Hunger Games of the American suburbs

Posted: April 13, 2012

By Paul F. Bradley

From my house, I could hear the wailing start every Saturday at 8 a.m. It penetrated the walls, growing louder with each wave. By 9, it was loud enough to prevent any further sleep. By 10, it was deafening.

Was it a battle reenactment? Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan was filming in the area?

Hardly. It was just the sound of crazed parents screaming as their 6-year-olds played soccer.

One day, I walked over to the sports complex, drawn by the shrieking. The hysterics on the sidelines greatly exceeded the action in the games.

The parents’ exhortations were reminiscent of those seen on Toddlers and Tiaras, the TLC reality show about the world of child beauty pageants. They included: “Get him!” “What are you doing?” “Stop them!” “Get back!” “Take it away!” “Shoot!” “Do Something!” “You stink!” Others were more profane, and some of the bitterest bile was reserved for the referees.

On one field, a gaggle of parents flapped after a coach, complaining about his strategy and allocation of playing time. One woman jumped and shouted “Take him out!” while making a slicing motion with her hand across her throat. A three-person film crew wearing team jackets shot the action with high-tech equipment.

Another game was at the half. Here a father broke out a brand-new pair of spikes for the second half and applied a fresh coat of eye black to his son’s face (although the day was decidedly overcast). Players, their names on their jerseys, snacked on protein bars and energy drinks; the orange slices of yesteryear were nowhere to be seen.

On fields, courts, rinks, and diamonds throughout the region, this over-caffeinated roar of parents trying to relive past glories — or failures — through their offspring is omnipresent. I’d wager that many of these folks are the same people who nonchalantly dominate supermarket aisles with their double- and triple-wide strollers and massive, cartoon-faced shopping carts.

Now, there is nothing wrong with getting children involved in sports. It’s good for their fitness, socialization, and a healthy sense of competition. But youth athletics are robbed of these benefits when they’re fueled by parental obsession.

The new film The Hunger Games depicts a dystopian world in which the government forces children into sole-survivor competition. The audience lusts for action and blood.

Compare this with the experiences of children in today’s sports-crazed society. Other than the fight-to-the-death aspect of The Hunger Games, is it all that different for a child athlete enduring four practices a week, two games a weekend, and interstate travel — all for an under-10 league?

Sports are at the core of our culture. We use the language of sports to talk about everyday life. And so athletics have become a rite of passage for children. Too often, the balance is skewed toward the excessive, as 12-year-olds are taught how to throw a curveball.

With so much organized athletics, many of them have little time to create games of their own and exercise their imaginations. Neighborhood pickup games such as run-the-bases and stickball are as alien as blind man’s bluff.

Few of us are professional athletes, but playground memories still define us forever in the eyes of many of our peers, just as they will for today’s children.

It’s good to recall these events with fondness and to support our children as they pursue championships. It is quite another to obsess over such activities. And it is altogether immoral to pass the obsession on to our children by forcing them to participate in weekend versions of the Hunger Games.

Paul F. Bradley lives in Bucks County. He can be reached at prehistoricspider@yahoo.com.

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