My wife is a Zumba instructor. Our 15-year-old works out most mornings and plays soccer, basketball, and volleyball on his high school teams. I enjoy Zumba as often as possible, and I do combination weightlifting and bodyweight workouts 6 days a week. We all enjoy the benefits of sport in our home. Sport contributes to physical and mental health. It also positively impacts self-image and social confidence. When it comes to organized sports, another undeniable benefit is comradery. For most people anyway, being part of a team gives them a feeling of community, and the sense of security that comes with a group of companions who have your back. As a spectator, I love going to games, and I get pretty riled up at times. Yet, as a parent, I have big problems with sport culture.
Despite the progress being made, and despite the occasional progressive gesture by certain pro leagues, sport culture is still very sexist, homophobic, and creates entitlement.
Sexism: In grade school and post secondary institutions alike, male teams are held in higher esteem than their female counterparts. At the university I attended, male hockey players were paid a handsome sum of money to play (and lose every game). Female hockey players were paid a fraction of that, and not paid at all unless they were named Captain or had the highest scoring average. To add insult to injury, the female team actually represented the school by winning.
In high schools, greater importance is placed on male teams as well, but nowhere is sexism more apparent in my opinion than in volleyball. It never ceases to amaze me that the same parents who complain about girls being sexualized at a young age have no problem with their daughters wearing skin tight underwear on the court, while the boys are expected to play in longer, looser fitting attire. You can say “well the tight shorts are easier to play in.” That’s fine with me, then have the boys play in them too. No? There’s your sexist double standard.
Homophobia: We live on the East Coast of Canada, where hockey reigns supreme. We had our oldest son in hockey for all of two weeks. You see, there’s ‘locker room talk,’ and then there’s hateful language. Calling someone a “fag,” “homo,” “queer,” or “pussy” isn’t funny (and “pussy” is another example of sexism). Moreover, using LGBTQ+ people as targets of insult makes any closeted members of the team feel uncomfortable and usually afraid of being found out. It’s not just hockey, either. This happens across the board, and is an aspect of sport culture that you hear among parents in the stands as well. Just a joke? I wouldn’t call a set of ignorant stigmas that kept me in the closet for 34 years a ‘joke.’
Entitlement: Any parent who denies the entitlement of the little brats who get carted around to every game to be fawned over by coaches and spectators, refuses to admit their children are less than perfect. Look, I get it. The stars of the team get the attention. That’s a perfectly normal thing, but let’s not pretend that these kids don’t know they are being put on a pedestal. It extends beyond the court, and that’s the problem. Being a basketball star does not entitle a child to better grades, or otherwise special treatment out in the real world. Praise a good and talented performance, but don’t elevate the child in all aspects of life. We all think our kids are great, but some of us keep them grounded so they don’t grow up to think the world owes them something.
At the end of the day, I would never force my child to play or not play sports (other than hockey, which I have all kinds of issues with). Overall, organized sports are healthy and promote positive socialization, and the drawbacks are things that we, as parents, must effectively combat in the home. I will not allow my children to grow up sexist or in any way phobic, and I do my best to keep them conscious of the fact they are not owed anything by virtue of birth. And should our new infant grow up without an interest in sport, his other interests will be fostered while he lives a healthy active life. Organized sport is good, it’s fun, it’s healthy … but fun and health can be attained without it. It’s just not that important.