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Watching Sports Responsibly
It’s playoff time for Little League teams, and for the third year in a row, the team I coach is headed into the post-season. The biggest challenge we face as a team, however, doesn’t center on winning. Instead, it’s about teaching impassioned kids (and their parents) how to balance a competitive spirit with sportsmanship, good play with fair play.
This gets harder to do every year, especially since most young kids get their sports role models from watching professional baseball, basketball, and football players on television. As I watch the NBA finals with my kids, I realize, yet again, what a double standard media sports stars set for kids. It’s confusing for them to see the ‘in-your-face’ strutting and the macho chest bumping, the fist fights, and the steroid accusations on the one hand, and on the other to be told by me and the other parents and coaches how unethical and disrespectful that behavior is. We like our sports heroes to be colorful and our kids to be kind. There is a fundamental disconnect here. Especially since kids learn by watching adults.
It's important to teach our kids that what they see on television is not just a game, it’s filmed entertainment. Just look at the fact that most players have become billboards with biceps. Nike swooshes, pouncing Pumas, and large Gatorade buckets are omnipresent now. The Carl’s Jr. “In your face” play, the Speedy Oil Change moment when the pitcher leaves the mound, the little ads at the bottom of the television scoreboard. Everything is sponsored. I point these things out to my kids so that they don’t just absorb the relentless promotions without thought. I want them to be aware they are constantly being marketed to and that their favorite stars might be sporting Adidas not because they like the fit of the shoes, but because they like the promotional contract that comes with them.
Professional sports seek to win two contests -- the one on the field or court, and the Nielsen ratings race. Bolting into the stands to clobber a spectator may make for great theater, but it makes for lousy role models. It’s up to us, as parents, to make that distinction between the two. (Or to point out excellent behavior.) Just as I have to make the distinction between fantasy and reality in movies for my youngest child, I have to tell the older ones that what they are watching is aimed at the advertisers as much as it is the audience.
It’s easy to forget these distinctions. And when we do, we find kids and parents acting as certain coaches do -- or worse. Although there are now fabulous organizations like the Positive Coaching Alliance, sadly, there are still too many examples of over-zealous sideliner screamers who think they can get away with some of the televised bravado they've witnessed.
Teaching our kids to be conscious of context and to think critically about how sports are presented will only help them. If they can separate out the messenger from the message, they can enjoy the best and leave the rest. So, next time you watch a game on TV, if something catches your attention -- some unappealing behavior, an intrusive advertisement or an inappropriate commercial -- try asking a version of these questions. As you all attempt to answer them, you'll be creating media-literate kids.
-- Why is that person behaving that way? (or if it's an ad, who created this message? Who are they trying to reach? Why do they want us to see it?)
-- Why am I paying attention to this person or message? What techniques are used to attract my attention?
-- What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in the message? What values and viewpoints are not in this message?
-- What does this message mean to me? How might other people understand this message differently from me?
-- Who paid for the message? Who profits from it?