Speech and Basketball

I’m currently in between two events on this lovely Saturday afternoon. This morning I judged at a speech and drama competition; tonight, I will watch my students’ basketball game.

I loved speech and drama in high school. I loved researching topics that offered a lot of thought and discussion. I loved being forced to defend positions that I didn’t actually agree with. I loved discussing things fully until I felt that I’d said everything I could, and it was okay with me if my opponent and I never came to an agreement. I loved seeing all the things he or she could come up with and (if we’re being completely honest) I loved dismantling their argument piece by piece and then wallowing in the inner joy that I got after a victory. With each competition I won I felt that I had defeated an opponent in single combat. It was a game of logic and intrigue, of words and power and emotion. Emphasis and tears were as important as logic and source materials, and I balanced all of them like a warrior who can switch effortlessly between sword and shield. I loved seeing different sides to stories and hearing other people’s opinions. I loved learning how to stand up in front of a group of people and making my points heard while remaining professional, eloquent, and supportable. And, looking back, I think I learned more about my opinions, my morals, my abilities and myself in Speech and Debate than I think I ever gave my coach credit for. It was amazing.

Now, I love basketball, too. I love watching my students work as a team. I love that they love it (because, honestly, if it wasn’t my students playing, I would never watch a basketball game. But it’s important to them, so I never miss a game and I always cheer my heart out).  I love the excitement, the joy, the rallies and the pressure. The electricity in the air during a close game and the earth-shattering release every time a basket is made. It’s exciting, lively, and fun.

But out of the two things I just discussed, I must wonder: which is more likely to help my students in the future? One is focused on mental strength, the other on physical. Both are important. Both are necessary. But only one will help the majority in their eventual professions or in their day-to-day dealings with people outside of this tiny town. I hate to admit it, but I truly do think one is more important than the other—and it’s not the one that America has accepted as the “superior” activity.

I think I can correctly state that sports in schools tend to take a higher priority than academic clubs. Sports receive more funding, have more supporters, and (from what I remember in high school) athletes are often afforded more leniency than their “geeky” counterparts.

For example: Let’s pretend that there’s a speech and debate meet on Tuesday and a football game on Wednesday. I remember having to get all of my work turned in before leaving for a Speech/Debate tournament, or having it marked late upon my return. However, athletes were encouraged to “focus on the game” and it was generally accepted that there would be no homework on a game night (for anyone, which made even us non-athletes happy). But why is there preference towards one and not the other? Is it simply because people are less aware of the academic clubs than the sports? And if that’s the case, how can we make people more aware without proper funding? Or is it the more likely reason—that people consider sports more fun and are therefore more likely to support them? No wonder we have so few people going out for speech and debate if our adults aren’t even willing to support the “boring but educational” side of extra-curricular activities.

Is extra-curricular even the correct word anymore? If teachers are changing lesson plans and homework standards or fudging grades in order to accommodate their athletes, have we not moved from the extra-curricular and into the co-curricular? Is that even fair to anyone (athletes or not)? Future classes or careers will not be lenient because you have “a game” on Saturday, so what are we preparing our students for if not success?

When I talk about speech and debate as a club at our school, some of the students laugh. Speech and debate almost always clashes with basketball schedules, so it’s nearly impossible to do both. You can probably guess which one students usually (or always) choose. And I don’t argue with them. I don’t complain, because can you imagine the flak I’d get from parents if I talked their kids out of basketball? That’s suicide right there.

So I don’t. I let the students choose for themselves and I support them unconditionally. If you happen to be one of my students and you’re reading this, do not worry.  I will always support you. But I don’t know how to tell you why I think basketball is less important than public speaking, especially when I know that sometimes basketball is the only thing your parents praise you for or even talk to you about. I don’t know how to tell you that I want you to look over these Lincoln Douglas topics because remember three weeks ago? Remember how I asked you to interview your parents and they said their greatest accomplishment in life was that they were good at basketball in high school? Is it so horrible that I want your life to be more than those that came before you? I don’t want you to look back someday and realize that your “prime” was your teenage years. Because you are capable of so much more than that. I don’t want you to set your only goal as being in the NBA and then have no other skills to support you if that doesn’t happen. I want you to know more about yourself than that “basketball is life.”

At the beginning of the year, most of my students could tell me which celebrities got engaged over the summer, but only a handful could tell me what is going on in Ferguson. When did we become a country where hair dye was more important than politics? Where we care more about what we’ve done than what we can do? Where sports are more important than academics rather than being as important?

These things are not the fault of our children. These are learned traits, and we as a culture have failed our generation and the next one in many aspects. And while that bothers me, I will not blame these young adults in front of me for their lack of enthusiasm or their hatred of academic clubs. They are only a product of a larger society.

So, Dear Student, do not worry. I will come and support you at every game. I will cheer and scream and clap. I will wear my green and gold eyeliner and draw pawprints on my check bones. But I will also give you homework. I will still teach you, whether it is game day or not. And I will hold you to higher standards than maybe your parents hold for you. Because even if I can’t get to you now, maybe someday you will look back and realize what parts of high school taught you the most. And then, maybe, you’ll encourage your children to be in speech and drama. I am patient. I will still be here. And when that time comes, I will teach your children or grandchildren as readily as I would have taught you. They will learn Lincoln Douglas debates or pantomime or dramatic skits. And I will cheer and clap and celebrate their victories unconditionally, just as I do for you now.

The world we live in is not stagnant. Just as our priorities have changed over the many generations that have led us here, so will they continue to change. Maybe we can recreate a world where the importance of being able to speak to a crowd is recognized, or where being in National Honor Society means something. Maybe our students will not cry themselves to sleep at night because they didn’t make the football team, but instead fall asleep formulating ideas that can mold nations. Maybe sports will always be a part of our lives, and that’s okay, but maybe they won’t always be the main part. Maybe there won’t always be the dividing line between speech and basketball.


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