Gridiron Glory

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boy_running_with_footballI’m not a big football fan. Despite the fact that my son played the sport for many years and that America gives it almost mythological significance, the three-hour spectacle generally leaves me bored.

Still, there is something in the air when football season begins each fall. For one thing, my husband starts watching sports more often than Fox News, giving me a much-needed respite from right-wing political diatribes. As preseason stories focus on new players and team predictions, the imposing men of the gridiron dominate the media.

During my son’s teen years, I watched as he and his teammates began turning themselves from average-sized young guys into massive, bulked-up behemoths. I’d never realized that football players could be made, not born, into these giants. A simple regimen of intense weight-lifting and large amounts of food was all it took to make my boy into the Incredible Hulk. My fellow mothers of linemen surely must feel as I do. Where did our little boys go?

Tonight marks the football home opener at our local high school. For weeks I’ve seen local news stories, banners and posters, and social media posts talking up the start of Red Devil season. The cheerleaders are decked out in costume, the band is tuning up, and the stadium is getting a spruce for tonight’s kickoff. Excitement is in the air.

My son will be on hand to see his Red Devil heirs take the field. It’s fun to see him still excited about high school football, which is so much less polished but more wild and woolly than college or professional ball. Although his own football days are behind him, I can easily imagine him returning here to his hometown and coaching his own boys in the youth league. Football is as much a part of him as his dark eyes and mischievous smile.

I may not take in many games myself this fall, but I’ll savor my loved ones’ enjoyment of the sport as the days turn cool and the leaves start to fall. I’ll tend to the pot of chili on the stove as College Game Day cheers emanate from the television. It’s football season. Let the games begin!

 

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USWNT Strives for Equity

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The other day I did a Google Images search for the U.S. Women’s National Team that is poised to bring home the World Cup on Sunday. To my chagrin, the very first image that greeted me was a shot of Alex Morgan in a bikini. Here is a professional soccer dynamo who has scored over 100 goals in her career, including 2 in the 2011 World Cup and 6 in the current contest, being reduced to a sex object. (An image search of the U.S. Men’s National Team yielded no corresponding beefcake photos.)

Sexism also seems to be at the heart of the pay differential that the current USWNT is challenging with both FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation. The USSF has been claiming that men’s soccer yields higher profits and therefore higher payouts to male players. Yet the “U.S. women’s team generated more revenue for the federation from 2016-18, bringing in $50.8 million compared to $49.9 million by the men’s squad.” (“Pay dispute resurfaces as U.S. women prepare for World Cup final,” Reuters, July 3, 2019)

The lawsuit against the USSF argues that in addition to the pay differences, women’s soccer gets inferior treatment in publicity, travel and training conditions, and medical attention as compared to the men’s team. Yet the women’s team has been far more successful in the past several years than the men’s team has.

During the semifinal game against England the other day, when Carli Lloyd made her way onto the field towards the end of the game, she was greeted with rock star level adulation. The two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, and 2015 & 2016 FIFA Player of the Year is just one of the superstars that have made this year’s Women’s World Cup such an exciting event.

It’s disheartening to me that in 2019, almost 50 years after the historic Title IX legislation that addressed inequities in education and athletics between males and females, women athletes still have to fight for better pay, working conditions, and respect.

The women on the USWNT are our daughters’ heroes. Let’s give them their due.

Divas in Cleats

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When the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team takes the field against France today in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, millions of fans will be cheering for their own red, white, and blue team. If France were to win the World Cup this year, it would be the first time that both men’s and women’s teams from the same country held the championship at the same time. (Sports Illustrated, June 3-10, 2019) But I’m placing my bets on the irrepressible U.S. team.

The U.S. women came out roaring with a 13-0 trouncing of Thailand in their 2019 World Cup debut. Critics assailed their “running up the score” against a clearly overwhelmed Thai team, and many questioned the U.S. players need to celebrate each goal with such glee. But these soccer divas left no question in anyone’s mind about their dominance on the world stage.

The word diva has developed negative connotations, conjuring images of difficult and temperamental female stars. And certainly some Americans might take issue with Megan Rapinoe’s strong anti-Trump stance. But I refer to the USWNT as divas in the original sense; the word comes from Latin and literally means “goddesses.”

Women’s sports are infamously underpaid and under-appreciated, especially team sports. Despite the fact that the USWNT scored more goals in one game than the U.S. men’s team scored all season, professional female soccer players in America make a fraction of the money their male counterparts make. Even in the World Cup, the $30 million in prize money for the women’s tournament looks pitiable when compared to the men’s $400 payout. (SI, June 3-10, 2019) In fact, the discrepancy in pay has been an underlying topic during this year’s Women’s World Cup. Let’s hope the excitement and dazzle of the women’s performance in the tournament leads to an improvement in gender pay equity.

I have watched more soccer games in my lifetime than I ever dreamed I’d see. All of my four children at one time or another have played the game. And my youngest is determined not only to play throughout high school, but to find a spot on a college soccer squad. My daughter has been working relentlessly toward that goal: sacrificing time with friends, getting up early, traveling to tournaments and soccer clinics across the country, keeping herself physically fit and mentally hungry.

I’m delighted that my daughter and countless other girls and women are getting a front seat to the greatness that can be achieved by a group of women out on a soccer field. I’m thrilled to witness the strength, athleticism, and camaraderie that the U.S. women’s team has displayed on the world stage.

Regardless of the outcome of today’s match between the U.S. and France, I will have only one thing to say about the fearless women of soccer: “Brava!”

Try, Try Again

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IMG_4547In rugby, a score across the opponent’s goal line is called a “try.” When my husband and I first began watching our son play this curious sport, we were bemused by that term. (My husband still occasionally calls it a touchdown.) After all, it’s much more than a try; it’s an accomplishment.

Terminology notwithstanding, we have found much to enjoy in this “hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen.” For one, it’s a much faster paced sport than football. There’s no grim march down the field to advance yardage. In rugby, it’s more of an up and down run as players get tackled and then instantly pass the ball (backwards!) to a teammate, continuing the advance until they score, lose the ball, or garner a penalty.

Rugby seems like a big guy’s game. Indeed, his size and strength seem to be our son’s secret weapons in the scrum. Overall, though, speed and agility are immensely important for all the players on the field. So smaller players can be very effective at getting the ball down the field, weaving in and out between opponents, and other maneuvers. This athleticism is just a lot of fun to watch.

Last weekend, our son’s college team, the Claremont Lions, once again took the national title in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) championship cup. Try and try again they did, as they racked up a score of 57-17 against the Christendom Crusaders.

My husband and I were, of course, thrilled with the club’s victory and series of accomplishments since our son started with the team three years ago. But we were even more impressed with the relationships these young men have developed off the field as a result of their participation in college rugby. In a ceremony the night before the title match, the boys each shared what it meant to them to be playing for the national championship – and, more importantly, what it meant to them to be part of this team. It was a beautiful display of friendship and belonging that transcends any victories or losses on the field.

I’m not sure how well I’ll ever understand the rough and tumble sport of rugby. It has taken me a lifetime to get the rules of American football and basketball. (And I still have questions!) What is clear to me is how much joy my son gets out of playing rugby with a great group of guys. Too soon, his college and rugby careers will be a thing of the past. But no one will ever take away the memories he has made and continues to make as a Claremont Colleges Lion. I’d like to see them try.

 

Second to None

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jmnlnq8gmyk5u5g4p7ifThere was jubilation in the Second City this weekend as the Chicago Bears not only defeated their nemesis, the Green Bay Packers, but also clinched the NFC North title for the first time in eight years. First a World Series championship for the drought-ridden Cubs, and now a possible Super Bowl slot for our beleaguered, beloved Bears!

Lately, there has been a lot of negative media focus on the state of Illinois finances and the violence and dysfunction in the city of Chicago. In particular, police abuse of black suspects and weekend shooting sprees on the South and West sides make our fair city seem bleak and inhospitable. Particularly in the winter, when the greenery is scant and the temps dip low, it’s easy to bash the “city of big shoulders,” as Carl Sandburg described it in 1914.

Yet my hometown remains a vital, interesting, and important part of the American landscape. It may be true that thousands of Illinoisans have left the state in search of jobs and lower taxes. But a recent report showed that the exodus hasn’t had an appreciable negative effect on the economy here. (“Fitch Ratings Inc. says Illinois’ out-migration a ‘long-established’ trend that hasn’t hurt state’s economic growth,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 2018)

Chicago has a thriving cultural scene that rivals anything happening on either coast. Live theater, professional dance, architectural marvels, and a world class restaurant scene make it easy to find interesting activities any day of the week. We have museums that feature great art work, scientific marvels, and the history of both Chicago and the Earth itself.

There is certainly no evidence of a “brain drain” from our fair city either. People come to Chicago from across the country for access to some of the best medical facilities in the world. The University of Chicago boasts numerous Nobel Laureates and innovators in the sciences and economics. Northwestern University, a quick hop, skip, and jump from the city, is a preeminent institution of higher learning. Its state of the art medical campus features views of the Great Lake Michigan.

Our president and others in the public eye may like to focus on the negatives of a city that is home to 2.7 million people of all different races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic statuses. I choose to see Chicago as I have always seen it: an exciting, boisterous, friendly, and down-to-earth place that I am thrilled to call home.

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.

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.