Kids and sports and Mesut Ozil

Sports are stupid.

We all know that. All of us get it. Professional sports especially. Sure, we all watch, and we all eat, drink and breath it, and it’s sometimes fun, but we also all get that it’s a nonsense capitalistic enterprise run by gangsters and driven by toxic masculinity, gambling and alcohol consumption. Not exactly mom and apple pie these days, despite what those old baseball poets try to spin.

Yesterday I was reading Will Leitch’s newsletter. He is one of the smartest people I know. A real hustler who just works and works and works. And it pays off. He’s also one of the best writers on the internet, and honestly seems like a pretty decent guy overall. Flawed, but understanding of those flaws. That’s all we can really hope for in the end. Yesterday he was writing about how much time he spends thinking about sports. Sports. Games for children played by spoiled millionaires (I can say this stuff because I am a sports fan too). And how he didn’t even know what he could accomplish if he didn’t spend so much time writing and thinking about and watching sports. And, I don’t know, that made me kind of sad. A guy that smart could have done so much more. Could have written books that mattered. Not that his books don’t matter, not that the work he does, the work of entertainment, isn’t important — we all need leisure pursuits — but it’s still a bummer that we missed out on what he actually could have accomplished if he hadn’t started writing about sports.

I am not saying Will is a bad dude. Or that the work he does isn’t great. Or that he’s selfish. Or anything. I am just saying it’s a bummer. And by the tone of his note yesterday, I think he would more or less agree with me.

Also yesterday I watched my beloved Arsenal — a team full of those spoiled millionaires mentioned above — play out a dire, listless, boring, lifeless 0-0 with an equally awful Everton. Two clubs with a combined worth of north of a billion dollars and that was the product they decided to put on display. During the match, and after it, the fans sang a song about how they wanted Arsenal Fan TV “out of (their) club.” I am not familiar as I really tend to only watch the games these days, but apparently Arsenal Fan TV is a YouTube channel about Arsenal that is a little toxic and the fans were sick of that toxicity. Later after the game the same traveling fans surrounded the YouTube folks and it was, well, a scene.

The whole thing is rubbish. These are grown ups. Toxic masculinity. Alcohol consumption. It’s a game. Played by adults. Designed for kids. It all cannot help but make me feel a little silly sometimes. It should make us all a little silly. I will still watch, you will still watch, but I think moments like yesterday might help us keep it all in perspective a little more.

Missing from yesterday Arsenal’s match was German midfielder Mesut Özil. Interim manager Freddie Ljungberg dropped him from the lineup because in the match before Mesut threw his gloves and kicked them after being subbed out.

This reminded of a moment from my childhood. And it made me realize something. Yeah, sports are stupid. But they are also important. Like, really important. For one reason and one reason only: the kids. Not the kids as fans, but the kids playing the games, on fields and courts and patches all over the world. Organized, disorganized, whatever.

The Mesut story reminded me of little league, the season in the spring and summer during and after 7th grade. My last season of little league ever. My dad would die the following autumn and that would be that for my truncated childhood. One of my teammates was Lane Kiffin. The name might ring a bell. Headcoach of the LA Raiders for a disastrous couple of seasons. Later head coach at USC and Tennessee and Florida Atlantic. And Lane’s dad, Monte Kiffin, was our coach. Monte is not quite as famous as Lane, but he’s one of the more respected defensive coaches of all time, the bulk of his career was spent as Defensive Coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 1988 when he was my little league coach, he was the Linebacker Coach for the Minnesota Vikings.

Early in the season, in what I think was just a scrimmage game, I struck out. Like I always did. I sucked at baseball. And I threw my helmet. And my bat. And Monte Kiffin got in my face and tore me up, right there in front of everyone. A hot summer blue sky day and a guy used to yelling at 300 pound linebackers was screaming at me. It was horrifying. “We do NOT do that on this team, understand?” I started to cry. It was too much. The kid next to me on the bench could have teased me, could have called me a crybaby, but instead he told me it was all right, that everyone strikes out now and again.

I think about that kid a lot. And that was lesson number one from that day.

I digress. Two days later Monte called the house. I wasn’t home. He told my parents that he was really sorry. That he hoped I wouldn’t quit. That he really wanted me on the team.

And I didn’t quit. And I went on and had the best season of my life. Monte put trust in me, batted me up the lineup, put me at first base, something no other coach did. And I responded in spades. He threw batting practice before each game, throwing 10-15 mph faster than the opposing team’s kid pitcher would throw, so the pitches in the game looked like they were in slow motion.

I don’t remember if we won many games. All I know is that I played baseball out of mind. I loved baseball as a kid. But I always sucked at it. Until that season. That one season.

That season taught me so much, lessons that I have carried with me my whole life. Perseverance. The power of a good coach. The power of trusting someone. Humility. Kindness. Sportsmanship. And so many more. Lessons that I have carried with me my entire life. Lessons I might not have learned otherwise. That’s the power of sports.

Now, I played baseball because I loved baseball. Like most kids. I soaked in the game and played because I wanted to be like my heroes. Not every kid who plays every sport can be so lucky.

Which brings me to the cricket side of this post. This morning a tweet hit my radar and it stood out for me:

I consider Jamie a friend and an expert in the field of youth cricket. Together with a handful of organizers, he has made the youth game in Maryland something really special. Brought the game to kids who never would have experienced it, kids that will become lifelong cricket fans because of people like Jamie, despite the fact that there is no American Cricket League, or that cricket isn’t in the Olympics, or that we don’t have a strong national team. Those kids are learning the same lessons I learned from Monte Kiffin, those same invaluable lessons, because of cricket, and people like Jamie. His quibble with USA Cricket is beyond valid. It is terribly important. Cricket needs people like Jamie, dedicated people who love the game and want kids to experience it, because kids need cricket.

Kids need sports.

And that’s what it all comes down to. Sports are silly. Run by gangsters. Fueled by the worst kinds of tribalism, the same brand of which we see in American politics. But they are still important. Still vital. For the reason mentioned above: kids.

People like Monte Kiffin, people like Jamie Harrison, they are why sports are still important. I like Mesut Özil, and I respect the dedication of the traveling Arsenal fans, but neither of them are doing sport any favors. And that’s a shame. Not because we need something to do with our leisure time, but because kids need sports. They need to have heroes, they need to have coaches, and they need to learn the lessons that only sports can teach. Yes, only sports.

Will Leitch closes his post about what he would do if he didn’t spend so much time thinking about and writing about sports with a joke: that he probably would just have done drugs instead. It’s a joke. He’s kidding. But it’s a valid point nonetheless. Sport keeps kids safe. It’s just one more reason why kids need sports, and why they are important, not just for kids, but at the end of the day, for all of us. And so whenever I see a player like Mesut act like a brat, I can only assume he missed out on a coach like Monte Kiffin. Maybe Ljungberg is finally that coach, even if he has already been replaced. Sports can always teach us. We can always find mentors. We can always learn and get better. We can always listen to a coach or a boss and learn how to do life just a little bit better. And maybe that’s sports greatest lesson:

Listen to your coach. They want you to succeed. It might not seem like it, but they do.

That’s what Monte Kiffin taught me all those years ago. And it’s a lesson I have carried with me my whole life.

What a gift.

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