By Wesley Browne
Last Sunday, after the Madison Central Boys Basketball Team qualified for the Sweet Sixteen, the school district announced the cancellation of school on Wednesday. Reactions were not all positive.
“Why are they canceling for basketball when they don’t cancel for the academic team? The mock trial team? The school district’s priorities are out of whack. It’s irresponsible,” detractors said.
For starters, the district knew what many didn’t: If attendance at Madison Central was down significantly, the district would have lost funding. If attendance was down at other schools, the district stood to lose even more. Also, because of shared busing, closing just Madison Central is financially impractical.
Secondly, I have taken part in academic competitions and mock trial. While they are unquestionably positive activities for participants, they tend to be boring to most observers. Consequently, audiences for these competitions are not large. The suggestion that school be canceled for activities relatively few watch is premised on false logic.
When I was in middle school, I advanced to the state spelling bee. The entourage who witnessed my spelling exploits – which lasted two obscure words I’ve never heard or seen since – was my mom. Dad had to work.
When my wife and I competed for the national mock trial team at the University of Kentucky College of Law, only our coaches watched. UK Basketball attendance: 20,000, give or take. UK Mock Trial attendance: 4, on the nose. I counted.
Why do fewer people watch academic competitions? Not because they don’t care, but because those activities largely benefit the participants. Academic achievement is its own reward. The benefits are lifelong. While I benefited from academic competitions, I understood they weren’t particularly interesting to watch for those not involved. I never expected a crowd, and I was satisfied to get a day off for myself.
Are Madison County’s sporting priorities out of line? To an extent, my answer is yes – particularly at the youth level. The same holds true for much of the country.
I say this as a youth sports coach and board member, and also a former college athlete. Our kids are playing and practicing too much, too soon, too seriously, and specializing in single sports too young. Playing for fun is going away too fast. Playing for futures is setting in much too early.
Were our sporting priorities out of line last week?
Even if you ignore the extent to which basketball is woven into the cultural fabric of our Commonwealth, you cannot ignore the magnitude and magnificence of what these children of our community have accomplished, and the manner in which they did so.
A credit to their teachers and coaches, but moreover their families, the young men of the Madison Central boys basketball team carried themselves with grace and poise, on and off the court, in front of the eyes of our state and our children.
We may not get everything right in Richmond, but we are doing something right.
When I can play back news reports for my sons to show them not only the amazing athletic spectacle they witnessed firsthand, but also the player interviews so they can hear the way they speak about their teammates, coaches and opponents, that is special indeed.
The short-term futures of some team members will be on the court. The futures of the majority of them will not. Their feats on the basketball court provide no insight into their academic lives, but the qualities they exhibited suggest they possess the tools to succeed elsewhere.
Perhaps this is why we feel such civic pride. The young men of our community accomplished something majestic, and elevated all of us in the process. They did it. Their coaches did it. But when we see the quality of the children we are raising in Richmond, not only in terms of sports, but also academics, don’t we all feel a little bit like we did it too?
We hold our breath – again – wondering where Dominique Hawkins will play college ball. What about title-game hero Ken-Jah Bosley, and the indomitable Quan Taylor? Surely they will play on, too.
Hunter Stocker will hit the football field. Daniel Parke and George Walker will move on as well. Even as they go on to other things, they will always feel like our kids, but not in the same way they did while they were still together. When we packed Rupp Arena. When they were our team.
Newspapers and television often lead with the worst aspects of our community. Our state champs have given us a few dreamlike days to bask in what’s best about our community.
They are not all that’s wonderful about Richmond and Madison County, but they are simply the most shining example at this moment, and perhaps at any recent moment. It’s something we feel to our marrows, and our children do three-fold. If ever there was something worth canceling a couple days of school for, that is.
Wesley Browne’s columns in the Richmond Register won a 2011 Kentucky Press Association award.