One of the most fulfilling victories of my life happened to me while coaching my son’s 7-8 year old flag football team, “The Flaming Sharks.” When I coach, I use a swift democratic process to allow the children to name their team, and it can go from familiar names like “The Heat” and “The 49ers” to quite interesting names like “The Thrusting Panthers.” This particular season we were “The Flaming Sharks.”
As we entered the season, what was supposed to be a league of 7-8 year olds turned into a league of 7-9 year olds. This concerned me. I was especially apprehensive because my team of mostly 7 year olds, had to face a team of mostly 9 year olds twice during the season. More importantly, I believed it was unfair to the younger teams filled with many 7 year olds to place them in competition against 9 year olds. The various developmental levels of children is such that this was comparable to a college team playing in a league full of high school teams.
The activist in me called the director in the league and protested the blatant unfairness of this arrangement. These children had been set at a disadvantage by a system that allowed them to compete in unfair conditions. I wrote the director and spoke to him by phone about how it could possibly be deflating and intimidating to have second graders competing against fourth graders. Yet none of my complaints about the blatant unfairness of this league led to change.
Of course our first game was against the 9 year olds, and of course we lost handily. The cherry on top was that we got to play them the last game of the season so that we could end our season as we began. As we improved during the year, I began to strategize, plan, and even install a couple of trick plays in an attempt to at least make us competitive for our last game. As luck would have it, our last game got postponed due to rain, and we were able to schedule an extra practice. By the time we played the game, we had to play a now undefeated and relatively untested mostly 9 year old team. My seven year olds played the game of their lives, and when the dust had settled we pulled out a victory with a score of 20-14.
Though I was thrilled in the beginning, I began to have great reservations about what had just happened. I was afraid that somehow it would now become easy for the director to use our victory to continue placing seven year olds in unfair conditions. I knew deep down that despite our success, it would be unfair to expect that seven year olds could regularly beat 9 year olds. I didn’t want the league to place second grade children against fourth grade children and then tell them to practice hard, try hard, and they could beat fourth graders just like we did. I had a couple of very exceptional seven year olds who played an exceptional game and beat exceptionally long odds. However, this exceptional group of kids was just that, the exception.
This is the same problem many progressive leaders and thinkers have with President Obama’s recent attempt to help young black men. Young, black, and particularly poor black men have conditions that are bigger than them that make winning a long shot. Placing exceptional black men in a room and pointing to them as an example of what “any black” man can do misses the point of how poverty, systemic racism, and callous education policies make winning on any grand scale a manifestation of exceptionalism.
Young black leaders and young black men are in the same dilemma I found myself in this past fall season. No matter how unfair, the season happened and the games had to be played. We had to practice, prepare, and plan to be competitive; just as black people must educate ourselves, work hard, and strive to make our place in the world because no matter how unfair, life goes on. However, if I was the director of the league, I would have made a policy that would not place seven year olds in conditions that I know are not fair to them. I would not have simply gathered coaches and had a clinic on how to coach seven year olds to victory over nine year olds. Just like seven year olds have the unfair disadvantage of physical immaturity, less highly developed speed, agility, and aggression, and a lower competitive IQ, poor black young men (and women for that matter) have the disadvantage of less resources, fewer examples, a shorter history of equal freedom and opportunities, policies that are indifferent to their welfare, and curriculums that are often indifferent to their learning styles.
President Obama had an opportunity to address the plight of young black men by striving to change the conditions of the league. Instead he led a cry to help young black men try harder, practice harder, and try to win whatever their conditions. Obama said:
“You will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future… It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say if the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype.”
Obama’s speech to young black men was what any coach, who did not have the power change the league, should say to his team. It echoes what I told my seven year olds as they faced a nine year old team. Here is the problem, Obama is not the coach of a team in a league, he is the director of the league. So, while I do totally support Obama’s charge to young black men and plea for people to help them win; I want Obama to do the same thing that I wanted the director of that flag football league to do….CHANGE THE LEAGUE!!
Humbly in Christ’s Love,