The folks who inhabit "We Own This Game," Robert Andrew Powell's book about youth football in Miami, are poster children for a train wreck. Where else do you find a coach who tells his players "borrowing that money and going to college was the biggest mistake I ever made." Where else do you find a player who quits in the middle of a game, then gets rewarded by his drug-dealing uncle with cash because - what the hell? - the team won anyway?
It's not all that bad. Some of it's worse. Gunfire interrupts one playoff game and there is some talk of canceling the contest in the interests of safety. Then cooler heads prevail and the game goes on, the reasoning being that if it didn't, the eight thousand adults in attendance, many of them drunk, drug-addled, and gambling on the outcome, would riot.
The prevailing ethic among the football players, their parents, and their coaches is that football is the most likely route these kids will find to escape poverty. Every once in a while, somebody stops by to tell everybody concerned that statistics demonstrate that they are nuts, and that the kids have a better chance to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, or business owners than they do to become pro athletes. The probabilities fall on deaf ears, or on ears overwhelmed by the contrary message the coaches and the community itself deliver daily.
It may be that somewhere out there lurks a book involving sports that's more discouraging than this one, but I doubt it. "We Own This Game" is a solidly researched, well-written, chilling account of how screwed up a youth sport can be, and there's plenty of blame to go around. The kids are pawns, and their parents encourage them to assume that role. Some of them fudge their home addresses so the children can play for a better team across town. Then they scream for the coach's resignation when the team of eight-year-olds loses two games in a row. The coaches are energetic and some of them are dedicated, but numbers of them are also vain and corrupt. The culture that spawns their behavior is shallow. The country in which mass poverty and racism have made it possible, if not inevitable, for this discouraging series of developments ought to be ashamed of itself.
This program aired on December 13, 2003. The audio for this program is not available.