Tag Archives: football

Friday Night Lights Shine on the Friday Night Blues

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In the five years since my last teaching contract renewed and I left education, I have endure a crippling wave of sadness during the first week of “back to school.” That sadness is never more acute and I never have to struggle harder to keep bullets out of my head, poison out of my system, or my car at the top of cliffs rather than the bottom than at six o’clock on the first full schedule Friday of high school football.

If you’ve never taught in a high school, I can’t adequately describe for you how important Friday nights are, especially here in the Southland. Any school with a football team is a beehive all day on Friday as the guys (and a girl or two) walk the halls in their jerseys and the cheerleaders wear their non-dress-code-conforming uniforms to school. The day is spent making plans for who is riding with whom to where and who is bringing the illicit substances to the bonfire or house party after the game.

I used to eat up every moment of it. Every Friday for the fifteen years I taught, I was young again for ten Fridays in the fall and as long as my school’s team managed to stay in the playoffs. The kids used to take me back to the Friday nights when my friends and I were the ones planning. From my freshman year through my junior year, I went to more games than I missed. I even went to a game or two my senior year even though the taste of bile and ashes had replaced the once-sweet euphoria by then, but that’s another story.

Several of my friends of those days were football players and one of my lasting regrets is never having tried to get on the team. I was acquainted with many of the cheerleaders and wrote essays for more than one of them so they could keep good enough grades to stay on the squad. My best buddy at the time, Robby, was first trumpet in the band, so I always sat as close to the band as possible. Another regret is never trying to get in the band. I guess I can chalk up my lack of participation to a few things. Some are gifted with athletic prowess and some with musical talent. My gift was, and is, memory. Some call it a gift; I lean more towards curse and agree with the Absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett when he says

“Memories are killing things. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little.”

God knows I don’t miss much about high school, but I do miss Friday nights. For those aforementioned years in education, I got those Friday nights back, especially the few years when my schools were desperate enough for warm bodies to ask me to be an assistant football coach. I have a painfully entertaining story of my first game as a JV football coach which involves me, an away game, and a whistle. Maybe I’ll tell the entire story sometime, but for now suffice it to say we lost the game and the night in general was a cascade of fiascoes one atop another. Actually, that phrase pretty much describes my whole football coaching career. Still, it was a lot of fun.

Now though, I’m a civilian. Here it is 6:30 on the first big football Friday. Oh, I know I could go to a local game anyway, but it’s not the same. Something about plunking down your teacher id and walking in the gate for free just adds a special sweetness to the night. The greatest reward, though, is the smiles on the faces of the boys on the field when they catch sight of you on the track or in the stands. Little Johnny may have been the bane of your existence in second block all year, but come Monday, when you tell him how awesome his one tackle of the night was, you’ll have him in your back pocket. Trust me on that one . . . I know from experience.

Go out and pull for your favorite teams and take care everyone.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

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Julius Caesar Act III scene ii

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One would have to be in a coma or outer space to have missed the monumental scandal surrounding Penn State’s football team. In brief, for my sub-rock dwellers, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused, then convicted of multiplied multitudes of sexual assaults on young boys who came to Penn State’s campus to participate in Sandusky’s Second Mile football camp. If every accusation against Sandusky — not just the ones he was convicted of — is true, he is likely to be one of the most prolific pedophiles since Giles de Rais.

Sandusky preyed on these young boys for two decades, but in the end, he is not the only monster in this scandal. Penn State’s athletic director and the school president were found by an independent investigation to have covered up the accusations and kept the entire series of events under wraps for that same twenty year period. As a result of their complicity, the NCAA today imposed the most severe penalties on a university sports program since Southern Methodist University received the “death penalty” in 1985. Penn State — one of the proudest and most storied football programs in the history of collegiate football — is banned from post season play (no bowl games) for four years, is fined $60 million dollars ( roughly the gross receipts of one year of Penn St football), loses 20 scholarships for four years, must spend five years on probation, and, most crushingly to the school’s historical legacy, must void 111 football victories. Essentially, the NCAA is saying in the eyes of the record books, Penn St went 0’fer for the last 14 years. The final penalty — voiding the wins — does something even more painful to the Penn St family, it drops legendary coach, the late Joe Paterno, from the #1 position of all time Division 1 wins.

Joe Paterno, who died of lung cancer (or a broken heart)  in January, was a football coach at State College of Pennsylvania for 61 years, over 40 as the head man. To put that in perspective, he was coach for more years than my parents have been alive until their next birthdays. JoPa was more than a coach; he was an institution. Over six decades, he made his mark by “winning the right way.” Penn St was never seriously investigated by the NCAA because no one saw a need. The entire country knew that JoPa ran a squeaky clean program. Other massively famous college coaches such as Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer, and Pete Carroll are all known to have cut corners in their programs so they could consistently be on top. JoPa made his reputation by NEVER cutting corners. In 61 years, Paterno graduated more of his players than most other big time football programs. He always claimed he was more interested in molding young men in to adults of character than he was wins and losses. When he became head coach in 1966, he announced his “Grand Experiment” to blend academics and athletics in ways no other major college sports program ever had. In large measure, he was wildly successful and through the years, his players and former players breathed his name like something holy.

Besides being the winningest coach, JoPa was also known as a tremendous benefactor and philanthropist for the university. Over his years as coach, Paterno and his family gave MILLIONS of dollars to Penn State, not just for sports, but to further academic excellence as well.  In 1997, Penn State recognized Paterno’s contributions to the university’s academic programs by renaming the school’s library — the heart of any academic institution — after the coach.

Unfortunately, none of that matters anymore.

See, JoPa wasn’t just a coach, he was an educator, and educators at all levels from preschool to undergraduate college live by a code. Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath. Lawyers have the oaths before the Bar Associations. Teachers have a three word phrase — in loco parentis — Latin for “in the place of parents.” Educators are given charge of parents’ most important and beloved possession, their children. We (and I say we as I taught for 15 years) are supposed to guard those young people as if they were our very own. In many cases, we spend more time with those young people than the parents do. For coaches, this is especially true.

For all his speaking of a Grand Experiment, for all his claims of “winning the right way,” and for all his wonderful acts of giving, Joseph Paterno — head football coach extraordinaire — forgot in loco parentis. As a result, AT LEAST 56 young men lost their innocence to a predator on his watch. He kicked the can on down the road by telling his boss the AD and HIS boss the school president what he knew, but educators have a higher calling. We don’t just WIN the right way, we DO THE RIGHT THING. He did what he thought was all he needed to do — he fired Sandusky and told what he knew, but that’s where he stopped. Once JoPa saw his information had been ignored, he had a DUTY to tell that story until someone listened and acted. If that meant going to the police himself, that’s what his duty as an educator demanded, but he didn’t.

Sadly, for all the good Joe Paterno did, none of it will likely be remembered and what is, will be forever tainted by the scandal. All his good is now eaten up by ONE bad call. A generation of players will remember him fondly, but the lasting legacy he had worked so hard to set up is dashed. His beautiful statue was ripped off the wall of Beaver Stadium and placed in cold storage, perhaps forever. He is no longer the winningest coach. A lifetime of good undone by a wrong decision. JoPa was a good man who made a bad choice.

I fear that Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar may ring true for JoPa as well:

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean.

Rivalry Weekend

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Rivalry Weekend started on Thanksgiving this year with Texas winning a comeback game against Texas A&M. Today has been filled with football games that have national title implications as well as games that mean nothing to anyone but the legions of fans for the participating schools.

Today has seen the Iron Bowl, The Egg Bowl, and the Civil War. Fans won or lost bragging rights for the entire state in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Michigan beat Ohio State in what fans simply call “The Game.”

Wonder what could happen if all the money, all the time, and all the emotional buy-in associated with these sporting contests were turned instead to finding a cure for cancer, or ending hunger in the richest nation in the world, or building houses for the homeless?

How much land could all the money spent on alcohol so frat boys and frat boy fathers could get nice and drunk while making fools of themselves, sometimes on national television, buy around historical landmarks like battlefields of the REAL Civil War and protect those historic places from encroaching development?

How many clothes could all that cash spent on foam fingers and chicken wings buy?

You know what? We’ll never know because — in general — the people of this country will never care as much about helping others or advancing important agendas like education, jobs, and medical care as they will the game of football.

 

Football vs. Libraries

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I had a Facebook conversation last week with my favorite Georgia Peach, Buffy “the Unquiet Librarian” Hamilton about an article she’d posted on Facebook. In a nutshell, the Sports Illustrated article dealt with the fallout around an Ohio public school district’s decision to cut ALL extracurricular activities. No band, no afterschool clubs, and, most shockingly, NO SPORTS. Ms. Hamilton point out how she wished communities would get in a comparable uproar over shutting down library programs. I had a response for her that we discussed via chat.

Peaches understood my response, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to make me any friends here. Of course, y’all know I shoot straight and call them like I seem them. This is no place for the squeamish or hopelessly idealistic. I told her that outcry over libraries would never reach the levels of outrage over canceling sports simply because sports are more important to schools and communities than school libraries.

Libraries can’t begin to compete with the importance of sports to a school, especially in impoverished urban or rural areas. How many high school students do you know who wake up chomping at the bit to get to the library? Sure, some are out there, but compare that to the number of students in your school who willingly shell out money to sit in the stands on Friday night. Sports are the ONLY reason many, many students attend school at all. Take away sports and attendance at high risk schools will decline because the former athletes — often among the lowest socio-economic class — will have no reason to get up and come to school. They will have no reason to get up and come to school because . . . well, hold that thought because that’ll be tomorrow’s post.

To keep in this vein, however, football is big business. Nothing galvanizes a school like a winning team. When’s the last time your school held a pep rally and devoted “prime instructional time” to a new shipment of books or new computers for the media center? When’s the last time your library produced revenue for the school? Instead, our institutions are a drain on revenue. When’s the last time, other than a faculty meeting, that the entire district population was “encouraged” to attend a library event like a bookfair? Never? But I have known superintendents and principals who “strongly encouraged” everyone in the district to attend a crucial Friday night fight. Oh yeah, and don’t tell me they can’t do it because I and a lot of my three regular readers live in the South where football is king and we don’t have unions to hide behind so if an administrator tells you to do something or be somewhere, you’d best do it or be prepared for consequences and repercussions.

Now I figure those educators who are still reading are pretty bent by now, so let’s just keep on bending. Football and other sports serve a legitimate purpose as an outlet for energy and competition. They get kids moving and involved and moved and involved kids want to come to school and want to learn. What does a library have to compete with that? Very little.

Now I know someone out there is going to comment on a Keith Curry Lance study or some such nonsense about “libraries raise test scores through the roof.” Before you get on that soapbox, let me go ahead and say, nope — I don’t believe it and I’ve read the same reports you have. The typical high stakes standardized tests that are used to evaluate students’ AND TEACHERS’ performance have no component that would be increased by time in a library. We have all proctored enough of those tests to know they are not overflowing with HOTS, no matter what the DO and the curriculum experts try to sell us. They are read and regurgitate and if you want students to blow those tests away, you skill and drill them until they want to cry and you want to join them in the sob-fest.

Sports and other ECAs give kids a reason to live after surviving a week or two of those tests AND the mind-numbing weeks of preparation that goes into them. Sports reach the whole school while libraries only reach a small portion since most teachers can’t afford time away from test prep to actually engage in a worthwhile lesson and can’t afford to “waste” precious planning period rest time to engage in meaningful collaboration.

Call me a fool, call me a traitor to my profession, or call me a dirty footed scoundrel, but prove me wrong first. Until education is revolutionized rather than reformed in this country, football and sports in general will be more important to schools and communities that school libraries.

Sorry to upset y’all. It’s just the way it is.