Image via Fuckyeahtattoos.
Image via Fuckyeahtattoos.
What I shoplifted depended mostly on what was near at hand. If it was a used CD of Bel Biv DeVoe's Poison, then it was just going to be a used CD of Bel Biv DeVoe's Poison. If it was a couple of multi-egg sleeves of Cadbury Crème Eggs, then so be it, and so too be the Cornholio-grade sugar freakout to come. For the most part, though, I stuffed my pockets with baseball and basketball and football cards, and my room filled with great leaning towers of doubles and triples of the commonest common cards ever printed.
Skybox basketball cards—tacky brass one year, screen-saver space age the next—and roller-rinky Donruss baseball cards furred the carpet like glossy moss. At night, I dreamt of swinging a sledgehammer on the walls of my parents' garage and baseball cards spilling out like gold doubloons. I was in 8th grade, in a mall-ringed northern New Jersey suburb of wide streets and old trees and all the usual suburban sublimations and neuroses. That I finally got caught stealing some cards wasn't shocking—I was reckless and increasingly courting the punishment; on the day in question I was wearing shorts, for fuck's sake, the pockets of which rose like little rectangular khaki buttes made of haphazardly concealed Score Select or Donruss Studio cards, or cards from some other manifestly and multiply worthless set. It wasn't surprising to me, at least. My parents, for their part, were pretty surprised. Their response to the news that their son—already not working up to potential, already more focused on his jumpshot and progress-report diversion than anything else—was living that tweenage thug life was to threaten me with four years of Catholic education. That, in itself, may not be all that surprising, either.
Which is not to say that the threat itself wasn't strange. It was indeed strange, insofar as we were Jewish, and because the only mentions of Catholic school in my home had come in the form of semi-ribald jokes or earnest, patient explanations of why Notre Dame was bullshit. But the situation was deemed urgent enough that my parents set up a visit at Don Bosco Prep, in Ramsey, New Jersey. It was presented to me as something to be gracious about—a favor facilitated by a basketball coach who was one of the few adults in my life at the time that I had not dedicated myself to disappointing, frustrating, or otherwise fucking with. That coach's son, who was the best player on the best team I played with, would go on to star at Don Bosco and play at (yes) Notre Dame; during his senior year, he was a co-captain alongside Troy Murphy. I was, because of my frankly literary physique and for a host of other reasons, not destined for any of that.
But my parents drove me out to Ramsey all the same, where a priest met with me in his office and was very polite about how important basketball was to me. The priest turned me over to a student, a kid who played guard for the Ironmen, and he gave me a tour—a dank chapel, a few cell-like classrooms, a wind-blasted campus with bald dirt scars indicating the popular pedestrian shortcuts. We talked about basketball, and he confided in me that, if things got tippy in terms of the class/sports balancing act, you could always get some nerd or other to do your homework for you. I did my best to nod like someone who might eventually take advantage of that opportunity to re-assign homework nerdward, instead of being someone on the other side of the transaction. I did not wind up attending Don Bosco.
As I recall, we did not visit the football field, which was up a hill and away into some woods on the back end of the campus. Today, the team that plays on that football field is generally considered to be the best prep team in the United States; back then, years before a new principal undertook the task of remaking the team into a football powerhouse, the field was notoriously uneven and studded with pebbles. It was small-time, in short, and the team was only slightly less small-time. Last week, the program was the subject of a long and very good story in The New Yorker, by Ben McGrath.
Readers who are not from North Jersey and have never once been taken on a scared-straight mission to the Salesian Catholic school that is the subject of the piece will still find plenty to shudder about in Don Bosco's story, if they're so inclined. Those inclined to see one small apocalypse after another in the dozens of nested cynicisms and exploitations and frank dishonesties of big-ticket youth athletics will see all those little apocalypses. There are, in the story: grown-ass grown-ups crowing over victories won by other peoples' kids; street-agent types brokering eighth graders to posh private high schools; poor teenagers imported from Jersey's smoldering urban wastes reduced to arcane numerical quantifications (4.3; 6'7" and 315) and otherwise graded, ranked and commoditized by creepo older white dudes; martinet coaches breaking out the war-talk and glorying in the dimmest Lombardi-fied authoritarianism, promising to "get the girl out" of their players through three-hour practices that double as exercises in creative berating and vomit-induction; upper-middle-class osteopaths and actuaries indulging in the wince-iest cheapjack appropriations of Jersey tough-guy culture. My high school's football coach (and my former health teacher) even shows up briefly, boasting about how his overmatched kids made Bosco play all four quarters after a 35-0 loss.
There is all of that, because of course there is, but there are also generous families and likable kids—that the football prodigies are already talking about "inspiring the younger generation" and writing importance-of-being-great raps in the Kanye vein says more about what happens to young minds when they're fed adulation and deference and success in the same manner and volume that foie gras geese are fed butter than it does about the kids themselves. The good goes with the bad, the generous with the exploitive, the great with the remorselessly small, as it does in any story involving people. For the same reasons, it's not terribly stunning that the corners of the story are haunted by people waving fistfuls of money—boosters supporting the notionally academic scholarships that help stars imported from Essex County, New Jersey and Orange County, New York with their tuition; the athletic directors hoping to create a mega-conference of national prep football programs up and down I-95 and the Ohio entrepreneur who dreams of staging those games in NFL stadiums and televising them on ESPN.
The workaday menace of all that so-familiar avarice, much more than the jerkweed coaches or the booster base of armchair Paulie Walnuts-types straining for the appropriate mis-pronunciation of manicotti, is the thing that aches in the story. There is, of course, money to be made in high school football—there is money to be made in almost everything, and that is especially true when those who provide the labor and product for sale do so without any hope of compensation. The question raised by big-ticket prep sports echoes that raised by the technocratic billion-dollar feudalism of college football, where even a deeply conservative fan community and commentariat at last seems interested in making things somewhat less exploitive. That the kids at Don Bosco are inarguably kids puts this question in sharper relief, but the essential problem is the same. The essential problem being the question of how big we can allow all this to become before it stops being something authentic and local that we can admire and enjoy in good faith and starts to be something abhorrent, extractive and unjust, and all the more painfully familiar and un-fun for all that.
The puffed-up tuff-accountant Bosco superfans, the bullyface coaches and wannabe coaches, the quease-inducing boosters—all of these are familiar figures, and the sort of archetypes onto whom we can write some sort of bedraggled valor if we liked Friday Night Lightsenough, or took it to heart maybe too much. But even if we assume that the adults behind the Don Bosco Ironmen—coaches and parents and boosters and hucksters and street agents and people like my dad who drive up there some Fridays to eat at Kinchley's (which is admittedly delicious) and watch Bosco beat Paramus Catholic by six touchdowns—are good people, there is still the problem of the people who are not as good and who do not have the kids' best interests at heart even in that abstracted way that my father does when he calls to marvel at me about how fast Jabrill Peppers is, or how spectacularly, implausibly wide Darius Hamilton is.
These other people are the profiteers and extractors and "boy sports" entrepreneurs, the people who see in these high school athletes a revenue stream unfairly untapped. There is nothing really against the law or even against our general do-for-self national ethos about what these people want to do, and what they probably will do. There is, given the billion-dollar economies of big-time college football—which is, for all the fight songs and tradition, fundamentally the unaffiliated minor league of the multi-billion-dollar NFL—a service that is rendered by more adequately exposing these kids to the people who will give them their next, higher-profile unpaid gigs, and (we can only hope) best package and prepare them for paid work in the field after that.
But those words don't really look right, for very reasonable reasons, the foremost of which is that the service rendered is not necessarily or foremost a service to the kids themselves. The kids in question being, grown-ass-unto-superhuman 40 times and 250-pound bench reps not withstanding, kids. Of course, figuring out a way to protect the exploitable from those who would exploit them—or finding a way to prevent the many lazy cruelties that occur when people forget that other people are just as human and vulnerable as they are—is a challenge that has proven to be beyond our collective capacity as a culture, in all parts of New Jersey, and everywhere else, forever. And, of course, that doesn't mean we should stop trying to do better. There are good reasons why adults are tasked with looking out for kids, and foremost among those is that kids make mistakes. Kids do dumb things, they make mistakes they don't understand for reasons they don't totally know and without ever really meaning it. They're just kids.