Monday, April 19, 2010
The other day my grandsons were whispering in the kitchen, which all parents know is an immediate red flag. "I didn't know you knew that word!" followed by an eruption of giggles. There they were, holding my iPhone and staring at the screen. This couldn't be good. In place of their names, someone had typed a profanity in the "high score" section of six different Disney games on my iPhone. Needless to say, it was four letters long, began with the sixth letter of the alphabet, and had absolutely no relation to anyone's name. I spent about twenty hours playing "Tigger Bounce," "Cars Pinball" and four other games in order to earn 10 high scores in each and eliminate the offensive entry. I could feel Walt turning over in his grave.
How does it happen that those two boys, ages five and nine at the time, not only know such a word, but feel comfortable enough using it? They have grown up in a protected environment. Their parents don't swear and carefully monitor their TV, movie, and internet interactions. They send them to Catholic schools. But this insidious blight still managed to stain my phone. Naturally many of their school mates have older siblings who love showing off their language bravado which trickles down and gets translated as "cool". It's also hard to avoid that table of college kids next to you at the restaurant who despite the expense of their education apparently don't have any idea that English is a language rich in adjectives other than the one they use endlessly.
I'm sure that explains a great deal of it, but I've also seen a troubling acceptance of swearing in youth sports. Fans, coaches, referees, and players forget that the language they use doesn't just exist in a bubble surrounding their field. It travels to ears that shouldn't be assaulted. A few years ago I was at a planning commission meeting to support our soccer club's request to extend its operating hours, and I listened to neighbors complaining about coaches' language drifting across the fields to assail their ears as they sat outside with their families for a barbeque. I've parked at a practice only to exit my car to a barrage of expletives directed at players barely twelve years old standing just a few steps away from players ten and under. Everyone has a story about the explosion of language during a coach and referee confrontation. And we can't forget the fans who often forget themselves and use inappropriate language.
We had an incident at State Cup where our goal keeper, mad at himself for some bad play, shouted in frustration a profanity. The referee ran up and showed him the yellow at which point he exploded. The referee gave him a few seconds to vent during which time players, coaches and parents were shouting to the keeper to "Shut the ____ up!" and other pithy admonishments. If the swear words had been paper plates thrown on the field we would have required a bull dozer to clean up. Finally everyone calmed down, the referee warned him that another outburst would lead to a second yellow, and the teams returned to play. The next punt by our keeper went out of bounds, he screamed at the top of his lungs the very word that would insure he would be kicked out, and the crowd again went wild with their vulgarities. The players were thirteen. As the keeper trudged off the field to the sidelines the coach shouted, "If you ever ____ do that again, I'll ____ kick you off the team," showing once again why the adage "do as I say" was invented.
As an English professor, I really hate hearing this descent into crudity. I know it has always been around, and I also know that at the right moment, in the right context, it can be used to great effect. But generally swearing only proves how limited we are in our imaginations when it comes to voicing an opinion. Dipping into the well of profanity at the first spike of anger means that we've already gone to the extreme and now have no further verbal punctuation to underscore our point. So we tend to use the same word over and over just getting louder and louder in hopes it will intensify the worth of our stance with vociferous repetition. We really should demand more of ourselves and also demand more of those to whom we entrust our children. We'd never tolerate a teacher talking to students the way a number of coaches talk to our players. Nor would we tolerate parents or pupils using rough language. Why do we accept it on the pitch?
Experienced professional coaches have played in adult leagues and coached adult players meaning they are used to adult language. We all tend to turn a deaf ear to their saltier expletives because we feel grateful to have such strong coaching for our children. But we shouldn't. There's a level of decorum and civility that must exist in youth sports for as long as possible. If coaches get away with swearing during practice then it's no wonder their players get yellow cards for swearing at the referees during a game. If referees sprinkle their remarks to a coach with a few bombs, then how can they turn around and issue those yellow cards to the players for language? Swearing has become the knee-jerk reaction to nearly any situation, even positive ones. We express ourselves without any restriction because we don't think about what we're saying or the company in which we're saying it. We've become immune to how sharp, insulting, and ugly swearing can be.
Hopefully we can all agree to police our own language and refuse to tolerate bad language from those to whom we entrust our children. We should be capable enough to control our verbal outbursts. While some people may not see a problem with swearing, dismissing it as "that's the way it is," most parents don't want their kids introduced to that language so young and then viewing it as normal and acceptable discourse. And as parents, coaches, and referees we have a responsibility to respect that expectation. It's really a pretty simple thing to stop swearing if we're willing to be accountable for what comes out of our mouths. We just need to swear to do it!