Monday, November 30, 2009

Bad basketball and rurality

A rather odd article in The New York Times, entitled "In Rural Indiana, Even Basketball Suffers," discusses the challenges that face a high school basketball team in Medora, Indiana, population 538. The challenges the article discusses really run the gamut - everything from rural poverty, low school and town morale, drug use, crime, low levels of education, broken families, female-headed households, to the dying economy.

The article focuses on the Medora Hornets, Medora High School's basketball team, and its first year coach Marty Young, who at 23, is the youngest head coach in the state. No other high school basketball team has as dire a record as the Hornets do. Last season, the Hornets were 0-22 and the school has won only one championship in its whole history - 1949. What I found so strange about this article was that it is not at all what I expected. In just the first few paragraphs, the article has all the ingredients for the "uplifting" sports success story: a group of "misfits," flagging morale, and a history of failure, etc. Add the unconventional young coach who motivates and supports the kids and you have the formula inspirational success story right?

Wrong. Just as I thought this article was going in the vein of The Mighty Ducks or The Benchwarmers, I got to the part of the article that reports that the young coach is not expecting "many, if any, on-court victories" this season either (emphasis mine). Even if the team's prospects are bleak, that's a very negative thing for a coach to say. I was a little taken aback at this point, but then Young redeemed himself with the next line of the article: "But he counts wins and losses differently from most. 'If they're in the gym these two hours, then I know they're not in trouble,' Young said."

Reassured by that quote, I was ready for the rest of the "inspirational" story, but the article just continued to be what I felt was unnecessarily negative and very subtly condescending. For example:
"In these depressed times, there is little to cheer but the high school basketball team. Except that it does not win."
"Medora, about 65 miles west of Milan, could be this generation's anti-Hoosiers." (Referring to the 1986 film Hoosiers, which was based on Milan's 1954 small-town team winning the state championship.)
"A few had natural ball-handling ability and smooth shooting touches. Most looked like extras from gym class."
The article also rather incoherently highlights some odd facts. It says that Medora HS is a small school (its senior class has only 16 members) and that the town's economy has been declining since the late 1980's when many of its largest employers began closing. It then goes on to quote Penny England, one of the students' mothers, as saying, "That's when, basically, Medora started falling apart." This quote is immediately followed by another block of strangely thrown-together facts:
"Now, Powell said, she is leery to be alone downtown where boys loiter. ('There ain't much to do in this small town,' Wes Ray, a senior basketball player, said.) She lives 'out in the boonies,' she said, where a neighbor was a 'meth head.' The home's three children (born to three fathers) sometimes ran over the hill to her house to escape his abuse. They are now in foster care. One is on the basketball team."
This strange hodgepodge of facts left me with a lot of questions. Is the author saying that the team's performance suffers because of its school's small size? Is it because the town has a poor economy? If it's the poor economy, which began declining in the late 1980s when the town started to "fall apart," why was the state championship just as elusive between 1949 and the late 1980s? What is the relationship between a poor economy and a high school basketball team's poor performance? Not enough funds for a good coaching staff? Good equipment? An adequate practice space? The article never really says.

And then there was that bizarre transition to Ms. Powell reporting that she is afraid to be downtown alone and the parenthetical quote from Wes Ray that there's not a lot to do in small towns. Is the implication that because there's not a lot to do in Medora, high school boys somehow prey on lone women in the downtown area for lack of something better to do? What does this have to do with basketball?

The author uses the reference to the "meth head" and the child in foster care as an opportunity to discuss the epidemic of broken families among the basketball players. He notes that several of the students see their coach as a father figure. Is the implication here that lack of a father figure results in poor sports performance? Or crime and drug use and lack of motivation? Perhaps not, but I found even that subtle suggestion offensive. Throughout the article, the author just seems to lay out facts and then fails to draw any connections between them.

Furthermore, the article casts Coach Young as a minor hero among a town of drug addicts, criminals, young hoodlums, and lazy adults - the author is sure to differentiate him from the rest of the Medora residents. Though Young himself grew up on a farm, the article notes that he did so "comfortably," attended a much larger high school, and even attended college. Here are a couple more excerpts that very clearly differentiate Young from the poor, uneducated Medora crowd:
"'I've been to college,' Young said. 'I've seen a lot of stuff. But these kids that I'm teaching in sixth grade know more about what goes on in the street than I ever thought of. This small, rural town.'"
"Young thought his best player last year, a senior who scored nearly half the team's points, was good enough to play in college. He used connection to get him tryouts. The boy did not show up for them, and now works at a nearby logging mill. 'It's a struggle when they're given a chance and don't take it,' Young said."
Nevermind trying to figure out what that student's reasoning for skipping the tryouts was - no money for college? Family to support? Who cares, right? At least the articles doesn't seem to. And whatever the connection is between having "been to college" and knowing "what goes on in the street" is beyond me. The only purpose I see in that quote is just another opportunity to highlight the coach's college education.

Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive about rural bias after having taken this class, but the article really seems to be unnecessarily and unfairly negative, not just about the basketball team, but about rural Medora as well.


tcruse said...
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tcruse said...

This is interesting. I was also looking at this article as a potential blog post, and, while I found it depressing to read, I didn't quite catch the rural bias in the magnitude that you did. So I gave it a second read. The article does seem a bit disjointed, and I think you raise a lot of good questions.

I think there is something to be said, perhaps, for the advantage money can give you in sports. Teams with more funding for equipment and better training facilities might have a more successful record than teams without. Yet, I think you are right, that just because you live in a rural area, or because you don't have a ton of money, it doesn't necessarily mean that you can't be good at sports. Good point in saying if the source of the bad record is the economy, why no state championship between '49 and '90 - when the town presumably had some economic resources to bestow upon a sports program.

As to Powell's comment about not wanting to be downtown where the boys loiter . . . maybe it's the truth? Maybe since the downturn in the economy and population decline, those left in town, especially high school boys, get into more trouble, be it with drugs, violence, etc.?

I agree that the author’s statistics about single-parent households v. those that live with both mother and father, don't have much bearing on how good the basketball team is. Maybe the author makes the point as an economic indicator - most families have only one income to live on, therefore reducing the amount of money they can devote to sports training and equipment. It would have been helpful for the author to describe a bit more of what goes on in the town - where people work now, instead of just saying there's not much more to live for than basketball - and they're not even good at that.

I did find interesting though, the part about the young coach and his family scouring local thrift stores for matching khaki pants for his players to wear to school on game day. According to the assistant coach, "You’ve got kids who struggle with clothes or coats or shoes . . . [y]et their parents always have cigarettes or beer or satellite TVs.”

tcruse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think I'm going to have to agree with the other comment here. The tone of this story doesn't seem all that different from a story about an urban high school basketball team, except that maybe the color of the players have changed. On the New York Times website, it was pretty easy to find a similar story with similar descriptions of poverty and crime and neighborhood effects, albeit it about a college basketball team, as opposed to a high school team ( If anything, I think, this article reflects an anti-poverty bias. For instance, there are many comments in the article about these players growing up in environments where "they're not used to people expecting something out of them," linked closely to descriptions of broken homes. Ruralism seems to come in not the the negative sense but more in the romantic sense. Rural Indiana should be a great place because Larry Bird grew up there and becuase towns rally around their high school teams. Instead, there is a sense that like poverty and economic depression is ruining an ideal, not that the rural ideal itself is somehow negative.

On another note, that gym floor sure does look shiny. Whatever massive problems Medora may be suffering, the Indiana Department of Education doesn't seem to be party to them.

Anonymous said...

It was a sectional championship...not a state championship...


State championship game

This article is basically crap and has taught me not to read anything in the NYT.

Josh Indiana said...

I think you misunderstood the article, which has generated praise nationwide, as well as $8000 in donations to Medora's athletic programs. I just got a thank-you lettr from Coach Young and his entire team, which won its first game a couple of weeks ago.

The article isn't only about sports or rural poverty, but about the effects of the Great Recession, even in a basketball-mad state like Indiana.

You can't play hoops wearing work boots, they slow you down too much. You can't win if you've given up hope, or don't have enough to eat, or turn to drugs to escape your bleak environment.

Anti-rural bias? Don't make me laugh. I'm a smalltown Hoosier and anti-rural bias is nowhere in that article. The Times does a great job of getting out of the big city into the rest of the country, finding compelling stories and reporting them with sympathy and objectivity.

If even basketball doesn't motivate smalltown Hoosiers in this economic meltdown, something is wrong in these United States.