Reflections on Sports and Education
Originally posted on July 24th 2014 on my Tumblr.
A year ago, if anyone had told me that I would be working for a baseball team, I would have laughed. I’ve always liked sports, particularly soccer and swimming, but baseball was definitely my least favorite of the popular team sports in the United States. Besides, I wanted to travel abroad, so how would I end up with an American baseball team? But when this opportunity with the Mets was offered by the Burnett Honors College, it lined up surprisingly well with all my goals for my first TEFL position. As a bonus, I’ve been able to obtain an unexpected new perspective on sports in both the Dominican Republic and the United States.
I’ve learned to understand and enjoy the daily baseball games, mainly because I love any competition when I feel a connection to one side or the other. It’s more interesting now that I appreciate more of what goes on in all the perceived down time between hits. Most of all, the players aren’t nameless uniforms like in baseball on television but my own goofball students, so every play is important.
But this opportunity has given me more than just an appreciation of the skill and entertainment of the sport of baseball. It’s also been a chance to observe and think critically about how the entire MLB system works, specifically here in the Dominican Republic and how that compares to the US. In the United States, MLB teams acquire new players through a draft after players have graduated high school, 2 year colleges, or 4 year universities. In contrast, outside of the United States, players have free agency. This usually means that young baseball talent signs on with whichever MLB team offers them the biggest signing bonus. Players can sign when they are sixteen years old. Here in the Dominican Republic, boys start playing baseball as soon as they are big enough to hold a bat (or broom handle, or piece of sugar cane, or whatever makeshift substitute they can get their hands on). At 12 or 13, if they are beginning to show the size and skill necessary to have chance as a professional, it is common to prioritize baseball over school. Often, they even drop out in order to practice full time so they can be the best they can be by the time they turn the magic age of sixteen. As a result, many of my students have the equivalent of about a sixth grade education. Plenty of them are smart guys, but their reading and writing are poor in Spanish, which only adds to the challenge of learning English. For every one of my students, who did succeed in getting signed with an MLB team, there are dozens of Dominican teenagers who made the same sacrifice of school for baseball but failed to make the cut. Now what do they have?
Even my students, who have shown immense talent and dedication just to get this far, will probably never make it to Citi Field in New York. Chances are, they will spend a couple of years in the minor league system in the United States before washing out due to injury or just not performing well enough. At that point, they will be in their early twenties and not exactly what you would call “employable,” since for ten years they’ve done nothing but play baseball. It hurts to know that in all statistical likelihood, these crazy boys that I’ve grown to care about this summer don’t really have the bright Major League future they all imagine for themselves. When I see them practice their elaborate autographs on the whiteboard for when they’re famous, I wish I could somehow protect them from all that disappointment, but that’s reality.
Of course, it’s reality for all sports everywhere. Millions of kids dream of being the next Messi or Lebron or Serena Williams or star in any other sport, and most will be disappointed. That’s life. But that brings me to the culture of sports in schools in the United States. I’ve often been one to question why American high schools and universities spend so much on their sports programs, often seemingly at the expense of academics. The culture of famous college athletes in the U.S. strikes people as bizarre in other countries. It’s just an extracurricular activity, right?
But the advantage to this system, which I’d never really considered before, is that it keeps athletic achievement linked with academics, instead of at odds with academics. There’s value in that, especially for talented athletes from low-income backgrounds (which would be most of my kids here), whose prowess on the field can actually help them unlock their potential in a classroom by providing a scholarship for a college education they could otherwise never afford.
While I’ve been here, I’ve often thought about what my kids’ lives would be like if they were American. There’s one glaring difference. If they had grown up as these same big, strong, baseball-obsessed guys in the U.S, they would still be in school. The seventeen year olds would be varsity stars, with college scholarships being offered to them from every direction. Even if they didn’t accept these scholarships and instead chose to enter the MLB draft straight out of high school, they would have at least a high school diploma. The nineteen year olds, if they did accept scholarships out of high school, would be playing college ball. Sure, student-athletes may tend to focus more on the athlete half of that equation, but to stay eligible to play, these kids would be getting something of an education, and that’s very different from what happens here. Eventually, they might be destined for the same disappointment in their baseball careers, but they would have a heck of a lot more to fall back on at that point in their lives. More important than a diploma itself, they would have done something during the last decade of their lives that wasn’t baseball. So they would know that the end of their ball-playing days wasn’t the end of the world.
I would need a lot more research and time to offer a real critique of MLB in the Dominican Republic or of high school sports and the NCAA in the United States, but I wanted to write a post about how this experience has made me think about both of these systems. Athletic talent can open a lot of doors in life for a teenager, but it can close them, too. My students are relentlessly pursuing what they see as the opportunity of a lifetime, but they’re sacrificing a lot to do so. I guess all I can do is be the best English teacher I can be to help prepare them in whatever way I can for the successes and the failures that the future has in store for them.