How much money does your family spend on sports? Do you spend hundreds each your on a traveling team for a middle schooler? Perhaps your child plays in more than one of these competitive leagues. How about a private conditioning coach? How much is too much?
There's an intriguing new project about the topic. It's called Contested, and it features families in Durham, NC.
Thomas Schmidt is an elite high school athlete in Durham. He plays lacrosse. The Schmidt family has invested heavily in Thomas. He's had a private strength and conditioning coach since he was 14 years old. He plays on multiple traveling teams, and has flown around the country, on his own dime, to games and special "recruitment camps." Sports and the possibility of a Division 1 college scholarship are important to the family.
Thomas Schmidt's dad, Mark, knows that the family has spent a lot of money on lacrosse, perhaps more than a college scholarship would be worth. "Less than one percent of all high school athletes actually get to play a [Division 1] level sport with any sort of financial contribution from the school," Mark says.
Mom, Holly, agrees. "There's a financial investment that you make," she says. "You don't necessarily ever expect to get that back."
Thomas Schmidt did secure a scholarship to Boston University.
Another Family, Another Story: La'Toya Taylor
Durham is also home to single mom, La'Toya Taylor, and her five boys. Two of her sons, Geonnie Brodie and Jalanie Taylor, compete in Pop Warner football. They play for the Durham Eagles. With fees, uniforms, equipment and other expenses, the sport costs the family hundreds of dollars every year. La’Toya works as a certified nurse’s assistant and that money is not insignificant to the family.
Documentarian John Biewen has been following the Schmidt and Taylor families for Contested. He wrote about the project for the 2014 issue of Document, The Center for Documentary Studies' quarterly publication:
I've forgotten where the germ came from, what first prompted me to think, "Hmm, how about a radio project telling stories about sports and the role they play in society?" Once I started looking at the world with that prospect in mind, though, it seemed so obvious, so ripe.
"Sports are, after all, where America happens," the tennis icon Billie Jean King wrote not long ago in Sports Illustrated (in an article about Jason Collins' coming out as the first active gay athlete in a major sport). OK, maybe King's statement is a tad too sweeping-America happens in lots of places-but sport certainly occupies an outsize space in the life of the United States. It is so much with us that we may not stop to register its ubiquity. Sport is part of the water we swim in.
A few of my favorite illustrations: As an industry, sports are worth up to half a trillion dollars a year (including ticket sales, broadcasting, equipment and apparel, and the stadiums we typically build at public expense). In forty American states, the highest-paid public employee is not the governor or the president of the university system but a football or basketball coach. TV viewers consistently rate ESPN the cable channel they value most-which allows ESPN to charge subscribers quadruple the fee of the next most expensive national network. Virtually all "family" restaurants, and bars of many stripes-that is, not just sports bars-routinely display multiple screens showing athletic contests. Don't care about big-time spectator sports? The majority of American children, boys and girls, now participate in an organized sport at some point in their lives.
Media typically look at sports straightforwardly: who won, who lost, and why. And almost all of that coverage is about the 1% of athletes competing at the highest levels of college and professional sport. With Contested, a one-hour broadcast, we set out to take a different kind of look, to tell stories exploring the role of sports in the lives of regular people; in particular, young people.
Contested is produced in collaboration with State of the Re:Union, the thoughtful public radio show hosted by Al Letson, which usually focuses its one-hour episodes in one place. We decided to do the project right here in Durham. Why not? The Triangle is a sports-obsessed region in a sports-obsessed land, a national mecca for a major sport-college basketball-and home to one of sport's most storied rivalries. Children grow up in Durham steeped in the belief that sports matter, that athletic success is as potent a form of success as there is. That said, Durham is not all that special in this regard. We could have done the project almost anywhere. (It's perhaps coincidental that Durham provided the setting for one of the best sports movies of all time. Bull Durham was a baseball movie about other things. We too set out to tell sports stories about other things.)
In addition to the Schmidt and Taylor families, Contested also features Callie Scher. John Biewen writes that Callie, "...is co-captain of the women's soccer team at Durham Jordan High School, is also a passionate fan-of Duke men's basketball, first and foremost, but of other men's and women's sports as well. It's not lost on her that girls have all but caught up to boys in rates of sports participation, but that sport in the public mind, and certainly in the media, is still a man's world. That chasm plays out in the culture of her school. 'It bothers me a lot,' Callie says, 'because we go out there and work as hard as [the boys] and we want people to come to our games and support us, but they really do say to our face, like, 'It's boring, we don't want to come watch you.'"
John Biewen's article concludes this way:
The broadcast will also feature highlights of a roundtable conversation, recorded at Devine's sports bar on Main St. in Durham, with three people thoughtful about sports and the wider society: Martina "Coach D" Dunford, founder of Durham's New Horizons Character and Leadership Academy; Dwight Hollier, a former UNC and NFL linebacker and counselor, now working with NFL players; and Jan Boxill, a former athlete and coach who's now a philosopher and Director of the Parr Center for Ethics at UNC.
Contested does not take a pro or con position on sports. It does raise questions about American sports culture and what it has become, how it mirrors us in ways both encouraging and troubling. And it invites us to stop looking at sports as somehow separate from the "real" business of creating a culture and a society. Sport, too, is "contested terrain" on which we confront and work through our divisions.
The scholar Gerald Early, an adviser on the Contested project, puts it this way: "We go to sports with the idea that it's going to transcend these kinds of social issues, but … sports winds up intensifying them more than transcending them." In other words, sport may not be the place where "America happens." But it's one of them.
Listen to the hour-long radio special below. (You can listen to individual segments here.) The program will air on North Carolina Public Radio/WUNC Monday May 26, 2014 at noon and 8 p.m..