A Mom Asks: What If We Talked With Our Kids About School the Way We Do About Football?

A version of this essay originally appeared on the VolumeandLightNashville.org blog.

The Super Bowl. Football’s field of dreams. The Mecca of elite athleticism and competition. For avid football fans, the Big Game is a big deal, even if the teams they’ve cheered for since forever (ahem, Steelers/Packers) failed to make it to the largest stage in American sports. For some, it’s a time to celebrate the best game on Earth, enjoy fellowship with other fans and friends, and rank multimillion-dollar 30-second commercials. For others, it means the beginning of the seven-month period when nothing sports-related matters.

Yes, I love football at every level of the game. Whether I’m watching a pint-size player or an NFL first-round pick, little is more satisfying than seeing big defensive tackles cash in on a rare opportunity to run the ball after recovering a fumble. But perhaps greater than my love of watching the game is talking the game! The language used around football is the most authentic of any sport, as expectations are high and patience is short. If a 300-pound lineman misses a tackle or loses out on his assigned target, no one gives him a pass by listing the reasons he failed at his job. Instead, you might hear coaches and fans alike scream, “Dude, you had one job! Don’t let it happen again!”

It’s not pretty, but it’s effective.

Recently, after years of not being a football mom, I re-entered the world of youth football in support of my 7-year-old cousin, a member of my husband’s Pee Wee team. If the packed bleachers on game day were any indication, I’m not the only one in Nashville who loves the game. Community youth football teams are teeming with parents and extended family members pacing the sidelines and screaming for their little loved ones. They want — maybe they need — their children to be successful. They intently watch every play, every move the baby makes, or doesn’t make. And I’m sure mom or dad reminds the kid for the remainder of the week about what must be tweaked in order to get better for the next game. High expectations. The highest.

So I couldn’t help but wonder if the parents were as fervently engaged in their children’s literacy and numeracy performance as they were with the X’s and O’s of Pee Wee football. If the high expectations around making plays are equal to the expectations of making excellent grades. Let me be clear, I’m not sitting in judgment. Rather, I wonder if parents and grandparents know what not reading at grade level really means for the long term and whether they fight for little Daniel’s reading ability as hard as they fight for his football literacy.

You see, most of the kids on the Pee Wee team are black. I won’t attempt to guess socioeconomic levels, but because of the team’s racial composition and the looming dark cloud of Nashville’s literacy crisis, I badly want to host a conversation with the other football supporters about our literacy issues and how the problem fuels the school-to-prison pipeline and its potential to lead to a lifetime of low wages and generational issues. A buzzkill, indeed, but so are poverty and prison. Just saying.

Next season, I’m seriously considering running the risk of making myself the target of dozens of side-eyes by launching a “locker room talk” with football parents about our education system and what it means for their child. A strong accountability pep talk rooted in love but shed of language too weak to create a sense of urgency. The talk will include stats around the likelihood of high school football players making it to college teams and the tiny percentage of college players drafted into the NFL. The talk will include literacy data accompanied by the comment “I know Raymond can throw the ball, but can he read?” The talk will conclude with helpful tips to help parents ensure their little playmakers double as star students.

Think Nick Saban meets Iyanla Vanzant.

Because that’s how we win the big game of life.

Vesia Wilson-Hawkins is an education blogger and a former Metro Nashville Public Schools student, parent, and staffer.

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