Thursday, September 11, 2008

Keeping kids out of trouble in Alaska?

A story in the New York Times compares the role of hockey in Alaskan society to that of football in rural Texas. The headline of Kim Severson's story is "The Hockey Way of Life in Wasilla," and it mentions one of Palin's accomplishments as mayor -- seeing a $15 million hockey rink built in her small city. (I wrote earlier about this, suggesting it was a laudable project because it gave youth something constructive to do.)

The headline for my post is suggested by the story's assertion that hockey in Alaska is like football and basketball in other places -- that which keeps kids on the "straight and narrow." A bit farther into the story, it is clear that hockey is not as important in the more remotes parts of Alaska as it is in Anchorage and environs. Here's an excerpt, which references both "rural parts of the state" and Alaska in its entirety as a "rural state":
In more rural parts of the state, where gyms instead of hockey rinks were built with the rush of oil money in the 1980s, basketball is the favored sport. But in and around Anchorage, particularly in wealthier high schools, hockey is everything. With $400 skates, $150 sticks and hundreds of dollars more for pads and gloves, outfitting a skater can cost well over a $1,000. Add in ice time, league fees and the cost of travel in and out of this rural state, and some families with elite high school players can spend $15,000 a year.
That's pretty much where the story's generalities about the "hockey way of life" end. The bulk of the story is about Sarah Palin's eldest son, Track, and her future son-in-law, Levi Johnston. It details some of the disciplinary and temper issues that each had--troubles that may have been fueled by their participation in an aggressive sport, as well as their failures to develop other skills. Indeed, that part of the story suggests that hockey may have been as much a part of the problem as it was any solution.

The story goes on to report that Track often played only part of a game before he was kicked out for inappropriate behavior. Track later joined the Army and is about to be deployed to Iraq.

I suppose this Alaska tale is not so different than is typical regarding other high school sports -- particularly in local cultures that promote youth involvement in sports in a way that neglects the development of other skills.

I saw this often in my own home town. Our school's primary sport was basketball, and the only other sport at the time was baseball. Basketball players were idolized and received far more attention in the local newspaper, for example, than honor students. It's a risky strategy -- investing so much time and energy in a skill with which only a very rare young person is going to find future gainful employment, or even a college scholarship. And that brings me to a topic for a post in the near future: priorities for rural schools.

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