Albion Monitor /Commentary

On the Sidelines

by Sara Peyton

Thirty years of feminism has not made a dent on the high school football field

I'm squinting at the scowl of a setting autumn sun, bonding to the bleachers, and trying not to stare at my own tall, slender son. Dressed for combat, with shoulders the width of my Honda civic, my son stands at attention on the sidelines as he watches his junior varsity high school football team pummeled by opponents. The score is something like 32-0, and my neighboring fans, mostly parents, are glumly complaining about the coaching staff, who are nearly half our age.

Even the bouncy squad of cheerleaders, with their matched ponytails and trim, athletic legs, look depressed, almost haggard. Could this be a clue to their future look on the days when the game of life appears to be one long bad hair day?

I'm not really a cynic. I know how much my first-born son wants to run out to the field, miraculously intercept a pass, and race triumphantly to a touchdown. I try not to glance in his direction, fearing he will turn toward my gaze and feel pitied rather than warm maternal compassion. Thirty years of feminism has not made a dent on the high school football field. A good mother is a quiet, unobtrusive, downright dowdy gal. Even the single mom sitting next to me whispers her comments -- "the young, angry-looking coach is too tough on the kids and has forgotten that playing is about fun, too," she hisses -- out of fear that her remarks may be overheard and repeated to her oversensitive, giant-sized offspring.

As a nation we've been sitting on the sidelines a lot lately

When I was growing up, girls yearned to be prom queens -- an impossible wish for all but one each year. But it was a desire that sometimes festered, causing years, decades, even lifetimes of psychic damage. By comparison, boys appeared to have it made as they rolled off bikes to various ball games and into manhood. Didn't we know that these assured male youth yearned to be...well.... football queens? Their big chance depended not on good hair and a perky personality, but height, weight, speed, and good ball-catching skills. What they really learned in kindergarten.

But, ever since I've become a witness to the burdens of high school football 1990's style, I've been asking about what it was really like back then in the 1960's for boys facing the draft and Vietnam.

Some of the fathers squashed next to me in the grandstand describe how they dragged themselves through high school, petrified of gym class. They appear in awe of their daring, football-playing sons. One mentions long anguished hours, sitting on the bench as his more coordinated teammates basked in football victories. But this hard truth he deems too painful to tell his own bench-sitting son. Another former high school football star never got a chance to play in college. When the draft became inevitable, he joined the U.S. Marines and was sent immediately to Vietnam. Still another, the father of a star quarterback, revels in his brilliant high school football career -- a run that lasted only his freshman year, as he was too short to see much action after that. To talk to former high school football players is to talk to men still fighting battles; there's the longed-for height that never came, or that pass that got away.

Personally, I've grown used to the crunch of bodies and crash of helmets. I know the thrill of having a son safely tucked at the sidelines and the fear of seeing him jog out to take his place in the line of scrimmage.

Still, there's nothing sweeter than watching parents cheer for his sons. But what about the fathers who are yelling at their boys for fumbling the ball or missing a tackle. Or how about the father who says his son doesn't mind standing on the sidelines, he just likes being on the team so much.

I think about this as I try to make sense out of the intense rage, joy, hatred, and glee over the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial. For me, the year-long trial was another adventure on the sidelines; I observed along with much of the nation as a witness not a participant. You might say, as a nation we've been sitting on the sidelines a lot lately, as we watch a hard-won sea of social improvements from laws about affirmative action to medicare benefits begin to slip down the drain.

I advise my son to be wary of the promise of football as a metaphor for life

What about the Promise Keepers, a growing evangelical Christian movement of nearly 700,000 men founded by college football coach Bill McCartney and associated with right-wing, anti-feminists like Jerry Falwell? Some 45,000 men jammed the Oakland Coliseum in September for a Promise Keepers gathering described as a pep rally revival. I wonder, is the typical promise keeper really a former high school football player, who upon failing to find meaning in his adult life, one day explodes with a feverous desire to return to the stadiums of his youth?.

Men on the sidelines like to tell me that playing football prepares their sons for life. I think what's important is wrestling with all the inevitable disappointment that comes with playing or choosing not to participate in a game with so much emotional baggage attached to it.

Later, I advise my son to be wary of the promise of football as a metaphor for life. He mumbles an indecipherable response, before he shuffles ever-so-slowly toward the refrigerator for one last snack, and then another, before slowly picking up his book bag and stomping up the stairs to his room and the homework that awaits.

Come to think about it, I never had to play football to know that life is more about emotional fortitude than a game of winning or losing.

Albion Monitor October 30, 1995 (

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