The Court Case
There has been a lot of media coverage about something called affirmative action lately. Specifically, the news has focused on the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the use of race in college admissions. While the recent court case dealt with support based on one specific characteristic, it appears to me we can look at the concept of affirmative action much more broadly. Affirmative action in the higher education setting addressed the needs of potential students who had a disadvantage because of their race …. which very likely was also consistent with their disadvantage in economic, educational and other opportunities. In plain language, it seemed to provide some extra support to those who had not had the same opportunities as some of their peers, but still might have the same potential. Affirmative action gave those individuals the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and compete once they were able to play on a more level field.
As usual, the case and all the discussion accompanying it got me thinking about how we support students and children who have had different life journeys. It seems to me that dads often can and do engage in affirmative action to the benefit of the children. One definition of affirmative includes the words “supportive, hopeful and encouraging.” Those are words that are synonymous with the philosophy of Be There Dad. They describe the actions we try to follow as dads and mentors.
For years I coached basketball and soccer in a recreational league where there were no try outs or other selection process based on skill or experience. Much like a public school, all who signed up were welcome. And, similar to public school classrooms, players were often assigned without regard to any characteristics other than age. Consequently, as a coach I almost always got a roster with a wide range of skill, ability and experience. Nonetheless, among my many objectives for each season, two were high priorities. The first was to help all the kids learn to play together as a team. The second was to help each individual player fulfill their potential.
Where Players Come From….
Every season we had players who had played before and who had learned the game from other coaches. We also had kids who had fathers, mothers and older siblings who had played with them at home to help hone their skills. Still others had their own basketball goals in the driveway and soccer nets in their backyards which sat ready for them to practice whenever they chose. There were even kids who had attended summer camps which focused on the skills we would use. Because of their circumstances, these kids had advantage.
But, then there were a few players who came to the league under different circumstances – without those advantages. Some did not have the presence of a father or a mother to teach and encourage them. Some did not have a driveway with a basketball hoop or a backyard with a soccer net. Only children had no older sibling to “show them the ropes.” Others sought scholarships for the league fees and clearly had no extra resources for high quality shoes and balls for practice at home. Fees for instructional camp were out of the question. In addition, there were those who came with physical disadvantages. I have coached deaf players, short basketball players with a height disadvantage and an obese player who struggled to get up and down the court. An immigrant child struggled with the language difference. All these kids and others came with some shortcoming – and almost universally, it was not created by them.
Speaking modestly, I was recognized as a coach who would accept kids with challenges and help them succeed. The director of our league strategically filled roster spots on my teams with these hand-picked players – an affirmative selection process to give those kids a chance. Early in my coaching journey, it was easy to get frustrated when names on the roster showed their lack of skill and experience at the first practice. Later I became grateful when I recognized the value that each of these children brought to the team as well as the personal growth I gained from coaching them.
At the first practice of the season, I always asked my players to tell me about themselves [not unlike a college interview]. One year on a U-14 soccer team, we heard an amazing recitation about gifts and talents. All-City Chorus. All-County Symphony. Odyssey of the Mind. The Math Olympics. Runner-up in the County Spelling Bee. So much talent, yet most of it didn’t relate to soccer. That season our record was 0-9-1, with a miracle allowing for a tie in the final game keeping us from the “perfect season”. Yet, all those players were eager to learn and to play. They took instruction well and did their best.
As the season progressed that year and during others, there is no doubt my assistant coaches and I gave some players extra attention. A little extra time before and after practice to help learn a skill. An extra conversation about how to position themselves on the field during the game. Strategically playing them in positions where I knew they would be more successful given their limited experience. Sometimes pairing them with more experienced players to help them fit in. All to help them “catch up” with the others. One might call that affirmative action. A hand up, a little boost. Without exception, all those players improved in their own way throughout the season.
Kids should not be hampered because of circumstances over which they have no control. We shouldn’t measure kids by where they are, but where they can go. Isn’t that what we were taught to do? When people are burdened by circumstances that are not of their own doing or over which they have no control, don’t we help them? Don’t we try to bring them onto the level playing field on which we are standing? As Be There Dad, haven’t we always said, “nobody wins until we all do?” When others don’t get the same start in the race as everyone else, don’t we gather about and encourage them? Without overstating, isn’t that the essence of our humanity?
As we have stated in many other places and times, one of the most important gifts we can give kids is a chance to play. If they are placed on a team; if they are given a chance to try; if they are given the chance to improve; when they finally have the advantages of the others; then we may discover just how good they can be.
The most skilled and experienced players can still excel. They can still compete to be the best. We all can still value hard work. Determination and perseverance can be rewarded. The good players will still get their playing time, score their goals and make their saves. But maybe if we give everyone a chance, the others will, too. We should work to find all players a place to play. There is room on the field for everyone. As good coaches and mentors that is our job to see that everyone who wants it, gets their turn at bat. Just the simple chance to play can be life changing. It builds confidence and self-esteem. The chance to be a teammate. To run, to sweat, to succeed. To sometimes fail. To play under the lights, on green grass with fresh lines….to hear the coach say, “you’re in”. Long ago I learned that, “the game is the best teacher.” You never know where that opportunity to play might lead.
If everyone gets their chance, the whole team will benefit. I have seen the result many many times. Diversity is a good thing.
From a distance, we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope
Playing songs of peace
They’re the songs of every man…
God is watching us
From a distance
All kids deserve their places in this game we call life; but they may never find it, if we don’t allow them on the field to play and to see what they can do.