By Shannon Korta
Saturday afternoon’s literary panel tackled the topic of parents’ increasing over-involvement in their children’s sports lives for the discussion “The Case for Banning Parents.” Author Buzz Bissinger, best known for his New York Times bestseller Friday Night Lights, was joined by Ben McGrath, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and award-winning novelist Megan Abbott. The panelists discussed the perils of overzealous, misguided, emotionally stunted sports parents who have created a toxic culture that Bissinger acerbically summarizes “has completely removed all fun from sports.”
The panelists touched on various situations they’d experienced or read about exemplifying poor parent behavior ranging from verbal attacks on other parents to physical fights on the field with officials. McGrath noted that many officials have opted to quit in the face of increasingly confrontational situations. The intense pressure from parents on their children to win at all costs has given rise to year-round travel sports and specialized camps promising to give your child a competitive edge over the rest. Abbott conveyed that, although she was not involved in sports growing up, her brothers’ little league games and commitments took up an exhaustive amount of time, stating matter-of-factly, “I never had a summer.”
Abbott segued from embarrassing spectacle parents and addressed a subtler, yet insidious, element of youth. In the case of Olympic gymnastics, countless female athletes were abused repeatedly by Larry Nassar over several years. Abbott questioned the claim from many of the girls’ parents who “didn’t know anything was going on.” She said that while watching the Nassar trial on television, some of the girls looked at their parents as if to say, “Why didn’t you help me?” Lack of action from parents can be more harmful than the overreactions, according to Abbott. It is difficult to imagine a parent would knowingly turn a blind eye to such atrocious acts in the quest for their daughters to win gold – difficult, but sadly, not impossible, she noted.
Despite his best-selling book focusing on small town football, Bissinger was the most vocal about how detrimental sports can be for a child’s mental health. He attributed much of parental pressure in sports to the disillusioned aspiration of getting a D1 scholarship, which he pointedly told the audience “isn’t happening.” Reiterating his earlier assessment, he said sports should be about fun – acknowledging his son was lost on the soccer field, but still enjoyed it. He admitted he did have moments where his son’s lack of athleticism bothered him, ruefully asking the crowd “Why do I care though?” “Am I that insecure in myself?” The question hung uncomfortably in the auditorium air along with the dust particles in the spotlights. It wasn’t hard to imagine many in the crowd had asked themselves this same thing.
Bissinger said earlier in the discussion that every athlete is haunted by four words: “What could have been?” I think it’s fair to say parents are equally haunted by these words. What could have been if I read to them more? What could have been if I listened a little more? Parents are athletes in a different sense. We compete against other parents, we compete against time, and we compete against this perfect version of ourselves – this version of ourselves that always gets it right with our kids. The version of ourselves that is completely confident with parenting. That version of ourselves that can conjure up honest, transparent, bonding discussions from the most sullen teenager. That version, though, is like the D1 scholarship:largely unattainable for most. Maybe we make it harder than it needs to be. Parenting and sports could both benefit from Bissinger’s advice, “Let’s just have fun with it.”
Shannon Korta teaches at Landmark Christian School in Fairburn, Georgia. She is the recipient of a 2020 Teacher and Librarian Scholarship.