Monday, March 5, 2012

Confessions of a Soccer Mom


Never having played competitive sports, I was naïve about the intentions of coaches, parents, sponsoring organizations, and team management. I learned from my mistakes, but I must confess, some of them were real doozies. One of the worst still makes me cringe, and I need to vent.

Quite new to the year-round club soccer circuit, my husband and I assumed that the coach and parents in charge knew what they were doing and would have the girls’ best interests in mind at all times. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Some coaches have more art in bullying than in what is best for the girl or team; others are shriveled little men who curry favor of community leaders or brash, boastful parents. A few actually played the game themselves and motivate kids to love it as much as they did.

For a weekend tournament in Emporia, Kansas, a cattle crossroads in America and home to a teacher’s college, our coach and parent leader sent us north on I-35. We were the first to arrive at what had been described as a hunting lodge some thirty to forty minutes away from the playing fields in Emporia; this distance added another burden to families because we were in the middle of nothing but the Flint Hills with no town, convenience store, or laundromat close by.

As we turned into the drive, Hitchcock’s score from Psycho played in my mind. This was a Bates motel if ever I had seen one except that Norman kept his place cleaner even with the occasional blood splatter.

The thin outdoor carpet below seemed alive with vermin. The shower stall was a play of shadow and light except the shadow was mold. The room stank of something sweet, so much so that my nostrils burned. The linens on the bed were thinner than any I had seen even in my college days when everyone used hand-me-downs. And the lone heater set into the wall hissed like a furious cat.

I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to stay there. I didn’t want to place my belongings there. I wanted to cry.

Someone among the club’s officers had decreed that the team needed to be away from others so that its members could bond. That person had fallen for the motel owner’s hype, describing the place as a hunting lodge with several cabins. I’m sure the old crone closed down after receiving the cash from our team’s parents, afraid that her ruse would never work again. She needed to quit before word spread.

Worse, the crone gave us the best cabin simply because we were the first to arrive. We didn’t ask for it. We had no way of knowing that the sorry quarters were the best, but we engendered plenty of spite because we had the finest quarters. Others were in cabins so small, so oddly configured that they had to lift their legs on to the bed in order for someone to pass on his or her way to the bathroom.

For that weekend, the entire state of Kansas was sodden and icy. Rain and drizzle fell without respite. Parents huddled under umbrellas, inside blankets to stay warm while the girls shivered, splashed, and slogged up and down the field, trying to kick a water-logged ball, all while smelling the savory aroma of cattle dung because corrals surrounded the muddy, composted field and cattle hung their heads awaiting slaughter. I hated to think of the diseases that the girls might carry home after wallowing in that soil, and I couldn’t imagine ever restoring those white uniforms to their original color.

Before that weekend, I was only vaguely acquainted with the word homered, a word that had to do with home-field advantage. Until that weekend, I did not realize that homered also described egregious oversights by hometown referees. The final game between Emporia’s own and our out-of-state team for the Emporia Challenge trophy enlightened me.

One of our best kickers managed to get under the ball and send it aloft in spite of its heavy water weight. She executed the kick perfectly in spite of one defender trying to interfere. That defender stretched so much that she lost her balance and entirely on her own, without touch or push, plopped down on her behind into a muddy puddle. The referee blew the whistle and called a foul on our girl.

Now I know that refs cannot possibly see everything and that what they see depends upon their position on the field at the moment and that they are as flawed as any human on the planet, including me, but believe me, this guy had blinders on. He did not see the game except through the lens of home-town favoritism. He simply imagined that there had been some contact between the two girls, and his own town girl, like every Italian soccer player I’ve ever seen, dramatized her fall and her non-injury to further persuade him.

Still none of that is any excuse for what I did. I shouted from the sidelines, and as it happens sometimes, the heavens ceased to pour rain for the second it took me to speak. No one spoke, as a matter of fact. It was as if the earth held its breath so that all could hear my words and thereby exacerbate my shame after I hollered, “You’re a horrible ref!”

The words hung in the moist air, seeming to reverberate. I wished with all my being to call them back or explain that those words were the accumulated misery of filthy rooms, cold rain, the smell of dung, and the realization that we would not arrive home until after midnight with school and work looming only a few short hours away. Instead, I said nothing, and I vowed never to call from the sidelines again.

The girls went on to win the trophy that awful night. We made it home safely and snatched a few hours of sleep before beginning our work week. The mud came out of the uniforms after soaks and scrubs and multiple washes. No bugs found their way into our luggage and thus into our home. And I--well, I was a quiet observer on the sidelines for--I’m sure it was at least one entire game. I’m pretty sure I kept my vow that long, but I never again assailed a ref. Of that you can be sure.