Reflections on high school football

August 23rd, 2017

I have spent a career working with high school students in a variety of capacities: teacher, youth pastor, camp director- and now as a parent.

For the past couple weeks, I have been following the story from Steubenville, Ohio on the two young men who have been convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl. The news article I read talked about the arrogance that was displayed by the boys and their friends. According to the article, they felt an entitlement to this kind of behavior because they were football players.

This following content isn’t a direct response to this story, but something that I wrote a couple years ago when I observed the pressure society placed on these young men.

Fall is here and with it comes one of America’s favorite pastimes, football. For those of us who work with high school students, this one sport tends to dominate all others.

The Pressures and Privileges of High School Football

Last year, while attending a high school football game at my alma mater, an interesting thought struck me. The entire community, young and old was gathered on a cold October night to watch a group of 16-18-year-olds play football. The team from my old high school was pretty good and was beating the visiting school quite easily. What was interesting wasn’t what I watched, but the way people talked about the local team members. I heard comments like, “He’s a real player,” “#18 is the best we’ve had in years,” “we’re all counting on #32 to bring us a championship,” and so on.

I was struck by the fact that from the comments around me, the hopes and dreams for the entire community were balanced precariously on the shoulders of a group of boys barely old enough to shave.

I could imagine the next morning when the running back, the star of this particular team, walked into the local Starbucks and had complete strangers come up and congratulate him on the game, give him compliments and encouragement, and maybe even tips for the next week. How does this make him feel? More importantly, is he cognitively and emotionally ready to handle this kind of recognition?

I’m not against young people being encouraged for a job well done. In fact, I believe that one thing young people need more of is encouragement. What I do have questions about is the level with which this young person is esteemed in the community and what will happen to him when he graduates.

For many, these high school years will be the best time of their lives; for others, it will be the worst. Don’t believe me? Why are there so many films made about adults returning to high school to change a significant event? I read that when Henry Kissinger was asked what his greatest public moment was he replied, “Attending my high school reunion and showing them that I made something of myself.”

Ten years from now, the allure of returning to “the glory days” could be strong for this running back in Starbucks who may not ever receive the kind of attention he is receiving now. How will he cope when the reality of life is different from the surreal world of celebrity high school athletics? What has my local town trained him to expect from life?

Walking the Fine Line

As a person with a career in youth work, I’m concerned with the pressures we place on youth to grow up too fast too soon. At the same time, I’m a strong advocate for leadership development in adolescents. How can we walk the fine line between these two realities? Instead of setting up a dichotomy, can we see this as a “both/and” situation?

First, I think youth workers and teachers should be the first to raise their voices to call into question the pressures and expectations placed on today’s young person.

One way to provide assistance for young people trying to navigate through these difficult times of adolescence is having in his or her life a blend of support and challenge. Too much challenge without support and the young person might be pushed so far they just give up. In reality, too much support without any challenge is probably not possible in this life.

Second, I would encourage that the school, teachers, parents and the church to seek to help #32, my community’s running back, to see his success in the wider scope of leadership development.

Maybe a coach can spend extra time with those students who are both the appointed and natural team leaders, teaching them leadership principles that are applicable on and off the playing field. Alternatively, this could be a place where a youth pastor could be of assistance providing a “leadership development cohort” at a local school.

Whatever we do, I encourage us to find ways to work together. We owe it to #32 to help him navigate this time of fame so that he is grounded in the reality of the future.

Rick Bartlett has worked with youth and young adults for over 30 years. His doctorate is in Leadership in the Emerging Culture, and he has served in a variety of positions at churches, nonprofits and educational institutions. Currently, Rick serves as Director of Theological Education at Tabor College in Wichita where he directs a masters degree in ministry entrepreneurship and innovation. Rick is a co-author of CONSUMING YOUTH: LEADING TEENS THROUGH CONSUMER CULTURERick and his wife Karen have been married 31 years and have two children, Grace and Toby. You can connect with Rick on TWITTER or his BLOG.

This post was previously published by drrbb2nd.blogspot.com.


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