A LEVEL FIELD 

A LEVEL FIELD

Let me say first that I’m not a sports writer. Though I have a glancing recognition of most sports, terms like RPI and RPM get mottled in my brain, a stew of letters and numbers no more clear to me than algebraic equations. I have, however, always been an athlete. Though I don’t know sports at a sports-talk-radio-junkie level, I know sports at an athlete level and that gives me the wisdom and experience to be plain mad about what’s happening to the Melrose High football team. These players, all kids -- all under 19, must now forfeit the entire blood, sweat, and tears season they’ve already finished because of a Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) ruling. No doubt it was a season of twice-a-day sweltering summer practices, of taped ankles, iced knees, glorifying wins, humiliating losses. Now it’s all for naught. It’s like they weren’t even there. Why? Because sixteen Melrose players attended a football camp that neither they nor their parents paid for -- and that’s a violation of TSSAA rules. When they got to the camp the boys’ coach handed the camp director a check for $3,200 -- enough to cover the $200 camp costs for each player. Who knows where the money originally came from? Who cares? Sixteen teenage boys got a chance to become better athletes and learned to work together as a team -- a chance many probably would not have been able to afford without financial aid. TSSAA rules prohibit players from attending camps not paid for by the player or the player’s parents. It’s a good thing that TSSAA never got wind of Cara or Patrick. Cara was the sweeper on my high school soccer team, I was the goalie. Being the last line of defense before the game became just me and the ball, Cara was very important to me and to the team. I wanted her to be the absolute best sweeper she could be, as much for me and the team as for Cara herself. So when Cara, whose father had walked out on her and whose mother could scarcely provide for her two children, quietly told our coach that she couldn’t afford the team’s soccer camp, the team made sure that she could. We each approached our parents, told them about Cara’s situation and our parents gladly handed us checks for $10, $20, or $50. Some of the school’s teachers contributed, too. We took the checks to our coach and when the money was counted, we had more than enough to cover Cara’s camp fees. We never talked about it, but we had started our own “scholarship” fund for players that might not be able to go to soccer camp otherwise. Had the TSSAA found us out, we would have had to forfeit our entire, hard-fought, season because this “scholarship” made Cara ineligible. We would have then, like Melrose, been fined $100 for every game in which Cara played. My brother’s basketball team would have been in a much worse position. They had several “Caras” -- kids who would not have been able to truly be a part of the team had others not helped them financially. One of these players was Patrick. As one of five children being raised by a single mother, Patrick did not dare ask his mother for money for camps, for new basketball shoes, for the necessary items many teenage athletes take for granted. The money simply wasn’t available. Patrick didn’t have to ask his mother because he and his teammates had been playing together since junior high and the other kid’s parents took care of it for him. Fortunately for us, my high school was economically mixed. Many teams are not. And teams like Melrose, many of whose players may not be able to afford camps on their own, still have to play teams like White Station, whose players and their parents probably can. My high school’s athletic teams always had “haves” and “have-nots” on them. When one player couldn’t raise the money for necessary items, the money could be raised for him. My brother’s team always had a “scholarship” fund to pay for these essentials so that members of the team would not feel left out. That’s what a team is and that’s why so many teams opt to go to team camps. It’s great for individual players to refine their own skills, but winning seasons come after whole teams get refined together. Later, when Patrick’s mother and his family were evicted from their home and had to move into a tiny house with one of his relatives, Patrick came to live with my family. My parents never became his legal guardians, and he never officially lived with us, but for about a year Patrick spent every single night with us, ate dinner with us, even went on vacations with us. People that weren’t his parents helped pay for Patrick to be a normal kid, to have the kinds of things many of us take for granted. But if the TSSAA had found out, we all would have been in trouble -- and it would have been Cara’s and Patrick’s fault because they didn’t come from affluent families. Unfortunately this is the life lesson the TSSAA seems extremely eager to teach. Unfortunately, it’s the kids who ultimately pay the price.

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