29 October 2010

Where the adults are...

A twenty-year-old kid named Declan Sullivan died this week.

He died because adults, responsible, extraordinarily well-paid adults at one of America's most prestigious universities had first convinced him that his job videoing football practice was so important that he would take extraordinary risks to do it, and then then because those same adults refused to take the normal precautions for employee safety we'd expect of any workplace.

how about taking responsibility?

But he also died because of skewed priorities in American education, skewed priorities and sorry messages which claim too many lives. That this occurred in the same 24 news cycle which included the incredible homophobic Facebook posts of an Arkansas school board member makes the need for change more obvious than ever.
"The harmful by-product of big-time sports is the myopia required of those intimately involved. To compete at the elite level requires an entire network of people -- athletes, coaches, trainers, support personnel -- to all subscribe to the same skewed belief system: that what they do in the field of competition actually has some larger, intrinsic value beyond winning a game, meeting a profit margin or padding a university's coffers."

"When you work and live around others who only know how to live and work that way, the grand scheme gets shoved aside.

"And the only times these people are driven from their cocoons is when reality in the form of tragedy punctures the walls. Declan Sullivan died Wednesday afternoon when the automatic lift that had him high off the ground collapsed amid the 51-mph wind gusts in South Bend, Ind. He was up there in those conditions because his job was to film Notre Dame football practice." - Mike Wise in The Washington Post
When I read Mike Wise's column I posted this comment: "In high schools across the United States, and yes, in Middle Schools and even some elementaries, football is raised up as the ultimate expression of both the school and the community. At universities across the nation the football coach is typically the highest paid person on campus, often the highest paid public employee in the state. Football is the most promoted feature of so many universities. Are we really surprised that a 20-year-old assumes that he is serving a "higher mission" by risking his life for the most important thing at the most famous university in America. Notre Dame is an extreme example of this of course, but it is hardly alone. And I feel awful for Brian Kelly, who went from being a great coach at a university (Grand Valley State) where varsity athletics had a logical (Division 2) place in the scheme of things. Now, sucked into pursuing "the dream" and the accompanying riches, he is here, wondering why he was not responsible enough to move practice inside, or at least tell one of his student employees not to behave recklessly. The cure for this "disease" lies in rethinking our educational priorities up and down the line. In rethinking which kids get most celebrated in our communities. And in rethinking how we hold adults at educational institutions accountable for their decisions.

Real men hate...
But in that comment I did not make the most important case, which lies in how football is used in American schools - and far too often that use is to enforce conformity, to train tribalism, and to encourage bullying by ranking some students as more valuable than others.

Walk into any high school, or onto most US university campuses, and you will see an adult created hierarchy. Often it begins with football players at the top, and gay students, minority students, disabled students, at the bottom.

Peer pressure doesn't create that ranking, "grown ups" do. They're the ones who build giant football stadiums while skimping on essential educational tools. They're the ones who fill those stadiums with people who rarely find the time to cheer differing types of student accomplishment and courage. They're the ones who walk around deifying certain athletes and celebrating even those close to those athletes, thus announcing to all who is valued.

So there is the wilful ignorance of basic safety...
"According to government safety regulations, “work on or from scaffolds is prohibited during storms or high winds unless a competent person has determined that it is safe for employees to be on the scaffold and those employees are protected by a personal fall arrest system or wind screens. Wind screens shall not be used unless the scaffold is secured against the anticipated wind forces imposed.”' - South Bend Tribune
And then there are "traditions" which, when embraced, savage kids on all sides of the lines we adults draw. The Declan Sullivans who are figuratively (or in this case literally) crushed by joining in, and the students who figuratively and literally die because they fail to match the single descriptors of success we create.

What do we do? Well, maybe we can start by acting like adults. Responsible, accountable adults, and consider the side effects of our actions. If you look around your school, decide what you can do to spread the acclaim around. Maybe skip every other football game, devoting that time to watching a "minor" sport, or a play, or a concert. Maybe you need to hold pep rallies celebrating student art. Maybe you need to offer your support to the school's Gay/Straight Alliance instead of attending a basketball game or two. Maybe "Homecoming" should revolve around some things other than a football game and a popularity contest. Maybe you think about athletics as an important part of education for a large group of students, and thus invest more in participation and a bit less in creating a spectator sport (adding sports rather than rebuilding major sport facilities might be an example of this).

I don't know the answers, but I think I know the questions we should be asking. And those questions revolve around the messages we are sending to our children.

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

I remember back in high school, I was in the marching band. It was the way you got out of PE class. :-)

But because I was in the band, I had to go to pre-game pep rallies, which I despised. They were in the morning before school on the day of the football game. And in Texas, the high school football game is a religious experience.

There was one pep rally, late in the school year, where the principal announced that our school was shutting down, and that we'd be merging with our rival school.

This was an intense rivalry. Even nerds like me were supposed to hate the other school, and we kinda did.

The principal gave students a chance to come to the microphone and say how they felt about the closing of the school. And one of the most popular girls in school came up to the mic in tears and sobbed out the following:

"I know the school has to close, but how can we go to Stratford? They're our rivals, and we'd have to get along even after all the mean things we said about them!"

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.


Anonymous said...

I feel awful for the Notre Dame student and his family and friends who have to continue life without him. I understand this situation because a close friend of mine was seriously injured during a football game. That being said, it is not the football community's fault that this tragic accident happened and I'm positive that it is the football community that will rally around this young man's family and give them the support they will need. Some view football the way that is presented in this blog, however there is a complete other side that few people know. This side of football is one about family, high expectations and great role models. Look at Michigan State's football program right now. Thanks to Coach Dantonio football is no longer viewed as the "dumb jocks". He has created a program where the boys publicly pray before and after each game, involve themselves in the community and earn high grades. They take time to visit schools and emphasize the point of getting a good education and going to college. They have "family" dinners 3 times a week and are always there for each other. This is due to a few great adults who realize the potential that these young men have.

In college students are viewed as adults. We are given the option to go or skip class, drink or not drink alcohol and make the decisions that shape our everyday lives. We are viewed as adults. While it is tragic that this young man died, it was his own decision to stay on the tower. I highly doubt that the Notre Dame coaching staff forced that young man to be up there. The young man felt the winds, he could have stepped down.There are many ways to video tape practice and it was his own choice to stay up there. Did the coaching staff say something to him about the weather? Did the young man feel pressured by society to do this job? We may never know, but we do need to recognize that every situation comes with risks and as adults we need to do what is best for ourselves and not blame those around us.

Unknown said...

Control System Lab

Stephanie Dunaway's EDM310 Blog said...

Hi! I am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class at South Alabama. After hearing this story it broke my heart. I can't imagine what his family, friends, and the Notre Dame community is going through, but my prayers are out to them. I would have to agree with the above post that blame shouldn't all fall on the football community as adults. As a college student, with this JOB, it was his decision of whether or not it was safe to perform his job that day. There is definitely a chance that he felt pressured to go into the stand, but that is part of being an adult, you may have to face making tough decisions sometimes, even against the pressure of others. Again, it was an unfortunate ACCIDENT that could have been prevented, but I don't think you can truly place BLAME on anyone...it was a TRAGIC ACCIDENT!!

Stephanie Dunaway