His Scenic City Youth Football League having taken over Finley Stadium on Saturday, SCYFL president Bobby Dunn stared down from the press box at his undersized scrappers in oversized helmets and said, “I like to think we’ve been successful because we’re about more than football.”
Thank goodness. Because just exactly what the oblong ball stands for these days beyond causing brain traumas, promoting a culture that might makes right and filling the coffers of big-time college athletic departments, NFL franchises and television networks is becoming more and more difficult to grasp.
Whether it’s the emotionless ramblings of the NFL’s catatonic commish Roger Goodell regarding his league’s domestic violence crisis, the ongoing concussion issue or the latest bit of mindless mischief from reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis “Shame-us” Winston, football rarely has seemed so dominated by negativity on so many levels.
But none of that seemed the case Saturday at Finley. Kids from 6 to 10 played, parents respectfully watched and politely cheered and coaches taught with mostly encouraging words.
And despite the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga enjoying an off week, there was even a quarterback running around in a No. 14 jersey with the name H-U-E-S-M-A-N on the back. UTC coach Russ Huesman’s youngest son Levi led his Lookout Valley 10-under team to an easy win over Lakeside.
“As long as he’s having fun,” Pop said. “He got a hip flexor last week and I didn’t think he was going to play. But he wanted to be out there for his teammates.”
That’s what football used to be about. Fun. Toughness. The ultimate team sport, all 11 players forced to function as one if the team is to succeed on the scoreboard.
But real life is less structured. There’s no referee to throw a flag the moment you start to become too aggressive with a woman, as when an argument between former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his future wife escalated into Rice knocking out Janay Palmer, who also was the mother of his child, in a casino elevator last February.
Sadly, there also was no one around to flag Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for excessive force before he drew blood and delivered bruises to his 4-year-old son while giving him, in Peterson’s words, a “whoopin'” with a stick.
Then there was Florida State’s Winston, who certainly deserved a flag for insensitivity and continued stupidity when he climbed atop a student union table earlier this week and shouted a crude obscenity surely both hurtful and objectionable to every woman who heard it.
And while it’s both easy and proper to blame Rice and Winston for their actions, Dunn and Harrison coach Larry “Sugar Bear” McCullough also blame those who coached them.
“It’s not the players, it’s the coaches,” Dunn said. “And it’s all the way down the line. At least Florida State changed its suspension of Winston to a whole game [against Clemson on Saturday night] instead of the original half-game. Just imagine if they’d kept the half-game, Clemson had led at the half and Winston led FSU to a comeback win in the second half. He’d be a hero to a lot of fans, no matter what he’d done to get suspended. There’s just too many coaches at all level of sports now who’ll let anything slide to win a game.”
Added McCullough: “I’ve got parents now who worry more about their kid playing well than doing well in school. I drill them more about schoolwork than football. Football is secondary.”
It might be third in Vanessa Israel’s home. A single mother of four, she home-schools her children, including young Chemi, her lone son who plays on the 10-under Lakeside team.
“I have zero tolerance for domestic violence,” she said. “But I’m also concerned about what they hear rather than what they see, because I believe what they hear becomes a part of what they’re thinking whether they realize it or not.”
And while males across the Tennessee Valley may have focused on every aspect of the Rice saga the past couple of weeks, Lookout Valley mom Candace Quails admitted most of her knowledge of Rice could be summed up in a Tweet she saw that read, “The lines were longer to return his jersey than to buy the new iPhone.”
Yet somehow, some way, the desired lesson seems to be getting through.
Young Tanner Salinas of McCullough’s Harrison team said he’s learned “not to abuse somebody like your wife.”
Ten-year-old Mason Killingsworth, a Salinas teammate, added, “Respect women and think before you do something you shouldn’t.”
Domestic violence isn’t confined to athletes. According to www.safehorizon.org, one in four women will become a victim of domestic violence at least once in her lifetime. That’s not one in four women who are wives or girlfriends of NFL players. That covers all women.
But sports has a unique power to change the narrative. Think Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics. Think Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe concerning AIDS. Or merely consider this quote from former Alabama assistant and Kentucky head coach Jerry Claiborne after Sam “Bam” Cunningham scored two touchdowns and rushed for 135 yards in Southern Cal’s 42-21 win over all-white Alabama inside Birmingham’s Legion Field in 1970:
“Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
Let us hope that Rice punching his wife and Peterson flogging his child, however repugnant those events, can have a similar quick impact on domestic violence and child abuse. On a single Saturday at Finley, it certainly seemed possible.
Reprinted from the Chattanooga Times Free Press.