Every Sunday morning a familiar scene unfolds in our house: my husband and I pass the baby back and forth across the dining table while we take turns racing through our breakfast and finalizing our fantasy football lineups. Our boys empty the contents of their toy box onto the carpet, their eyes both lock on a single prize. To the untrained eye the plastic dinosaur is identical to the 20 others cast aside in its wake, but with a subtle twitch of his hand, the 5-year-old issues an irresistible dare to his 2-year-old brother.
The toddler never shies away from a challenge, even though for him the tug-of-war inevitably ends in either disappointment or a tail-spike to the forehead. The baby giggles as she watches the boys wrestle on the floor like Olympians, instinctively executing flawless half nelsons and barrel rolls. One morning my husband turns to me, shrugs his shoulders, and says over the grunts and groans of the ultimate fighters by our ankles, “Maybe it’s time we get them into sports.”
My husband isn’t the first person to suggest that as parents of energetic, enormous, and passably coordinated boys we start grooming them for athletics before they’re toilet trained. When my 2-year-old went through a phase of hitting other children on the playground, the father of one of his unwitting victims eased the tension by joking that he’d make a great linebacker someday. Psychologists have even proposed a theory that giving children a “healthy outlet” for their aggression leads to better overall behavior.
I used to agree with the idea that youth sports were a way of channeling children’s explosive bursts of energy in a controlled environment. However, the more I observe as a member of a sporty family, the more I’ve started to question whether highly competitive sports are as healthy as I once thought.
The news is filled with reports of professional athletes being arrested for acting like out-of-control preschoolers: men whose faces adorn the walls of children’s rooms, whose names are sewn onto their favorite jerseys, and whose performance in a game has given them extraordinary sway over the minds of today’s youth. In fact, a recent study has found that professional athletes have significantly higher base levels of aggression than the general public. Of course, the players whose behavior runs afoul of the law are typically issued minor suspensions from the governing body of their league, but there is plenty of violent and impulsive behavior that goes unchecked, even celebrated.
I was particularly struck by a controversy that sprouted from last year’s World Series. New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard intentionally threw a 99 mile-per-hour fast ball at the head of the first batter he faced. Luckily the Kansas City player was uninjured, but the fact of the matter remains: a grown man, playing at the peak of his sport’s competition, was frustrated that his team was losing so he threw a rock-hard projectile at another man’s head. Outside the context of the baseball field, this type of behavior would be considered assault with a weapon.
Luckily my boys are too young to understand the implications or consequences of throwing “chin music” during a baseball game, but the more involved they become in sports, the more aware they will become of these acts of strategic violence. They will also be inundated by the rhetoric of morale-building and heroics surrounding aggression in sports. Rather than apologizing for his potentially life-threatening assault on the Royals batter, Syndergaard bragged that his pitch was a message to the Kansas City team that successful hitting would not be tolerated, and Mets players and fans rallied behind him.
The message being sent to my children is that not only is whipping a prehistoric creature at their brother’s head an acceptable response to frustration, it’s actually the person being hit’s fault for being bigger, stronger, faster, or smarter. The temptation to externalize bad behavior is natural, but is something that I strive to combat in my children on a daily basis. When my son hits his brother with a toy and claims it’s an accident or that his brother deserved it, I guide him to take responsibility for his behavior by admitting that he got angry and made a mistake. Only then can he sincerely apologize to his brother and repair their relationship. No such apology was issued during the World Series and thus the feudal fires were fanned rather than extinguished.
In order to change the cultural expectations and norms surrounding something as fundamental to our society as professional sports, we will have to start with the messages we send our children from the moment they pick up a ball or swing a bat. I can remember as a child playing softball and shouting along with cheer of “Be aggressive. B. E. Aggressive.” At the time I thought nothing of the mantra. Being aggressive has become synonymous with being successful or trying your best. However, psychologists define aggression as a behavior with the goal of harming or injuring another living being. Thus, it is never acceptable to be aggressive on the sports field, and we should stop using language and supporting behavior that tells our children otherwise.
As someone who has always valued the physical and emotional outlet of competition, I find it difficult to resolve my love of sports with the dangerous message that violent and mean-spirited behavior will be tolerated as long as it results in a winning record. As parents, how do we explain to our children that they are not allowed to hurl Stegosauruses at their brothers when they are angry, but if they practice hard enough, they can one day choose to throw a baseball at the head of anyone who crosses them? I admit that there is a fine line between necessary physical contact in sports like football, rugby, and to some extent baseball, and professionally condoning violence, but it is a distinction that we as parents, players, and spectators need to make.
We should encourage our children to be brave, strong, triumphant, adventurous and victorious. Above all we should expect them to be honorable and gracious on and off the field. These are the lessons I want my children to learn from playing sports.
*This article originally appeared on The Washington Post.