This month, my wife and I will wrap up 16 consecutive years of being professional amateur sports parents.
I mean “professional” in the sense that it was nearly a full-time job, what with multiple practices and games most weeks throughout the year. And I mean “amateur” in the sense of beginning with 5-year-old soccer games and continuing through this final season of high school varsity baseball games, we’ve seen hundreds of our sons’ sporting events.
We’ve moaned, groaned and cheered with countless parents on the sidelines for soccer, basketball, baseball and hockey games. We’ve sat through lots of year-end pizza lunches and burger dinners filled with trophies and speeches, and these were for teams that rarely sniffed championships.
In youth sports, there’s the extremely occasional blaze of glory and the rare inspirational, heart-stopping finish. But what I remember most often are the many minutes of my life ticking slowly away in the most surly of weather, with a beat-down on the field occurring at precisely the same moment rain or wind or sun (or all three) beat down on those of us in the stands.
I’m proud to say the young athletes our sons played with generally kept their thoughts to themselves while playing. Most overlooked a teammate’s booted ball or feckless swing or accidental foul; they were happy to be competing, and that is what the sporting experience is supposed to be all about anyway.
But for some in the stands, games took on monumental proportions, with each play prompting inevitably loud commentary from parents perhaps reliving their own lack-of-glory days and hoping to rewrite history through their kids.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s a place in sports for good-natured ribbing of authority, and some parents and grandparents can be hilarious when they’re offering friendly advice to a referee or umpire. (I’ve even seen the refs/umps laugh a time or two.)
But sometimes those charged with administering the rules — regardless of age, ethnicity or sex — became verbal punching bags, with both sides of the inevitably partisan crowd crowing loudly about supposedly mistaken calls, rule interpretations and the like. (The view of accuracy, after all, is much better at a severe angle 150 feet from the action than it is from on the field.)
We were never party to one of those infamous YouTube-fired parent-on-ref or parent-on-parent smackdowns, although I have to say (in jest, of course) that one or two certainly would have brightened some otherwise dismal games. But there were times when we felt sorry for student athletes being loudly embarrassed as their parents — with bulging veins, popping eyes and flapping mouths — made an inevitably futile attempt to influence a game that was of absolutely no long-term consequence anyway.
I would like to believe the collective impact of all of these experiences fueled a sense of fair play, sportsmanship and personal pride in our sons. I would like to believe the thousands of hours invested in these events weren’t simply useless diversions from homework or, more likely, video games.
And I would like to believe our sons, when their own day in the stands arrives, will think twice before turning into family IEDs — improvised exploding dummies.
Honestly, though, my most telling memory of our amateur sporting life comes from a friend, who spotted this phrase on a fellow parent’s T-shirt:
“Lord, if it’s my last day on earth, let me be at a swim meet, since they usually last forever!”