him; the classroom is not for learning but for building up his cult of personality among his peers (the superficiality). Coaches say they recruit hardworking players with good character, guys who are ‘coachable.’ And, sure, this is true for mediocre and average players, but I guaran—damn—tee any coach will take that next McDonald’s All-American with an attitude problem (the bullshit).

And yet I spent my life being a part of Jock Culture. I was the kid who played three varsity sports in high school, and continued in one at the NCAA level in college. Why did I do it? Well, I was (and still am) good at sports. And, in a high school of only 250 kids, I was guaranteed to make all the teams. But there’s definitely more to it than that. I am at heart an introvert. I have improved vastly over the years, but in middle school and early high school I was excessively shy. Big social events such as Friday night football games and basketball games brought out my social awkwardness. By putting on the uniform and standing on the sidelines, I never had to worry about feeling uncomfortable or out of place in the stands.

Also, you know that tall lanky nerdy kid? That was me. In ninth grade, I was 6’1” and 140 pounds soaking wet. I took advanced math and had always been one of the smartest kids in school. I got picked on all through elementary and middle school; while that started to ebb in high school, the teasing still happened. Add that to getting turned down or ignored by the pretty girls, and I had plenty of need for an outlet (sports) to find some acceptance.

I wasn’t the person to pout or join the gothic counter-culture; I used self-deprecating humor and played along when I got picked on. Yeah, I was the smart kid. But I couldn’t use that as an outlet. Being smart ain’t cool (until you go to college, read Kafka and Kundera, knowingly condescend along with Jon Stewart at the backward red-staters, and join that collection of future professors who are ‘intellectually hip’). I had to join Jock Culture and excel in sports.

Don’t get me wrong. Sports were fun. I tremendously enjoyed high school sports. I wouldn’t use big adjectives (tremendously) to show much I enjoyed them if they weren’t really super fun. But I never took sports too seriously. When basketball player Allen Iverson gave that notorious press conference, answering concerns about his work ethic on non-game days, I nodded in agreement at his incredulous response, “it’s practice! We’re talking ‘bout practice.” In high school football, I always hated those kids who had to hit and tackle at full speed and do all that grunting and screaming and head-bumping with helmets on, as if that would make the coaches put them in more during the games. Now, I wasn’t lazy. I always paid attention to the coaches, practiced correct blocking techniques, ran good pass catching routes, and gave my best at end of practice sprints. But I (rightly, I believe) took it easy hitting and tackling in practice, saving the painful body collisions for Friday nights.

In baseball, I enjoyed shooting the breeze with my teammates in the dugout during our turn at-bat. But in college, there are 25 guys on a team (rather than the 13 or 14 in high school), leaving more bench guys vying for playing time. Guys did that constant baseball chatter (“hey number 9!”; “atta-boy”; “way to give him the cheddar”; “nice poke;” etc. etc. blah blah blah) thinking it would make the coach play them more because of their verbal dedication to the team. And unlike in high school, when we only left the dugout to greet people at home plate during homeruns, we had to line up for high fives after every mother loving run scored. As enjoyable as it would have been to stay in the dugout, I couldn’t look like the one guy who didn’t outwardly care, so I grudgingly trudged myself to the field clap line.

In high school basketball, we had to keep the radio off and act somber on bus rides home from away game losses. We had to think about what we did wrong. After all, basketball is not just a game; it would be wrong for teenagers to shrug off a loss and go back to being…umm…teenagers on the bus. On our home court, the leftover pizza, hotdogs, popcorn, and soda from the concession stand were brought into the locker room for us after the game, to be consumer after our coach’s post-game speech. His speeches were quite instructional. I learned that losses never happened because the other team was better; we were lazy in practice the day before or didn’t try hard enough or didn’t want it enough. All those added F words shouted at high decibels definitely helped me learn this lesson. I also learned to start hiding the concession stand leftover food behind the lockers after losses since coach, after one particular defeat, knocked our post-game snack on the floor in a tirade.

Am I suggesting we eliminate school sports, or at least try to get as many students to go watch the debate team as the football team? No way. Sports are fun, both as a player and fan. You can make friends, build camaraderie, and learn how to work and play well with others. Should we eliminate competitiveness? No way! Competition is part of life, whether you are trying to get into a top college or find a job or win the heart of your dream girl. There is nothing wrong with having winners and losers. What needs to go is this Jock Culture. I am very competitive and always tried my hardest to win. And, I took some losses hard, such as my high school baseball team’s loss in extra innings in the state regional game that would have put us in the final four. Nine years later, I still imagine that game tying two run double I hit traveling an extra three feet and clearing the fence, eliminating the later need for extra innings where we lost it. But, after games, I see no need to follow along with Jock Culture and put on that sad face. The game is over, life goes on. Just like at funerals, sometimes you need a drink and a good laugh with friends when sad times hit. Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive.

And during games, I always cared how the team was doing. I didn’t need to yell out stupid baseball chatter and cheer loudly from the bench. I liked to—get this!—save my energy for play on the field. You don’t need to show a stressful seriousness to perform well; sometimes a smile and a laid back demeanor are what’s needed. Aren’t sports supposed to be FUN? Those guys who like headbutt teammates with their helmets, scream and shout, and do all that baseball chatter are like the annoying religious people who constantly need to show everyone how pious and holy they are. You can be holy and prayerful in the quiet of your own home. You don’t need to shout it from the rooftops like the hypocrites who want to be seen. And athletes don’t need to do that outward bullshit so they can be seen by their god, their coach.

As for coaches blabbering on about wanting to sign players who are ‘coachable,’ would they really want a bunch of ‘yes’ men who do everything the coach says, never complaining? Isn’t it better to have players who get upset about lack of playing time, who want to make suggestions to the coach about ways in which the team could be run better?

Again, I ask not for the end of competitive sports. I ask for the end of Jock Culture and a rebirth of some authenticity. We can play hard, try to win, be sad after losses, and still have fun. We don’t need to take sports too seriously and put on that fake effort through dugout chatter and pointless over-aggressiveness in practice. We don’t need to make sports a matter of life and death that should consume hours on end of daytime for practice. We can see them for what they are—just another part of life that we can gain enjoyment from if we keep in its proper perspective.


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