Good Sports

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IMG_1627This past weekend found me once again on the sidelines cheering for my son in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) national championship game. The weather in the Atlanta area was picture perfect – an ideal environment for the Claremont Colleges Rugby Football Team to defend their championship title from last year.

Unfortunately, they were bested by a very physical and very good team from Iowa Central Community College and forced to settle for the second place trophy. Yet what I noticed during the match, and what has stayed with me since Sunday, was the good sportsmanship I saw displayed.

Rugby is an aggressive, physical game with lots of tackling, pushing and shoving. It seems inevitable that tempers would sometimes flare between two groups of fit and muscular men going after each other. Yet more than once during the match, I saw one of the opposing players give one of ours a hand up off the field after a tackle. I saw our player reach out and give a “bro hug” to an opponent after knocking him to the ground. At no time did I see any altercations or hear any trash talking from the field.

After the match, the teams made their traditional way opposite each other to shake hands and give each other short embraces in a display of good will. The four teams in the finals gathered together for the awards ceremony, and I was touched to see an ICCC player reach around his teammate to grasp the shoulder of one of ours.

Sports teach young men and women many valuable lessons: of team work, perseverance, battling back from adversity, and healthy competition. But I think the most valuable lesson of all is one of good sportsmanship. It’s a lesson parents and coaches can instill in our youth, one that will take them far beyond the rugby pitch.

I once heard the following quip: “Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.” Judging from Sunday’s performance at the rugby national championship, I’d definitely have to agree with the second part of that quote.

I’m so proud of my son, grateful to his coaches, and impressed by this group of young men with the heart of Lions.

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Sisters Aren’t Doing It For Themselves

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The 2018 NCAA basketball tournament has created the unlikeliest of media darlings: 98-year-old Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, the chaplain and biggest fan of Chicago’s Loyola University Ramblers. The Ramblers will make their Final Four appearance since 1963, and their diminutive mentor and cheerleader has played a role in their success.

Before each game, Sr. Jean prays with the Catholic university’s team. She sends the players encouraging emails throughout the season. And she is there to watch them play, in spite of her age and frailty. Sr. Jean has been in such demand for media appearances since Loyola’s unlikely run in the tournament that her handlers have had to turn offers down. But what I love about Sr. Jean’s fame is that she puts a public face on modern Catholic women religious in America.

Most people use the terms “nun” and “sister” interchangeably. But nuns are women who live in religious communities and function within the confines of these orders: praying, contemplating, often taking vows of silence. While nuns are also referred to as “Sister,” Catholic sisters are more active in the world outside the convent walls. Many are nurses, teachers, and agents of hospitality to the poor and marginalized of society.

When I was a child, my Catholic school had many Sisters of Mercy as teachers. My dad liked to joke and call them Sisters of No Mercy, and indeed, they could be harsh disciplinarians. The image of the sister with her ruler at the ready to physically admonish a misbehaving student is a cliche with some basis in reality. But I was always fascinated with our sisters, who wore black habits and veils that revealed absolutely no hair. I loved the click of the black rosary beads that circled the sisters’ waists.

As Vatican II started to liberalize some Catholic customs, many women religious stopped wearing habits. I remember a sister at our school who did wear a habit but allowed a large shock of bright red hair to spill out of her veil. I don’t recall her name, but she was young and she made Catholic sisters seem more human to me.

Catholic women religious in America have made important contributions to our society, including founding some of the first schools for African-American children. They have been advocates for the rights of women and minorities. But by far their most important roles have been those out of the limelight: helping the poor, tending to the sick, teaching and mentoring the young.

Long before she was a media sensation, Sr. Jean Schmidt was an active member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.). She has been a teacher for many years and was an administrator at a Catholic women’s college before winding up as Loyola’s chaplain.

As much as Sr. Jean seems to enjoy the limelight, she is still focused on her vocation as the most important thing in her life. In other words, it’s not about her or even about her beloved Ramblers. As she recently told The New York Times, “Whether we win or lose, God is still with us.”

Like the thousands of other nuns and sisters in America, Sr. Jean is special not because of her undying loyalty to Loyola basketball, but because of her undying love for God and others.

Ice Queens*

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The Winter Olympics have started, and that has turned my attention to the only event I actually follow during the weeks-long spectacle: women’s figure skating.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and I were captivated by the likes of Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and the adorable Sasha Cohen, all of them American figure skaters chasing a gold medal. Following in the tradition of American Olympic gold medalists such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi, only Sarah Hughes managed to grasp that gold ring. Still, their graceful performances on the ice were magical, and we even bought tickets to see them skate on their post-Olympic tour.

Beyond the beauty, elegance, and athleticism of these masterful skaters, their personal stories are part of the magic. This year’s crop of American Olympic hopefuls all come from ordinary, even humble, origins, and their fierce drive to succeed can be seen as against the odds.

Bradie Tennell is from my own home state of Illinois. The daughter of a single mom, she started begging to be taken ice skating at the age of 2. Unlike Tiger Woods’ father, Bradie’s mother only reluctantly allowed her daughter to enter the world of competitive ice skating. And as opposed to many Olympic hopefuls, Bradie has had the same coach for the past 10 years. That coach, Denise Meyers, refers to Bradie as “a scrapper.” Bradie Tennell stunned the competitive figure skating world by becoming the gold medalist at the U.S. Championships this past January.  Her climb to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is considered a Cinderella story. Another heart-warming part of that story is the fact that United Airlines plans to fly Bradie’s mother and brothers free of charge to South Korea so that they can see her compete.

Mirai Nagasu is another U.S. ice skater who is more than familiar with hardship. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work long hours running a restaurant in Arcadia, California. Mirai credits her parents’ hard work and sacrifice for her successes as a figure skater and her dream spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Mirai is best known for executing the difficult triple axel, a feat that she will try to accomplish in the PyeongChang Olympics this month – and a feat no other American figure skater has accomplished in the Olympics. And while her parents have seldom been able to attend her skating competitions due to the demands of running their restaurant, they will be on hand to watch her potentially make history in South Korea.

Karen Chen rounds out the list of U.S. Olympic hopefuls in women’s figure skating. Her championship medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the bronze she won in this year’s competition make her a definite contender. Like Mirai Nagasu, Karen’s parents are immigrants, in their case from Taiwan. But unlike the other two skaters on Team USA, Karen has an Olympic gold medalist in her corner: Kristi Yamaguchi, who hails from the same hometown of Fremont, California, and has become a mentor to Karen. According to Karen, Kristi routinely signs one of Karen’s ice skates before a competition for good luck. And at a mere 5 feet tall, Karen’s favorite quote is from Shakespeare: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Although none of these three skaters is expected to medal in this year’s Winter Olympics, it will be enjoyable to watch them skate and to cheer for them, knowing their back stories and their hard work to achieve excellence. Two Russian figure skaters, Yevgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, are apparently the ones to watch this year in PyeongChang. Having been exempted from the ban on Russian athletes enacted after the doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, they are sure to have something to prove as they compete with other young women from around the world.

As snow blankets my world here in Chicago, I’ll be happy to curl up in front of the TV and see the grace and skill of these young figure skaters. May the best women win!

*Postscript: Alina Zagitova edged out her Russian teammate Yevgenia Medvedeva to win the gold in the figure skating finals yesterday. The 15-year-old Zagitova bested her “elder” and the reigning champ in Russia. She will be one to watch in 2022.

 

 

 

 

Houston, We Have a Problem

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I was happy for the Houston Astros this week when they won their first ever World Series. As A Cubs fan, I can relate to years of disappointing seasons and the elation of finally having your team come through. But my happiness is tempered by the behavior of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel in Game Three of the series.

Gurriel, who had just hit a home run off of Japanese national Yu Darvish, laughed and made a slanted eyes gesture at the pitcher while savoring his feat. Witnesses also reported that he used the slur “Chinito,” which is Spanish for “little Chinese person.” While Gurriel apologized and claimed he meant no disrespect for Darvish, the incident hit a bit too close to home for me. You see, I have a Chinese daughter.

When I told my daughter about the incident, she revealed that she too has been on the receiving end of that mean-spirited slanted-eyes gesture. It happened to her at her elementary school when she was just a little kid, and it happened this past summer in Sweden when she and her soccer teammates were enjoying a local amusement park. I was appalled and saddened, yet I knew when we adopted her that she would probably face racism.

I was also disappointed that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred gave Gurriel a five game suspension but allowed him to finish the Series. As Gary Mayeda, National President of the Japanese American Citizens League, said, “It’s like getting punished as a kid, but having your parents say, ‘Well, we’ll punish you next year.'” (abc7.com, Nov. 1, 2017) Ironically, my daughter found the five game suspension a bit harsh.

It’s hard enough being of a different race in a white-dominated society. My daughter has had issues with looking different and trying to meet the Western standard of beauty. She doesn’t need to be reminded of those differences by small-minded people. And Gurriel, who is Cuban himself, should know better than to disparage someone of a minority culture.

I hope the loss of pay does hurt Gurriel enough to remind him of what he’s done. I hope it encourages him to think twice about the way he interacts with other players and with people in his day to day life. He did get a little taste of condemnation when Darvish’s teammate Rich Hill was on the mound in Game 6. He took his time when Gurriel was at bat so that fans had plenty of time to boo the Astros player. (Yahoo!Sports, Nov. 1, 2017)

Darvish himself, though, seemed to be more forgiving. He put out a statement acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes and that he hopes Gurriel learns from his. In Darvish’s own words, ” If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind. Since we are living in such a wonderful world, let’s stay positive and move forward instead of focusing on anger.” (Yahoo!Sports)

So I’m happy for Houston fans. But Gurriel’s thoughtless gestures reminds us we still have a long way to go in race relations in this world.

The End of Football?

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Football is having a bad time of it this season. The prominent spat between the NFL and President Trump certainly hasn’t helped. But the sport has also been plagued by scandal, injuries, and the mounting evidence that playing the sport often leads to permanent brain damage.

Just in today’s Chicago Tribune, there were three section one stories about football teams in trouble. Two local high schools have canceled their entire seasons: Niles North for “possible hazing” and Whitney Young magnet school, whose players have been plagued by injuries and academic ineligibility. Meanwhile, at evangelical Wheaton College, 5 players who were suspended for sexual assault and battery of a fellow player now face criminal charges.

On the Tribune‘s op ed pages, the bad news in football continued. As evidence of the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) grows, youth participation in tackle football has plummeted. Even though the NFL has pledged funding for research in this area and schools are limiting the amount of contact during practices, the thrill of this quintessential American sport has been diminished by news of more victims, such as Aaron Hernandez, who recently committed suicide. (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 27, 2017)

The link between football and violence should be obvious just from watching the game. But the number of players linked to domestic abuse is troubling, as is the growing problem of hazing on football teams. Perhaps it is time to retire a game that increasingly seems to have risks that outweigh the benefits.

My son plays football and has done so since the age of 11. It worries me to think that his future might be compromised by the punishment he takes on the field each week. And it horrifies me to think he could be part of a culture of violence that disrespects a person’s basic human rights.

Are we seeing the beginning of the end of football? Maybe that would not be such a bad thing at all.

Thank You, President Trump

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Dear President Trump,

On behalf of a divided nation, thank you. Your insensitive and thinly veiled racist jabs at Colin Kaepernick and other black NFL players has had some beautiful unintended consequences.

Prior to your latest childish and angry tweet, wherein you called peaceful protesters “sons of bitches,” a few NFL players had been taking a stand (so to speak) by taking a knee during the national anthem at the start of games. Since your remarks, entire teams of NFL players, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, have chosen to remain off the field rather  than salute a flag that stands for freedoms they find far too elusive. More and more players have chosen this dignified and nonviolent method of protesting police brutality and institutional racism. So rather than do away with the practice, your hateful comments have created a tidal wave.

Another unintended consequence of your hate-spewing bile is that you have fostered unity among players, coaches, and others who support their teammates in their struggles to right injustice. Last night at the Dallas Cowboys game, the entire team including the coach took a knee to make such a statement of solidarity. Then they stood, arms locked together, during the anthem. All of this had been agreed upon beforehand in conversations that may never have taken place had you not had one of your Twitter tantrums.

I have also noticed people who are not particularly political taking a stand – whether prominent celebrities or just Facebook friends who are fed up with the hatred and casual racism that has been growing like a cancer since you took office. Their courage to speak out gives me great hope in our future. It gives me hope that your election was an aberration and that people of good will can bring some sanity and dignity back to our great nation.

I pray that this movement continues to grow and that it forces local and state governments to take action against police brutality and other forms of institutional racism in this country. I pray that it is not just a blip on the screens of our lives. I pray that it energizes a new civil rights era and moves us away from division and hate and towards unity and equality for all.

Great Expectations

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I have grown used to my husband being the more common-sensical person in our marriage. With his take charge personality, he seems to know how to handle just about any situation. I have grown so used to this trait of his that I find myself disappointed when he is wrong about something or admits he doesn’t know what to do. I have this expectation that he will keep us safe and well-functioning as a family no matter what.

What a heavy burden that is to place upon a person! I think men in general carry a lot of emotional weight around, not really allowed by society to crack or show weakness. While we women also bear much responsibility in our families, we are given leave to vent, to ask for help, and to lean on others.

Expectations can be difficult to live with. When our child fails to meet our behavioral standards, our parental disappointment is felt keenly not only by ourselves, but by our kids as well. I know I have felt betrayed and disillusioned by catching my child in a lie or in finding out they were unkind to a friend. Parental expectations can also put undue pressure on our children. Right now, my youngest daughter is going through high school final exams. She wants to do well, and that fact contributes to her stress. But she also has to live with our expectations as parents that she excel academically. As often as I say to her, “Just do your best,” she knows in her heart that I am hoping for a perfect report card.

Our children, for their part, often have superhuman expectations of us as parents. As they get older and see our imperfections, as they realize we are not infallible, they lose some of the comfort and security that their wide-eyed innocence afforded them.

It’s hard to see our heroes fall. Recently, Tiger Woods was arrested for a DUI, to the disappointment of many fans who idolized him for his golfing prowess. It’s the same for other athletes, political leaders, artists, and anyone else who has attained a larger than life persona. We have set them on pedestals, and it is all too easy to fall off those exalted mounts.

On the other side lies cynicism. We start to doubt anyone who attains acclaim for great talent, public service, charity, or career success. We become jaded by scandal and the inevitable recognition that being human means making (sometimes huge) mistakes.

We need to attain a happy medium wherein we can admire and hope for the best in people, where we can encourage goodness and excellence without crushing someone’s spirit when they fail, where our expectations of each other are tempered by compassion and the recognition that we are all imperfect beings and that most of us are trying our best to be good people.

For my part, I will try not to expect my husband to be my constant rescuer. I will love my children unconditionally and let them know that nothing they could ever do will change how I feel about them. I will even try not to be so hard on myself when I inevitably stumble. Better to practice great encouragement than to saddle people with great expectations.