Getting Sidetracked

This was not the column I was going to write. Traditionally, I would use this space to introduce our annual Worth Trying Issue, then go on to make a few hopeful suggestions for the new year.

But a funny thing happened on my way to the next paragraph…

While I was composing, a good friend emailed me a link to a story in The News Journal concerning an outbreak of violence at a youth football tournament in Middletown in early December. The behavior resulted in one event (Big East All-American Bowl) being terminated mid-tournament and a second event, scheduled for the following weekend (National Youth Football Championships), being cancelled.

The events, wonderful opportunities for young athletes to showcase their skills—not to mention a significant boost to the local economy because many of the 40 teams expected were from out of state—got called off because of horrendous parent behavior (fights among parents, the assault of an official, and other threats and confrontations). One incident occurred during play in the age 7-and-under division, as an irate parent challenged an official to meet him in the parking lot after the game. Yes, the 7-and-under division.

As my friend and I exchanged impassioned give-and-take regarding the pros and cons of cancelling the tournament, the comments of a parent quoted in the story grabbed my attention:

There should have been more state police at the games because these teams come from all walks of life and you never know what you are going to see.

Now, I’m sure equating certain “walks of life” with bad behavior was not the parent’s intention; however, that is unequivocally how I interpreted it. I doubt I am alone. It’s the classic other-side-of-the-tracks stereotype, a reference that strikes a nerve with me.

For years, a guy I grew up with used to kid me about “doing all right for myself considering I came from the other side of the tracks.” No insult intended—in his mind it was a compliment —but his fundamental assumption was something I couldn’t reconcile. Implied in his statement was that people on his side of the tracks were superior. Implied in his statement was that those on the other side were not, because of where we lived.

Now, it’s easy to dismiss my reaction as being overly sensitive. Compared to the bias minorities face, it certainly is. But consider: 30 years later I’m still bothered by a little joke suggesting people from my side of the tracks are inferior. Imagine daily doses of it.

This is the slippery slope we traverse when we make hasty generalizations. Often, we don’t realize we’ve gone too far until we’ve gone too far. Then it’s too late.

Isn’t it ironic that we demand to be viewed as unique, yet are so quick to pigeonhole others? We assign behavior characteristics based merely on geography, income, religion, political affiliation, race. It manifests itself everywhere, from our political debate to the policing of our streets.

So, the real tragedy in Middletown isn’t simply that a football tournament got cancelled. It’s that good kids from the wrong side of the tracks got lumped in with bad ones and opportunities vanished—opportunities that don’t happen in daily doses.

We’re attracting the wrong crowd. These events draw a bad demographic. Let’s just pull the plug!

No! Evaluate the situation with the proper perspective: You were the unfortunate victims of bad behavior, despite commendable intentions. Bad behavior occurs in all walks of life. So, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You institute a code of conduct, require a refundable deposit based on sportsmanship, beef up security.

Or, put another way, you throw out the bad apples. Please don’t cut down the tree.

As for the introduction of this issue, I can introduce it in a sentence: Welcome to our eighth annual Worth Trying Issue, in which our esteemed staff and contributors share opinions on people, places and things they deem worthy of your time. Enjoy.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.