Bully For You
The Worst Person in the World is a flag football coach in the Los Angeles suburb of Westlake, in the San Fernando Valley. I know this because my son’s team played his last weekend.
The game was over, or it might has well have been. There was a minute and a half left in the fourth quarter and the Worst Person in the World’s team was up by five or six touchdowns. This was expected, even before play began, because they were an established tackle team that had worked together for years, and used flag football for off-season training. We were a helter-skelter collection of random kids who wandered into the league to have some fun on Sunday afternoons. The outcome was predetermined.
But we’d had some luck on what would be our last drive, and had completed two solid plays — a deep pass and a broken-field run. We were settling into scoring position for the first time in the half. A little more effort, another couple of flukes, and we could be in the endzone inside the time limit. It wouldn’t matter, of course, except to salvage some pride. Losing is part of playing, and so is never giving up.
The Worst Person in the World had just finished shouting at his team — “Come on! Come on! Stop him!” — and called a defensive timeout, gathering his players into a huddle. They took a long time and when they came out, they came out hunting.
At the end of the next play, three of our kids were face down on the grass, hurt, including mine. It was the single dirtiest play of the entire season. Forearms to the face, pushing from behind, straight arms. Stuff that’s not only illegal in neighborhood flag football, but illegal in the NFL.
The Worst Person in the World had ordered a hit. He’d told his experienced tackle players that they weren’t going to let these… pussies… score, that they were to go out there and hurt them. Put them down. Flag football? Rules? Sportsmanship? Bullshit. The ball is just as down if the player carrying it is lying on his back in pain as if you grabbed his flag. And he’s not as likely to think he can get away with scoring the next time.
The Worst Person in the World had told his players that it simply wasn’t enough to play hard, that it wasn’t enough to win, or to dominate or even humiliate. He told his players that they were to go out there and destroy. A grown man told 12-year-old boys put down other 12-year-old boys, just for the sake of preventing the possibility of a meaningless touchdown. Hit them. Hurt them. Kill them.
And the other sideline cheered. Parents high-fived each other. Players basked in the approval of their coach. They pumped their fists. We ran out onto the field to make sure our kids were OK, to help them to their feet. Our coach complained to the ref — a skinny high schooler in well over his head — and then to the league rep, while the Worst Person in the World held his arms out to his sides and mimed innocence. No fouls were called. No action was taken. The Worst Person in the World smiled a smug little smile, like the schoolyard thug who got away with it, his world-view reconfirmed, his ruthlessness rewarded.
And so we walked away. We packed up our folding seats and six-packs of Gatorade and walked away. A minute and a half left on the clock, we abandoned the game. Never giving up has its limits.
I love sports. I love the outdoors, the camaraderie, the exercise, the life-long ability to work at something until it’s totally natural, totally effortless. I love the fun, the reward for persistence, the essential fairness. I love the exhilaration of winning and the lessons of losing. I love coaching.
The look on a kid’s face when he connects with his first real hit, nails his first real swish, grabs his first real pass — it’s amazing. He may not remember the details, but I’ve gotten to see it dozens of times. It’s joy.
But sports has a dark side. There are winners and losers, determined both by the final score and by what the expectations are. To some people — the Worst Person in the World included — all that matters is being on the right side of that line, no matter where it is. Rules, sportsmanship, common decency — they’re all just things that get in the way. These are tiny little men, in tiny little kingdoms, their sense of self-worth so fragile that a group of 12-year-olds can threaten to take it away from them with a meaningless gesture. They’ll literally do anything to prevent that. This is where bullies come from, where they are made.
I know why some people hate sports. I saw it. It’s when nothing matters more than propping up whatever delusions you have about yourself, when skill or accident or luck puts you in a place you don’t want to be, and you react like a cornered animal. The Worst Person in the World has never learned anything from sports but how good it feels to win, and that has trapped him into living a life where being a bully — where creating bullies — is not only accepted, but required.
My kid was exposed to an ugly part of the world last weekend, through the lens of something he loves. We had to talk about fair play and ethics and why winning ugly isn’t winning. We had to talk about when you walk away and why. We had to talk about how to deal with domineering assholes, and how the world is full of them. No parent wants to have these conversations, but each has to.
And like every other lesson that sports has to offer, he’ll use them again and again.