Why Sports Matter

When one of my more perceptive students walked into my office last semester to talk grades and life, she made a snarky comment that I still think about today. Upon seeing the sports-related memorabilia on my office walls and bookshelves, she scoffed and asked me, “Don’t you have better things to do with your time?”

I think I laughed and dodged the question with a dismissive wave of the hand, telling her something like, “And that is why you, not me, who will run the country someday.”  

Now that I think about it, however, that comment per se did not necessarily reflect a mature observer of what matters in life beyond her years (although she is exceptionally wise about important stuff from whom I have learned so much) so much as it illuminated the worrisome cynicism of our day and age about what matters in life.

If we pay attention to the chatter around us and in the media, it feels like it is becoming hip to discount, and even disparage, the value of sports. To write them off as silly, as frivolous, as unhealthy, as back-breaking labor, as archaic, as a waste of time in an unjust world replete with grave problems.

And it is not just chatter. Youth participation in sports, game attendance and live sports viewership, and traditional fandom are falling like grass before the mower.

While the causes of these negative trends go beyond simple ideology, such as how playing and watching sports have become prohibitively expensive, ideas have consequences. While those critics have good intentions and are not wrong about problematic issues in amateur and professional athletics, fact remains that sports are more important than ever.  Not in spite of, but precisely because of, our serious challenges in society today.

As a lifelong admirer of sports and as the Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) at Gallaudet, I am convinced that sports are essential to not only psychological well-being but also the social and political change that we seek.      

At the individual level, sports teach our leaders of the future valuable skills that can hardly be taught as efficiently anywhere else. There are compelling reasons, for instance, why a survey of high-level female executives found that 90 percent of them had played sports. And why the graduation rates for women and people of color at colleges and universities are superior for student-athletes than their peers who do not play sports. Playing competitive sports teaches time management skills and the value of hard work. It nurtures inclusion and confidence.

My six-year-old daughter, who was sometimes painfully shy, is playing organized basketball now, and I see a sense of pluck today that was not always present. Whereas she could barely dribble a basketball more than twice with her dominant hand before joining the basketball team, she can dribble with both hands for nearly as long as she likes today. Not because of luck but because she has taken a liking to dribbling everywhere in the house, to my wife’s dismay.

When she scoffs and reminds her three-year-old brother at the dinner table that she is better than him at basketball whenever he tells her that he is Superman, I secretly smile while telling them to cut it off.      

At the sociological level, sports do not only combat the loneliness and polarization that wreak havoc in this day and age. They also foster social trust, which is a prerequisite for systemic change. At the Willigan Tournament a couple of weeks ago, a national wrestling tournament for deaf schools, I was taken aback by the rabid extent to which students and adults of all stripes rooted for their respective schools.

No longer were they fiddling on their phones in their bedrooms, swiping left and right, up and down, in their own worlds. Instead, they were blissfully in the moment, stomping, chanting, jumping, and celebrating together, as if their lives depended on it.

School spirit is neither trivial nor primitive but a fundamental necessity for a sense of belonging and progress. The more we share common experiences and celebrate shared goals, the more we can have a community of greater solidarity within which more serious problems can be addressed.

At the political level, athletes are the most effective kind of advocates. When I coached men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we played a game versus a school in upstate New York in a one stoplight town smack dab in the middle of nowhere. They have an excellent basketball program and had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament for three straight years at the time. When we came back from being down by 6 with a minute and a half to upset them on a buzzer-beater, their head coach, as well as a random fan from that town, e-mailed later that week to commend our players for playing so hard and never quitting. What was left unsaid but implied, however, was a profound realization that Gallaudet’s student-athletes were just as capable as theirs.

That is, we can yell (assert?) that “deaf people can do anything except hear” on rooftops until our voices (hands?) turn hoarse (weary?). But as they say, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a difference? It is only when we participate in the arena can we advance the truism.

As a former boxer, statesman, and explorer of unmapped lands said, it is not the critic who matters but our women and men, whose faces are marred by sweat and blood and toil, on our courts and fields.

This is why we should play and cherish sports. And celebrate our deaf athletes. And root for our teams at deaf schools and at Gallaudet. Not as crude, silly tools of the human search for conquest and entertainment, but because they teach valuable skills and lessons, which can engender the very change in ourselves and the world that we wish to see.

Best Non-Fiction of 2018

Alfred Tennyson claims the New Year is a whisper that we will be happier. Others rhapsodize it is a 365-page book waiting to be written. For me, it is an ideal time to think about the best non-fiction I’ve read last year and then write down my personal thoughts and the lessons that I’ve learned from each with special focus on possible applications to deaf people. Because, you know, I am not an elephant. If I forget my son’s birthday and to take out the recycling bin on a regular basis, I probably should take notes after reading relevant stuff scarier/funnier/more thought-provoking than fiction.

So, here is a totally non-scientific list of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in 2018. I have five, of course, because this is 5tern.com, because I have never heard of a “Best of” list with four or six, and because you don’t have time for ten. In no particular order, here goes:  

BELICHICK. The biography of Bill Belichick, the current head coach of the New England Patriots, highlights the truism in the NFL that “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” An entertaining (yet unlikely) claim in the book is how Bob Colbert stole playcalls in the NFL as an advance scout with expertise in reading lips by virtue of having coached football at Gallaudet, the “university serving the deaf and hearing-impaired.”  

Really? I’ve studied, played, coached, and taught at Gallaudet for about 18 years now, and the only stuff I can read is inane stuff like non-fiction books and the lips of people (without mustaches) enunciating “fuck you.” Note to biographers and/or fabulists: speechreading is a difficult skill requiring rigorous training. Spending time with deaf people and then squinting your eyes through binoculars is hardly enough.

But anyway, as a sports fan who has long wondered about the secret of sustained success of certain teams like the San Antonio Spurs, the book was illuminating. It nailed home that intelligence, curiosity, preparation, and toughness are as important as jumping high and running fast and yet, massively undervalued. Despite being a Giants fan, I will root for the Patriots in the Super Bowl next week out of (begrudging) admiration, thanks to Ian O’Connor’s brilliant insight into the greatest football coach who’s ever lived.  

EDUCATED. Tara Westover’s lyrical memoir about growing up in the southeastern mountains of Idaho with paranoid, anti-science, survivalist parents and going on to graduate from Harvard and Cambridge is not only a remarkable story in and of itself. (Her father tried to discourage her brother from attending college by lecturing that “There’s two kinds of them college professors. Those who know they’re lying, and those who think they’re telling the truth.” After thinking about it for a good while, I have concluded that I am both kinds.) It is also powerful reading for many of those who leave home for an education and then view their family and community across a cultural valley.      

THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND.  Why is this generation the most depressed, anxious, self-righteous, and suicidal ever? According to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, it is because we believe a “great untruth” that children are fragile. And then, with the best of intentions, we shield them from independent decision-making, scrapes, and potentially difficult situations more than ever. The book makes me think of how parents often host a “Trick or Trunk” event where trick or treating is done on Halloween night from parked car to parked car in the school parking lot. And the booming popularity of AAU basketball, which has rendered pick-up games, in which kids draft teams and call their own fouls, rare. In both instances, we’re denying kids the valuable opportunity to roam and explore and do wrong, and mediate conflicts, on their own.

“Resilience” is a hot/smart buzzword these days, but how do we develop it? According to Haidt and Lukianoff, it is by exposing our youth to “normal” stresses and tensions (as opposed to extreme) that will allow them to develop toughness. Think of the immune system, for instance, which requires exposure to certain germs and allergens at a young age to develop the necessary capacity to fight them later on. Contrary to the popular trend of eliminating peanuts at schools and in the diets of children, doctors now recommend that kids are exposed to food containing peanuts almost immediately after birth to harden the immune system and avoid life-threatening allergies later on. Psychological resilience is not all that different, in that it requires independent exposure to open-ended challenges “early and often.”

This makes me wonder about the Deaf community.  Are our students at deaf schools exposed to sufficient normal stresses and tensions?  Should we continue to prepare the road for our leaders of the future by seeking a comfortable environment whenever possible, or should we prepare our children for the road with a more holistic approach? I do not claim to know the answers, but the sociopsychological benefits and risks of prizing self-esteem and ease over experience and accommodation, ought to be considered and debated at the very minimum. For that alone, the book is a must-read for parents, educators, and Deaf people alike.

FACTFULNESS. This uplifting yet grounded book pokes holes in the simplistic, pessimistic, hysterical thinking of this day and age with clear, unpretentious, fact-based advice. In one of my favorite chapters, Hans Rosling asks us to assume that our categories are misleading, and to challenge them by looking for differences within and similarities across groups, which is something we do not do quite enough with ‘Deaf people’ and the ‘Deaf community.’  

In another, Rosling points out that sweeping explanations and vivid solutions are attractive because we have the human tendency to want to seem knowledgeable and useful. We often try to explain and solve particular trends and issues with general assertions, based on our personal background, at the expense of complexity and nuance.

Well-intentioned activists in the Deaf community will explain critical issues by pointing at language deprivation, for instance, and Hearing and Spoken Language advocates by bringing in majoritarian culture. This inclination is what Rosling terms “the single perspective instinct.” (Or what English philosopher Gilbert K. Chesterton called “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.”) He advises that we resist the temptation to see every problem as a nail when we are handed a hammer. Instead, we ought to step back and use our toolbox, rather than a single tool. In all, I cannot recommend this book enough. (And hey, Bill Gates and Barack Obama agree with me.)  

BORN A CRIME. Trevor Noah, writing about his childhood dealing with apartheid in South Africa, is a masterful storyteller. He challenges stereotypes and preconceptions with colorful anecdotes that entail heartbreak, laughter, and serious thought about growing up different in a strange world.

A major takeaway from the book is racism and colonialism are fraught legacies neither easily understood nor undone that must be dismantled with persistence and care.

Another thought-provoking point is, as he argues, fluency in certain languages are hierarchical forces equated with intelligence and competence which, above all else, wrongly or not, defines who we are to people.

I now watch The Daily Show at every opportunity for the incisive humor and profound wisdom that Noah imparts, and root for his continued success.

What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think? Any recommendations for 2019? Hit me up and let me know.



What Bird Taught Me

I was, and still am, heartbroken when I heard the news that John Perry, affectionately known as “Bird” to many of us, has passed away after several months in a coma. He was a generous husband and devoted father who loved his family dearly. He was also a basketball aficionado who loved the game as deeply as anybody I have ever met.

I met Bird for the first time when I participated in the Gallaudet basketball camp in the mid-1990s as a middle schooler. He was Coach. I got to know him when I played basketball at Gallaudet from 2001 to 2006. He was Coach. I got to know him better when I started playing club basketball in the late 2000s. He was Coach. I got to know him even better when I coached at Gallaudet several years ago. He was Coach. And he had continued to coach until last Fall when he fell.

The truth is Bird will always be Coach to those of us fortunate enough to have played under him.

Coach John “Bird” Perry

Several memories of Coach Bird will stay with me as long as I am alive and able. One is that he would almost unfailingly write “PRIDE” on the whiteboard before the game, at halftime, and after the game. If we won? “PRIDE.”  If we lost? “PRIDE.”  If we played hard or soft? “PRIDE.”  If the opposing team excelled at shooting 3’s? “PRIDE.”  If they were good at scoring in the low post? “PRIDE.”  Sometimes he would mumble something about having “fire in your eyes” for effect. But that was it. Nothing else. No fluff or excuses or tangents or fancy stuff about how to execute a hard show on pick and rolls.

I remember getting rather tired of it after a while when I played in college and thinking that he was being repetitious and missing what it took to win games.

But guess what?

Looking back, Bird nailed it on the head because pride is what matters. Devising and executing good strategy, or telling inspiring stories, is nice but quite secondary because pride is the horse that pulls the wagon. Not the bad kind of pride that is featured in the seven deadly sins but the good kind that represents dignity and sacrifice. The type of steadfast belief that there are many things out there far more important than ourselves, and that which makes us take less than we need and give more than we want. It is what drives players to sprint back on defense, dive for loose balls, and cheer for teammates from the bench.

Another memory that sticks in my head is right after we won the United States Association for Deaf Basketball (USADB) championship in Minnesota a while ago, we were shaking hands with our opponents in a line, as is the custom in basketball. Before I knew it, however, an opponent with whom we had recently shook hands punched me in the head from behind. Bird was right behind me in the line and saw it all. He immediately rushed to my rescue but this is not necessarily why I remember the episode.

Rather, what is still vivid is that Bird was in tears. Literally. His eyes were puffy red and he was wiping away sodium water for the next ten minutes. He was so bothered by what happened, so peeved that comrades in competition would act dishonorably. Although the knot in the back of my head went away shortly after the incident, the heartfelt depth of his loyalty and, yes, pride about what we should represent as athletes has stayed with me to this day.

Goodness, as Robert Goolrich put it, is the only thing that matters in life and is “our soul’s wallet,” leaving behind the sole remnants in life for which we will be remembered. Bird may be gone today but he belongs to the ages. He was an unforgettable human being whose soul will live through so many of our memories. Not because he was fancy (he would have been the first to admit that he was as plain as 2 + 2 = 4) but because of his goodness. In a day and age when voluntarism and virtue are in short supply, he is an inspiration worthy of emulating.  

I once loved basketball mainly because it is a lot of fun. But now, it is not that which will immediately come to mind when I think of the game, whether days or years from now.

Rather, it is the goodness that Bird stood for. His habit of volunteering anytime he was needed, his arms waving us off, his head tilted back softly and mouth slightly agape, showing off that dead front tooth caused by diving for a loose ball and coming up missing vital nerves, whenever we apologized for imposing or thanked him for his help. More games to scout in person? Gratitude for having my back? Working with post players on their drop step after practice late into the night? Dropping off players who lived quite far? We were almost always told that it was “no problem.”

When we tell our loved ones about what basketball has taught us, let it be the pride of Coach John “Bird” Perry about which they will hear first. May we honor him not merely through words but by serving others and being good.

Rest in peace. We will miss you.

My 2019 Resolutions

I am not crazy about New Year’s Resolutions, because why set myself up for failure and self-flagellation? But this year I wrote down several, just so that I might have goals to keep in mind. I will inevitably fail at almost all of them. In fact, I have already failed at #6. Still, this is what I’d like to accomplish this year, and I’ve read that if I share them with the public, it makes the fanciful (i.e., not failing at my resolutions within the month) “possible.” Here goes, ten days late:

  1. Write more. (Which is why I’m blogging on 5tern.com every Wednesday.)
  2. Read more.  (Less Netflix. Less chess. Less looking inside the fridge every 5 minutes at night.)  
  3. Give, take, and pass on less offense. (I’m not talking basketball.)  
  4. Be more forgiving and less pushy. (With everybody else.)
  5. Be more pushy and less forgiving. (With myself.)
  6. Use less parentheses.