Monday, May 23, 2011

Sports Awards - A Waste of Time?

This is going to be a long post, primarily because I am going to include the text of an "open letter" I just sent to our school district's Board of Directors, Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, Principal, Vice-Principal, and Athletic Director.  I also sent it to as many parents of Palisades student-athletes as I could find emails. 

I've decided to post this on my blog because my feathers are so incredibly ruffled, it just seems like it would be a travesty not to publish it on "Ruffled Feathers."

*And for the record?  My son is not a senior.

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing this letter to express my dismay at the recent revelation that there will be no Sports Awards ceremony for Palisades High School athletes this year.  And by recent, I mean that I only discovered on Thursday evening (at 9:30 p.m., after sitting for two days through a rain-soaked District 11 Track Championship) that the date reserved on our family's calendar for Monday, May 23 at 7:00 p.m., designated as the assigned date of the ONLY athletic awards ceremony for the entire year (encompassing all of the sports played by Palisades student over a period of nine months) had been canceled.

Canceled?  No!  They wouldn't cancel it without telling us!  Surely not at this late date.  Surely not after just last year changing what had been a long-standing tradition of twice a year gathering all of the athletes and their parents and supporters together for a joint celebration of achievements and sharing of valiant efforts to a single, end-of-year lumping together of every single sport played during the entire school year?!

Last year had been slap in the face enough.  Wondering why we hadn't received the standard letter advising us of the ceremony, suddenly (and again, unannounced to the vast majority of people who were impacted by this decision), it was November and we were told that there would be no Fall Sports Award ceremony.  No gathering to award cherished varsity letters or MVP honors; no recounting of valiant efforts to overcome challenges, to develop team unity, to push individual limits, to become League Champions or, even in some cases, District Champions.  No shared opportunity to celebrate our young people's efforts to weave intense dedication and physical training into the academic dedication it takes to maintain good (and often excellent) grades.

No, this opportunity would be postponed until the end of the entire school year, when the victories, challenges, and sometimes amazing stories of perseverance and great achievements of the Fall sports had necessarily faded to make room for the just-as-exciting stories of success and sometimes heartbreak of the Winter and Spring sports.

And so it was, last year, that everything was lumped into one single event at the end of the year.  Mind you, this event was scheduled at a time when seniors were already stuffing end-of-high-school events into their busy schedules, and some teams were even still embroiled in post-season playoffs.  Indeed, I believe the baseball team was unable to attend last year precisely because they were at a game at the very time the awards were taking place.  The girls softball team may also have been in a similar situation - either that or they had just had a game the night before and had yet another scheduled the next evening.

There were many reasons why turnout was lower than any other sports award ceremony I can remember attending.  (This is a completely unscientific assessment of attendance, as it is based only on my personal recollection and "eyeball" estimate of attendance, having attended virtually every sports award event since 1996.)  Nevertheless, based on the astonishing decision made this year, apparently the Athletic Department decided, too, that attendance was pretty low last year.  In fact, so low that we might as well do without it all together.

After all, our Athletic Director, and her department secretary, had to spend the entire next day handing out "roughly 70%" of the awards that could have been distributed the night before, had the students receiving those awards shown up for the "All-in-One" evening assembly. 

I'm sure poor attendance had nothing to do with the fact that many of the students who participate in Fall sports also participate in Winter and Spring sports.  Thus, if they were busy in a playoff game for their Spring sport, they would, of necessity, be unavailable to receive accolades or even think much about whatever they achieved or overcame some six months prior.  Too bad, that.  Some of these students had stellar seasons in the Fall, but for whatever reason (injuries, less raw talent in a different sport, whatever) didn't have as great a season in the Winter or Spring.  Nevertheless, they were unable to attend the all-sports-for-all-seasons awards night because of their dedication and commitment to their current sport, because they are team players and had other responsibilities and priorities (i.e., "being there" for their teammates).

I'm also sure that poor attendance had nothing to do with the cavalier way the Fall sports awards had been so easily dismissed.  Gee, students today...  They just have no respect for the time and work that goes into those awards nights.  They are so embroiled in video games and their computers, and hanging out on the corner that they are immune to perceiving disrespect - or at the very least, complete lack of respect - from the school administration.  These are just dumb kids anyhow - they don't care.  OH WAIT!  We're talking about the kids who DO care enough to show up at practices after school every day.  Who DON'T go home after school and play video games or immerse themselves in mindless activities in the dark basements of their lives.  Who FIGURE OUT how to balance getting all their academic work done, attend practice, (some even holding down jobs, as well), give their competitions 100% of their focus and energy, manage to take the SAT and ACT on the weekend, and even take AP exams on days when games or meets are held.  Slackers.

I think it is safe to say that there were many reasons why attendance may have been low last year at our brand new amazing celebrate-the-entire-year-in-sport in an hour and a half extravaganza.

So how do we respond to this lower attendance?  CUT THE AWARDS COMPLETELY!

Yes, that will show those ungrateful little b*&^%#@s just who is in charge.  We'll give them a video and they can retreat into their dark basements and watch the memories for years to come.  No matter that the "awards" this year are filmed in an empty room.  No matter that there is no audience to be taped applauding the achievements of these athletes, no shots of groups of parents chatting together and reminiscing about when one family's hockey player and another family's basketball player used to play "bumble bee soccer" together when they were five years old. 

All these kids (and their parents) care about is hearing good things said about themselves.  We all know how selfish people are today.  We'll give 'em what they want.  EXPOSURE.  They can show this DVD to all the world!  They can post it on Facebook!  They can send it to college recruiters!

Yes, these are some of the reasons I've heard and read (directly from the Athletic Director), and some of the supposed "perks" that will result, for why "key stakeholders" decided to do away with the Awards night. 

And in what turns out to be typical fashion for decisions made by Palisades administrators, it was decided "whenever," but announced at the last minute.  "Too late!" is the response when faced with the completely understandable and expected upset and concern expressed by students and parents who are not, apparently, considered "key" stakeholders.  "You should have attended the Sports Committee meeting if you wanted to be in on the decision.  Take it to them whenever their next meeting is and see if they'll change it next year." 

The implication underlying such a cavalier response is astounding.  First of all, in this day and age, when most people are working hard just to make ends meet, some working more than one job, others in the depths of depression because they no longer have a job and cannot find a new one, parents are apparently being told that avoiding sweeping changes to basic, long-standing events such as a Sports Awards ceremony requires them to attend School Board Sports Committee meetings and/or have some undefined yet clearly superlative credentials so as to be considered a "KEY" stakeholder and thus asked one's opinion.  Would it have taken that great an effort to send out a questionnaire, either via email or regular mail, asking the athletes and their parents for their opinion on the value of Sports Awards night before eliminating it?

Secondly, there are many people for whom this decision marks the end of their "Palisades High School experience."  There are no "next times" for seniors (and parents of seniors), particularly those seniors who have no younger siblings, or are in fact the youngest of many siblings who have enjoyed a rich tradition of participating in Palisades athletics.  Many of these families will never have the opportunity to gather again and experience the unique friendship and camaraderie of the families they've shared their lives with over the past, in most cases, at least twelve years. 

Why won't they get together again?  Because many of us became friends precisely (and only) because of the shared community created by the Palisades School District. Because of the rural nature of our district, most of us would never even have met had our children not gone to school together and participated in various activities, including sports. Life is busy. Attention to surviving the changes that are coming at us from all directions will begin taking priority.

Our shared commonality - our children - are growing up, moving on, and many will move away and rarely, if ever, return to the Palisades area.

The simple truth is that the Sports Awards were a way for us all to maintain the sense of community that sports can - and should - foster.  It was like a family reunion twice a year.  "Wow, look at how tall Kevin has grown!"  "What are Sally's plans for next year?" 

This opportunity for the Palisades families to come together was important for other reasons, as well.  Once our kids get to high school, they are of necessity required to choose between some sports and others.  Kids who played soccer together since they were five suddenly find that a third of their friends no longer choose to play soccer anymore at age 15.  Instead, they run cross country or track, play football or softball, or compete in baseball, field hockey or tennis.  All of a sudden, the parents, in particular, discover that they no longer see their small circle of soccer-parent friends, with whom they perhaps took for granted that they spent weekends with, year after year, sometimes nine, ten months of the year.  Or because of the scheduling of games and the difficulties most find in getting to attend even their own children's events, they lose track of what sports the little girl down the street is now playing (only to find out, at Sports Awards, that she is a superstar softball player being recruited by Stanford). 

Sports Awards nights were our opportunity to reconnect, to celebrate, to hear great stories about our friends' and neighbors' children.  They were often our last opportunity to celebrate what for many of us have been the most intense, joyful, difficult, fun, and hectic days of our lives together with other people who know exactly what it's been like.

Sports Awards nights were, in essence, the culmination of what our school district has fostered and cherished for years.  Indeed, in or around 1996, the Jolly Roger Society was founded.  As one of its founding members, I was intimately involved in drafting our mission statement.  Integral to that mission statement was the recognition that the Palisades School District (all 100 square miles of it) is the geographical and governmental entity that unites people living within this vast area - and sports, primarily (with arts certainly included) being the uniting factor that brings families together and creates a sense of community that supports, nurtures, and enhances the quality of life for us all.  Our creation of the "JRS," as it was known then, was to improve the facilities available to our athletes so that even more would participate and members of the community who don't even have children would realize that our facilities were available to all.

It was about creating community.

Now, the Jolly Roger Society has changed its name and is known as the Palisades Community Foundation - a perfect moniker for the entity that recognized and valued the importance of sports and arts to the creation of a sense of family in our vast school district.

Another placating response offered by the administration?  "Change is hard," (with an unspoken, "Get over it," being broadcast loud and clear).

Pardon me, Palisades Administration, but your arrogance is showing.  Change is difficult.  And many, many families are being asked to accept gigantic changes in their lives, in our society as a whole, in the world, in our families, in our self-concepts, in our ability to pay our mortgages and bills.  Change is never easy.  But I'll bet if you ask anyone, in private, they will admit that going through change is easier if you know you're not alone.  If you have friends and loved ones who, if not going through exactly what you're going through, can relate to you, can put their arms around you and tell you that you matter.

And changing something as simple and basic as a Sports Awards ceremony, from twice a year to not at all is a change that doesn't need to happen.  It was, essentially, a change made to accommodate two people (the Athletic Director and her secretary), both of whom have good jobs, health insurance, and a sense of security, if not entitlement, to make their jobs easier.  Heaven forbid they have to spend a day or two following the awards handing out certificates and varsity letters to students who were unable to attend.

It should not matter if 10 kids and their families and friends show up at that awards ceremony or 200 attend.  They deserve to have their awards presented to them in person, in front of their families and peers, with the opportunity to be applauded and feel good about their individual and team achievements.  And contrary to the idea that Ms. George stated (to me, in a face-to-face conversation on Friday) that essentially blamed the lack of attendance on kids not being satisfied with receiving "just" a Certificate for participating - and thus not bothering to attend because they are "used to receiving trophies in everything just for participating," - while that assertion may certainly have some truth, one does not punish those students who cared enough to work hard enough to earn that varsity letter in their sport (as opposed to "just" a Certificate of Participation) by canceling the awards ceremony completely!

Instead, perhaps some of the young people who see the enthusiasm displayed when their peers and upper classmen receive their varsity letters will realize that there is, in fact, something to be said for striving to achieve an award that rewards something more than “just showing up.”  And isn’t there value in seeing students who are perhaps on the JV team or otherwise play the role of “supporting character” in one sport, who play on a team simply because they enjoy the game, making it to States in another sport, later in the school year?  Most of us can’t be the best at everything we do.  And even those who do excel at everything need other people who are willing to step up and do their best in order to play the game or field a team. Much can be instilled in our youth by showing them that being part of a team matters.  Much can be learned by our young people simply by giving them the opportunity to see and hear how their peers in other sports handle success, adversity, and challenges to their self-esteem. 

Finally, I happen to be lucky enough to be self-employed and able to rearrange my schedule and make certain sacrifices to be able to attend most, if not all, of my son's track meets.  While my middle son was in high school athletics, I was working for a non-profit in center city Philadelphia, commuting via train every day.  I found it simply impossible to arrange my schedule to be able to make it to most of his meets, a fact I've always regretted, even though I knew there was nothing I could do about it at that time.  One bright spot is that I still have parents who come up to me and reminisce about their experiences cheering for my son in my absence - an act of love and caring that means so much to me.

It is precisely because of those parents and because I appreciate my current good fortune that I try my best to vociferously cheer on ALL our kids at our track meets.  It is important to me, as a parent, to "be there" for ALL our kids (or as many as I could see from the stands - sorry throwers, you were admittedly neglected), letting them know that they were being watched and cheered and called upon to do their very best.  I felt it my responsibility and my highest priority, as a Palisades parent, to represent all the parents who couldn't be at those track meets to personally see their children do their best in their events.  I'm sure they would have been there if they could have managed it.

I say this not to make myself out to be something wonderful - but rather to drive home the point that most parents did not - and do not - have the luxury of being able to see even their own children perform at their competitions, much less see their kids' friends competing in other sports.  The Sports Awards nights were sometimes the only opportunity many parents had to gain an appreciation for what their sons, daughters, and all their children's friends had been accomplishing, overcoming, and having reason to celebrate each Fall and Spring. 

It seems to me that canceling the Sports Awards event and substituting it with an impersonal DVD (or closed circuit tv taped broadcast) misses the mark and shortchanges students and parents alike on a myriad of levels, the most important one being our shared community and unique sense of family.

I am profoundly disappointed in Palisades High School's administration for failing to recognize the importance of something so simple as a Sports Awards night.  In my opinion, both priorities and responsibilities were misplaced in making this decision. 

Lisa JG Weikel, Esq.


  1. Beautifully written with passion! You sure got my feathers ruffled on behalf of all the student atheletes who are missing out! I LOVED attending my sport banquets - and we had one for EACH sport....they can't even muster the energy to put on ONE??? (& why can't coaches deliver awards to kids who couldn't attend, saving the A.D.'s precious time). Its very sad.

  2. Thanks, Ellen! And to add insult to injury? This isn't even a BANQUET. It's just a gathering, a ceremony, with some cafeteria-provided cookies and coffee provided afterward. Although, come to think of it, I don't even know if the cookies made the cut last year at the "all-in-one-extravaganza."

  3. Until I saw your response to Ellen's comment I assumed it was budget constraints... but this looks more like plain laziness on the part of administration - which is all the more obvious when you see the lack of effort at communication to student and parents once the decision was "taken by key stakeholders"...

    I call bullshit.