When the lights turn off…

“We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game, we just don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we’re all told.” Moneyball

I once heard it said that sports reflect the society in which they exist…aa41

I was coached and prepared to always rise to the occasion when those Friday and Saturday night lights were turned on! But when my playing days were done and the cheers all stopped and the lights were turned off, what was once my greatest source of joy became my darkest place of pain.

It was the August before my third grade year, a humid Saturday morning in Michigan, the kind of day where a slight gathering of moisture begins to collect on your nose. After many years of playing Madden and recess football, I was officially on a team, #41 of the Troy Cowboys was ready to go. What had started as a game that I watched my older brother playing was now a game that I was going to play also.

Shoulder pads and helmet, check…Mouth piece, check…Correct placement of cup…oops! Okay, check!

Wave to embarrassing screaming mother, able to get off work for this special day and so nervously excited she won’t stop calling her youngest son’s name, check!

After that first kickoff in August of 1993, I wouldn’t experience my last until December 2007. I would rack up individual and team honors that included being a NCAA Division II Two-Time All-American, Three-Time National champion (Grand Valley State University), and most importantly, became the second member of my family to earn a bachelor’s degree!

Grand Valley State University 2006

It was seemingly the success story of a black male overcoming the odds of a single-mother and absent father upbringing, yet hidden in all that apparent success is the reason for this letter.

I often find it interesting to hear what factors people ascribe success to. Some say that it’s a natural talent for the game; others say it is found in dedication and heart. In each explanation there’s often some truth, but for me the real reasons are a little different…

I found my value in football and it brought meaning. More importantly, I gained a father figure who cared about me each time I rose to the top.

Without realizing it, during my years of playing, my passion and love for the game was largely due to the care I received. And this came because I was one of the better players. Being one of the better players ended up slowly determining my self-worth, which began to develop on the basis of performance and the attention that it brought me. This shaped my understanding of my own personal worth. People knew my name and would cheer for me; they loved and cared about me. Or so I thought, and I still think they genuinely did, but it was often rooted in performance and what I could contribute and do.

I also was unaware that my coaches filled a role more important than x’s and o’s. They became my only father figures and male role models.

In loving memory of my Little League coach, Bill Livingston.

Take for example my Little League coach who would occasionally pick me up and drop me off when my mother was unable to do so because of working two jobs. He would always make sure to pit-stop at Burger King before dropping me off and give me a piece of his special Bubblicious gum stash.

My High School coach had two sons my age, and whenever we would be leaving from their house he would give his sons a hug, saying “I love you son” and then he would come to me and say the same.

Then there was my College coach, who, after I walked-on in my freshman year, called me before my sophomore year and told me that I could tell my mother not to worry about how to pay for tuition because I would receive an athletic scholarship.

I was fortunate and blessed to have such great experiences with my football coaches. So, as I read the letter from Eastern Michigan’s football coach, I found I was nodding in complete agreement. I have experienced firsthand his description of racial barriers being knocked down and the benefits of team work, and so I want to encourage and put more emphasis on the unseen roles coaches often play. I want to encourage coaches to be aware of their conduct, because each and every day they are and will be shaping the men of the future.

Then I thought about the subtle reflection of society that can be seen in football, especially as the level rises. And what do we see?

Coaches are no longer measured by how well they can shape individuals and ingrain in them skills that exemplify selflessness and team spirit. No longer is a coach judged on his ability to lead a bunch of individuals from all circumstances to exceed their limitations through uniting themselves into a team. And as a result, because these are not the standards by which a coach is measured anymore, the once pure game becomes anything but.

Instead, at the higher levels, a coach is measured on performance in terms of wins and losses, and this can lead to success and failure being judged incorrectly. Here success is judged in the short term only, without assessing the damaging effects of leading by fear, manipulation, and other abuses of power. These pervasive short term methods can produce dividends in the interim, but have lasting negative repercussions.

So, my challenge to coaches who want to encourage moms to let their boys play football, is not to let the pressures of winning overshadow the great privilege of shaping the men of the future. Continue to strive for the same values and measures you aspire to see in the athletes entrusted to you. And hold strong to those values inside and outside of adversity, because there is no “I” in coach either.

My challenge to parents is to understand how invaluable and irreplaceable your unwavering support is and let that not be on the basis of individual or statistical performance. Let your standards be based on how well your child is performing as a team player: respectful, and coach-able. These qualities extend much further than yards per game. Also, I challenge parents who leave their role of mother and father to understand the lasting effects of their actions. Understand how difficult it will be for your child to appreciate his or her value when you do not do the same.

My challenge to Universities and Schools is that when making the decision to fire a coach based on wins and losses, to understand how culpable you are in continuing this reflection of society. Let the basis of performance be how well they are shaping qualities that align with your organizational standards and goals. Are they reflecting behaviors and attitudes that exemplify conduct that would lead you to hire them in any other setting?

My challenge to the fans is to understand the price of admission does not grant you the right to speak maliciously and disrespectfully to others. You are doing fine if the worst issue in your life is a team dropping a ball, only to lose again.

And lastly, my challenge to the athletes is to create a separation between yourself as an individual and yourself as an athlete. It becomes a dark place when the two are one and your days of playing are done. I know it was for me, and so I began to search the bottom of many bottles, hoping that the next blunt would stop the pain, or that the next woman would fill that void. At each point I was causing more damage that only worsened the pain. But I felt I couldn’t tell anyone; I was supposed to be strong. All those years of being a “beast” and an “animal” on the field can misguide a person.

But thankfully, one day I met someone who did not treat me on the basis of anything that I could do or had done, and it was one of the most freeing days of my life. I don’t know where you’re at right now in life, but my hope is that you too will understand that your worth is set and is not based on anything you can or will do.