I know that teachers aren’t supposed to say this, but they were my favorite class of students, ever.
They were the class that convinced me that sophomores were delightful human beings, not wise fools in need of constant correction. As a collective whole, they were smart, kind, and talented on the court and the stage. And they were hard workers. What they sometimes lacked in talent they made up for in an unbelievable work ethic. I cried when I watched them perform during our last afternoon show of Once Upon a Mattress. Words could not describe how much I was going to miss this incredible group of young people.
This is also why watching that group of young men fight their way to a state basketball championship their senior year united our school community in a way that I had never seen before. With each progressive win, we saw them pull together, support each other, and provide the rest of us entertainment along the way. When they finally lost in the state championship game, I cried as I watched their frustration and disappointment over getting so close to the trophy, and yet so far away. It was a reminder that they were still kids, after all. And while we had seen them grow into young men over the course of their high school careers, they weren’t men yet. They were just boys in nearly man-like bodies.
It is a lesson I have had to repeatedly remind myself of over years of cultivating my love/hate relationship with high school and college sports.
I really do love watching sports. Watching my own children play on the field or court brings me joy as I watch them increase in skill and appreciation for whatever game they are playing. I take pride in watching my students and their athletic achievements, although my ability to watch them has decreased dramatically since I had my own kids. And I will take a college basketball or football game on television over a professional game nearly every time.
There is something about watching kids play their hearts out for their teammates, their friends in the stands, their parents, and their coaches. While there has been a lot of debate about paying college players (although I hope that the name and likeness rights development will put that debate to bed), most college athletes are truly playing for love of the game. A small percentage will go pro, but even most who are destined for first-round draft picks continue to have a connection to the schools that gave them a chance for years after they leave.
I love watching these kids play, and I hate watching how my fellow adults treat them when they do what kids do: make mistakes.
As a high school teacher, I have watched boys grow from scrawny little freshmen to tall, muscular young men insistent on letting their facial hair grow to prove just how grown up they are. I watch college kids grow out that facial hair in spectacular fashion to cover up the babyfaces that are still there a few years later, their workouts and hours in the weight room not nearly enough to rid them of their youth and lack of life experience. The human brain is not fully developed until we are 26. Twenty-six! That is three to five years after most college students start their careers. And yet we adults watch these kids play from the high school stands or comfortably on our couches in our living rooms and so easily forget that when a player can’t make a free throw or drops a pass or makes a boneheaded mistake on a Saturday night that doesn’t endanger anyone but themselves, we exhibit irrational anger over them acting their age. (Note: I don’t believe that college athletes should ever get a pass for bad behavior, particularly bad behavior that harms anyone else. This has been a significant problem since the invention of college athletics. But college students make other boneheaded mistakes that many of us made during our late adolescence and our mistakes never made it onto the internet for others to critique.)
Those of us who love sports also love our teams. We inexplicably suffer when they lose and we experience elation when they win. We somehow convince ourselves that the wins and the losses are ours as well as the players. That somehow our yelling and cheering and moaning from our couches or the stands means that we are equal participants in the game. And when the game goes awry, when adolescent players do what adolescent players will sometimes do and they make a mistake that may or may not cost their team the game, we take their mistake personally. We berate them with our friends and family and, in the worst of circumstances, take those attacks public by going after kids with our words on social media. Kids who already blame themselves. Kids who have already had to apologize to their friends and teammates and coaches for a single moment out of many other moments that could have also cost them the game. Kids who don’t play for money but for the love of their school and the sport and yes, the teeniest, tiniest chance that they might be able to get paid for this sport someday.
And maybe it’s because, even when they were our peers, they seemed like gods. When Kerri landed that vault and Lebron and Kobe lit up the basketball court and Peyton and Tom were tearing up the field with their laser accuracy and Venus and Serena blasted through every stereotype, they were achieving what we could only dream of. When the proteges of our adolescence grow into untouchable superstars, it’s hard to remember that they were once kids. Ridiculously talented and gifted beyond all measure, but they were kids just like us. We were listening to the same music and watching the same shows and movies and experiencing the same heartbreaks. They were just doing it all under a blinding spotlight that pointed out every success and failure for the public eye to behold.
We never truly saw these superstars as kids, even though they were around our age. They were doing things that we would never be able to do and therefore they weren’t normal people. They weren’t really kids. Superstardom had somehow allowed their brains to skip the same awkward transition that the rest of us were undergoing.
So when we grew up and a new generation of teenage phenoms entered the scene, we continued to see them in that same light. Sure, they look significantly younger than us. Sure, we are consistently told that they are in their late teens and early 20s. But godlike athleticism somehow erases from our minds their youth and everything that goes with it. Instead of being the adults in the room and attempting to understand the pressures of being a teenage athlete, we expect them to play with youthful grace all while acting like the adults that they aren’t, yet.
When I watch high school and college athletics, I see children. I see children with adult bodies and adolescent brains trying to achieve great things. When they lose, I see their pain and heartbreak and hurt for them, even when it’s the opposing team. (And yes, that even included the Ohio State players that I watched crumble in the final moments of their first loss in ten years to Michigan.) When they win, I remember that it’s not my victory, but theirs, and they are just letting the rest of us celebrate with them.
So as we head into another season of bowl games and championships and the “Big Dance,” let us all remember that we are really watching children in adult bodies doing what we could never do. Perhaps that will helps us treat them like the humans that they are.