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Little Sports, Big Issues

Sports can teach kids teamwork, trust, and courage. They can also encourage bullying, physical and psychological harm, and even abuse. What’s a parent to do?

College professors aren’t typically known for their athletic prowess, but Eric “Professor E.” Davis bucks the stereotype. In addition to chairing the Cultural and Ethnic Studies department at Bellevue College, Davis is a former college athlete who excelled at baseball. He spent time coaching youth sports and coaxing academic achievement out of student players as an advisor at the University of Washington, and now in his own spare time, he still keeps his skills on the diamond tuned up.

His Speakers Bureau presentation for Humanities Washington looks between the lines of a sports field to find deeper questions about athletics and their influence on youth. “What Do Sports Teach Our Kids?” seems particularly timely as questions simmer about social justice, victimization of youth, and the endless potential for injury.

Davis’s presentation takes place in conjunction with the touring Smithsonian exhibit Hometown Teams, traveling throughout Washington through May 2020.

If you’re encouraged in sports at a young age, is it likely to become a touchstone for your whole life?

I think so. In my personal life, going through life changes, like when I went through a divorce, the guys were there. So sports has such a power to add some positive endorphins and camaraderie and support. It has the power to bring community. I think sports obviously promotes physical health, but it’s also nice to have a constant. Even when I’ve felt not so good physically or not so good emotionally, the constant that always was good was my guys, my teammates, the family of it all.

When parents are encouraging or enrolling their kids in sports, which one causes the greatest ethical challenge?

Football, without a doubt. I venture to guess — and I don’t have any data on this — that soccer would be a distant second. There’s this debate on when is the right time for kids to start playing football, and should they start playing at all? There are questions about when is the body ready for the sport. That being said, in the name of equity and forcing myself to really think about it from outside the stereotypical notions, I would think there’s folks who can argue it’s gymnastics, given our recent scandals in the gymnastics world. They’re not very healthy, and there’s so many vulnerable kids that have now been exposed to not just sexual assault or inappropriate things in that realm — it’s the issue of making 12-year-olds or 13-year-olds into professionals. If I had a lecture coming up this month, I would clearly be talking about Katelyn Ohashi. Katelyn, in one of the posts that I saw, was talking about how she was so frustrated and hurt by the things she experienced as a junior gymnast. Part of it was being body shamed, and being told that she’s too big. She’s all of 88 pounds.

People will say, “It’s just sports, Professor E., you’re making it too serious.” But we’re swimming in a pool and you want to say you’re not getting wet? It’s not influencing you?

What does Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem as a protest for racial justice add to the American dialogue around sports?

I love it as a catalyst for a conversation, and a way to talk about race relations from a safer space. If you say, “What do you all think about the Black Lives Matter debate?,” it’ll be crickets. But if I say, “You guys watch the game last weekend? I saw that some of the players were taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter, and the President is making it an issue of patriotism — do you think those two things match?” Then we’ll end up talking about co-opting, about how all of the sudden a conversation that began about social injustice and black men being shot now becomes a patriotism conversation. How did that happen? In my classroom, I have plenty of time for that, but in people’s living rooms, I don’t think we’re having those deeper discussions. Sports is a great jumping-off point for conversations related to race and ethnicity.

Do youth sports that encourage physical dominance square with the everyday need for compassion and problem-solving?

I believe so. I think there’s some implicit learning going on. You can’t really overstate how much just learning how to be a teammate matters — just understanding that you need to rely on your team and be supportive. If you’re an athletic person, that’s great, but I think about what I take away from being on a baseball team. That’s family for me. We’ve all seen those YouTube videos of parents behaving badly at their kids’ games. Part of that conversation will have to be about what we are modeling as adults. What are people yelling in the stands? People will say, “It’s just sports, Professor E., you’re making it too serious.” But we’re swimming in a pool and you want to say you’re not getting wet? It’s not influencing you? You don’t think our kids are being influenced by that? They are.

Do the problems in US sports reflect wider problems in the culture at large?

The question I would ask is, how much of sports is all that different from the general culture, the general societal norms? Is our culture — beyond sports — teaching violence to young boys? Yeah. Are we body shaming and making our young girls feel less-than, and is it exclusively a sports thing? Not necessarily. But how much can sports contribute to that? Teamwork and standing up for yourself, I would advise, are good things to teach kids. But the sports scandals and the violence of sports, the materialism—is it teaching kids that this is the only path available to be successful or cool? Does it inspire or create opportunities for bullying? That may not be the manifest function of it all, but there is a latent function that is teaching our kids the wrong things. As a society, what is our own culpability for it?

Professor E is a professor at Bellevue College.

He is currently presenting his free Speakers Bureau talk, “What Do Sports Teach Our Kids?,” around the state. Find an event here.

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