This Thanksgiving, you should thank God for numerous things. You should thank him for the gifts of clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home. You should thank him for giving you a good job and a loving spouse. In addition to thanking God for your wonderful children, you should also thank him that none of your kids is particularly great at any sport.
Don’t get me wrong: being an exceptional athlete is a wonderful thing. Considering that the United States has the fifth highest childhood obesity rate in the world (admit it, you’re a little disappointed that we’re not number one), I highly encourage you to follow my example and frequently tell your kids, “Go outside and play.” (Whether you include my follow-up words “and leave me alone, you feral beasts, I’m trying to finish my Federalist article” is up to you.)
But in light of Brad Wolverton’s recent profile of a family that responded to their daughter’s aptitude for swimming by annually sacrificing all of their free time and disposable income at the altar of a potential NCAA scholarship, you should definitely thank God that your kids haven’t displayed the athletic prowess necessary to trick you into spending a fortune you don’t have for a dream that will almost certainly never materialize.
It’s Basically Playing the Lottery
“Nearly eight million kids played high-school sports last year, the highest number ever,” Wolverton states. “But just 170,000 athletes — about 2 percent of those who compete in high school — receive a sports scholarship, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Many colleges award millions of dollars in athletic aid, touting individual scholarships worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the vast majority of athletes get nowhere near that much.”
In other words, spending a plethora of dollars to pursue an athletic scholarship for your child is an idiotic investment strategy, roughly equivalent to dumping truckloads of gold down Mount Vesuvius on the offhand chance that the Roman god of volcanoes both exists and will be persuaded to respond to your abundant offering with a modest 401 (k). Yet many parents still choose to spend $70,000 trying to nab a $7,000 scholarship to a school that’s 70 percent more expensive than the affordable state university their kid could otherwise attend. Why?
Since most of us don’t know more than a few people who’ve received athletic scholarships, I don’t think the answer is ignorance of the odds as much as it is idolatry of the heart. When their children display notable athletic talent, some parents become so consumed with the idea of a potential scholarship that they begin pursing it in an almost cult-like fashion, refusing to doubt the Almighty Scholarship (read: calculate the odds of getting one), giving money and time they don’t really have to purse the Scholarship’s favor, and forsaking every rival activity, be it church, music lessons, or a calm and quiet family dinner, in order to keep the Scholarship front and center in their lives.
This desire to throw away everything meaningful to idolize nothing substantial is a desire that lurks in all hearts. I learned this very well in summer 1992 when I blew two months’ worth of paper route money trying to win a 35-cent framed Ren and Stimpy picture at the Greek Festival in Norwalk, Connecticut. While some of us have more self-control than others, the truth is that the easiest way to overcome this scholarship-idolizing temptation is to have kids who never inadvertently tempt you by competing at a scholarship-worthy level. For this reason, those of us with perfectly average athletes for children should all thank God this Thursday.
Treat Athletics Like You Treat Money
So if your kids have never approached Woods or Williams-esque levels of youth sports prodigiousness, thank God. Thank him that your children have enough talent to enjoy playing pickup basketball with the neighbor kids but not so much that you can delude yourself into thinking that it’s worth sacrificing carefree nights playing Uno on the living room floor in pursuit of the Division I glory that, statistically speaking, they’re not going to catch.
Thank God that your kids are perfectly capable of hitting a baseball or softball but aren’t so skilled that you would foolishly accept a second mortgage and an early heart stint in order to get a mere four years of free textbooks. Thank God that your kids are such utterly unremarkable athletes that they don’t have coaches recruiting them to be on the field instead of at church on Sunday mornings, and that you therefore aren’t foolishly telling yourself “My kids will still love Jesus” when you habitually drive them past his house to be somewhere else as the worship service takes place.
Likewise, when you spend two practices a week watching your kids bat .201 or fall off the balance beam, thank God that, in the midst of their mediocrity, they were still able to learn the value of teamwork and commitment just as well as the kids whose parents spent five times the hours and ten times the money trying to add that unattainable scholarship as the cherry atop the “beneficial sports lessons” sundae. Thank God that your children’s modicum of talent gave them the benefits of friendship, physical fitness, and self-confidence without also giving them a raging case of narcissism, a likely result when kids see that the entire family schedule and budget revolves around them.
In other words, this Thanksgiving, treat the modest athletic gifts God has given your children the way you treat the modest amount of money he’s given you: by looking at that sufficient yet unremarkable pile and thanking God that you have enough for food and shelter, enough to be healthy and at peace, but not so much that your heart would be corrupted and allow the cares and riches and pleasures of this life to choke your faith.
In the offhand chance that God has actually blessed your children with the talent to be among the 2 percent, thank God for that, too. Thank God not only for the physical gifts he has given them, but for the spiritual treasures he has given and will give you. Thank God for the gift of faithful Christians who have recognized the problem of sports idolatry and are working hard to create youth leagues in their communities that don’t compete on Sunday mornings.
Thank God for the gift of faithful pastors and parishioners who will call you back home if scholarship-pursuing is leading you away from the flock. Thank God that, if you’ve been gobbled up by the temptation to love games more than him, you always can ask for and always will receive his forgiveness on Sunday morning. And thank God that, no matter what the world tells you, he will always give your children the opportunity to use their gifts in faithful service of their neighbors without having to lose their inheritance, freedom, or souls in the process.