by William Van Ornum, Ph.D. on
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Perhaps we cloud this topic with euphemisms: but many a boy or growing young man who is poor at sports faces hurdles of bias, loneliness, and rejection. Despite many ways of compensating (intellectual, musical, artistic), poor athletic coordination keeps many boys and young men alienated from their peers, watching athletic contests from the stands or through a window, wishing to be “one of the guys.” To be fair to both sexes, I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “sports wound” in girls and young women; perhaps readers can offer illumination, especially in view of the growing number of female athletes in competitive sports at all levels.
Platitudes like “everyone has a special gift” or “just wait till you get out of high school” don’t heal the sports wound and often keep it from coming up as a topic of conversation. Sports are crucially important in our society. Witness the amount of money spent on Division I NCAA athletic programs in colleges and universities, the amount of ink and pixels devoted to sports results daily, and even a reminder from the New Testament when Saint Paul with uncharacteristic pride says that he has given his all and “run the race.” When President Obama said something about Special Olympics, he verbalized an unsaid feeling of many persons, and efforts to take back or rephrase what he said just don’t heal the hurts this comment caused in many hearts.
Perhaps recognizing the sports wound in boys, and examining the lives of girls and young women for something similar, is part of the Christian mission to help the poor. As Mother Teresa noted many times, there are different kinds of poverty (the poor, she said, are often “poor in gratitude”) and so our efforts toward justice need not be directed solely at economic injustices and poverty. Boys who are poor at sports will also find less opportunities for dating and romantic relationships, again a sad truth that is often minimized by offering a few examples where this isn’t true. Equal opportunity does not exist in this important area of life, and it will never be legislated.
Here is the letter from one of my readers, quoted here with permission. I’d like to emphasize that the point of this article today is to understand the phenomenology of the sports wound and not connect this to acrimonious discussions on sexual orientation. Instead, let us listen carefully to someone who has experienced this problem firsthand:
It seems more than a few people are ignorant of this subject. When I grew up I was a typical boy, but I had no interest in sports. I did not like to play with dolls or engage in other “girlish” behavior. Some people, whom I would consider to be bigots, consider physical weakness in boys to be effeminate. And I was ashamed of being physically weak as far back as I can remember. This shame continued through my adolescence through adulthood.
There was bullying. When I was around the age of 5, I was badly beaten by a group of boys, all of whom were physically bigger than me. Around six, there was a creep who hit me on the head with a pipe, leaving a permanent scar. The sports-centered physical education of the “baby boom” generation forced many who were poor in sports or even physically handicapped to take sports anyway.
One friend of mine remembers how the athletes at high school were given preferential treatment and were allowed to torment other students. Because of their social status, they were not held accountable for their conduct off the playing field. My friend once told me that he once saw another kid being beaten by an athlete at his school. A teacher came by and all that was said was “Don’t do that again.” What really sickens me about this sort of bullying is that the athletic classmates had to have known that my friends were physically handicapped through no fault of their own. But were they shown any compassion? Were they given a pass? No, they weren’t, and whenever I hear people say that sports build character I feel like throwing up.
If one does a website search on ‘jock bullies’ or some variation thereof, page after page of links will be displayed. As I read posts such as these, I get angry when I think of all the people who defend bullying in the schools with a ‘blame the victim’ mentality as being just part of life and not a big deal? Again, isn’t it interesting that the bullying of nonathletic kids, instead of being discussed in the sports media or even at a sports psychology website, has to be discussed at a politically liberal website? Pathetic!
These observations shout with the ring of authenticity. Can readers assure me this is not a problem anymore? Even more important, can someone comment on whether or not this occurs in our Catholic elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities? I write not of theoretical discussions–rather, I ask us to examine if there are young persons, even in the periphery of our lives, who might be helped by a conscientious review of the continuing presence of the sports wound in our society, our culture, and even our Church.
William Van Ornum