Monday, October 21, 2013

Three Volleyball Stories That Aren't About Volleyball

[EDIT: It turns out that Erin Cox may well be a fraud, and that school authorities behaved appropriately. I leave the story up simply as a reminder to us all that a little skepticism is seldom misplaced. Curmie apologizes to Principal Scuzzarella and the other school officials.]

So what is it with high school volleyball these days? Not one, not two, but three stories have come across Curmie’s virtual desk in recent weeks. One, I’ve already written about: the case of North Andover (MA) High School’s Erin Cox (left), who was stripped of her captaincy of the volleyball team and suspended for several games for collecting a drunken friend at a party so the other girl wouldn’t be driving home drunk, endangering herself, others, property… well, you know all the reasons not to drive while impaired.

There’s an update, and it will surprise no one. The school district has doubled down on its idiocy in a petulant display worthy of a six-year-old… or a Tea Party Congressman, which is pretty much the same thing. Naturally, there’s the denial of the zero tolerance policy (chances that Superintendent Kevin Hutchinson is lying: slightly greater that 99%, but—to be fair—less than ontological certitude). There’s the claim that the reason the school isn’t commenting further is a concern for the student’s privacy rights—no, really, it isn’t that they don’t have a f*cking case; it’s all about laws and privacy and whatever else they can think of so they can throw their temper tantrums and no one will be able to prove anything. Let’s face it: if it’s Ms. Cox’s rights they’re concerned about, well, it’s not like there are a lot of people in the area who don’t know what she’s been charged with or what the punishment was, ya know? She has the right to privacy. She also has the right to waive those rights. Challenge her to do so, if you’re really concerned about her instead of maintaining dictatorial control over your petty fiefdom.

(Side note: the owner of the property—the mother of the boy hosting the party—faced no repercussions because “police said she wasn’t aware of the party.” Good mother, that.)

Most interestingly, there’s a rather relevant section of the school’s official Athletic Handbook:
MIAA [Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association] Rule- 62 From the earliest fall practice date, to the conclusion of the academic year or final athletic event (whichever is latest), a student shall not, regardless of the quantity, use, consume, possess, buy/sell, or give away any beverage containing alcohol; any tobacco product; marijuana; steroids; or any controlled substance. This policy includes products such as “NA or near beer”. It is not a violation for a student to be in possession of a legally defined drug specifically prescribed for the student’s own use by his/her doctor.

This MIAA statewide minimum standard is not intended to render “guilt by association”, e.g. many student athletes might be present at a party where only a few violate this standard….
(Curmie has added the boldface emphasis, but not otherwise altered the mispunctuated original.) Apart from that significant injunction against assuming guilt by association, there’s also the key consideration that there is no apparent evidence that Ms. Cox “used, consumed, possessed, bought/sold, or gave away” anything alcoholic. She is, in short, not in violation of school policy.

The good news: a huge outpouring of support for Ms. Cox: nearly 20,000 virtual signatures on a petition and over $7000 (as of this writing) raised in a GoFundMe campaign. [EDIT: the GoFundMe appeal has now been taken down at the request of Erin’s mom.]

On to the other stories… we start in Dayton, Iowa (no, Alternet, not Ohio), where 12-year-old Dezi Hughes was forced to sit out a volleyball game because she didn’t dress up on game day, wearing instead what you see at right. No story there, right? Many if not most schools require their athletes to demonstrate “school pride” in this manner. (Curmie is not sure how that equation works, but acknowledges its ubiquity.) And if you don’t follow the rules, you don’t play.

Here’s the thing. Ms. Hughes isn’t just any high school kid. She and a friend, Kathlynn Shepherd, were kidnapped in May by a sex offender. Shepherd was killed; Hughes managed to escape.

Volleyball, apparently, has become an important part of her therapy: a chance to be a kid, to forget, at least for a few moments, the horrible ordeal she endured, not to mention the possibility of survivor’s guilt, given the death of her friend. So, not getting to play is a problem.

Fact is, nobody looks good in this one. The fact that volleyball has become an outlet for Dezi doesn’t mean she should be given preferential treatment. She shouldn’t get a starting job she doesn’t deserve, for example. And there’s not—to my mind, at least—a substantive difference between dressing up for school and wearing a uniform at the game. Both are arbitrary requirements, but both are the rules, whether established by the school and the coaching staff on the one hand or by the athletic conference on the other. So why shouldn’t she be expected to follow the same strictures as everyone else?

On the other hand, if there are legitimate reasons why Dezi doesn’t want to dress up—if that would somehow remind her of what she was wearing the day she was kidnapped, for example, then the school’s “rules are rules” attitude would be somewhere between boorish and cruel. Certainly cutting a little slack for an apparent first offense under the circumstances would seem warranted. Conversely, if there’s a legitimate reason why wearing nice clothes—and, let’s face, no one would suggest the outfit Dezi wore on the day in question qualifies—would somehow impede the girl’s recovery, then the time to make that argument is before she gets told she can’t play because she violated team rules. Does the school look good in this? No. But this isn’t even honorable mention Curmie material.

What is? Well, Naples (FL) Middle School’s letter to the parents of 11-year-old Lily Grasso would qualify. To be fair, the school was simply following a stupid rule established by the legislature; this is Florida, after all. And the Grasso clan did over-react, but certainly their response is understandable. Anyway, Lily is listed at 5’3” and 124 pounds (there’s some dispute as to whether they even got her height right), giving her a body mass index (BMI) of 22. That, according to the “fat letter” that was sent after a screening by the Collier County Health Department, makes her “at risk.” A link on the form sends you to the Centers for Disease Control website, which cheerfully informs us that a child with a BMI% of 89.56—Lily’s percentile—is “overweight.” Lost in the fine print are the caveats:
BMI is not a diagnostic tool. For example, a child may have a high BMI for age and sex, but to determine if excess fat is a problem, a health care provider would need to perform further assessments. These assessments might include skinfold thickness measurements, evaluations of diet, physical activity, family history, and other appropriate health screenings.
In other words, BMI isn’t worth a hell of a lot as a determinant of health or fitness or anything else. Muscle weighs more than fat; 11-year-old bodies are changing; health can’t be determined by any single measurement… need we go on?

A reasonable approach would be to trust that parents know whether their kid has weight issues. A reasonable approach would be to allow doctors rather than charts to determine health. BTW, Clayton Kershaw, widely regarded as the best baseball player in the world right now, has a BMI of 27.1; NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James is at 27.5; NFL MVP Adrian Peterson checks in at 28.6; former All-Pro defensive tackle Casey Hampton: 42.9. All of those world-class athletes are considered “overweight” for an adult male, except for Hampton, who’s over a dozen points higher than the cutoff for obese. I’d call those guys reasonably fit, nonetheless. But this is state government, school districts, and Florida, all at the same time: a triple whammy if ever there was one. The idea that expertise matters is alien to all of these constituencies, of course. After all, it’s a short step from believing a calculation that puts some of the world’s best athletes into the “overweight” range might be… erm… flawed to thinking that standardized tests aren’t the best measure of academic accomplishment, and we certainly can’t have that.

Childhood obesity is a problem. But so is female self-image. Tell an athletic, healthy, 11-year-old girl that she’s “at risk” because of her height and weight, or “overweight,” and what she hears is “fat.” And if there’s anything our society won’t allow women to be, it’s that. The number of eating disorders these intrusive letters generate will far outweigh any good that come of increased attention to maintaining healthy diets and exercise regimens. You, Gentle Reader, know a perfectly healthy adult woman who agonizes over gaining a pound, much less a dress size. Perhaps you are that woman. And stupid charts and form letters that tell the girl in the picture to the left that she’s overweight are one place this obsession with thin takes hold. (Note: if girls are subject to over-sensitivity to the idea of being too heavy, Curmie, who graduated from college with a BMI of 17.5—“underweight” is anything below 18.5—can personally attest to the self-image problems of skinny boys.)

A Time magazine article last month called attention to an effort in Massachusetts to abolish the “fat letters.” The article notes that:
Parents and pediatricians have been going back-and-forth on the “fat letter” issue recently after an August report by the American Academy of Pediatrics urged parents to put their pride aside and welcome the screenings and letters, which they say will help parents and their children adopt healthier lifestyles.

“BMI screening letters are an additional awareness tool to promote conversations about healthy eating habits, exercise, and weight in the safety and confidential environment of the child’s home,” read the report.
Were Curmie of a cynical disposition (perish the thought), he might suggest that the AAP likes the letters primarily because they generate highly remunerative visits to their members, who also, in many cases, get to be the “good guys” and reassure parents that there’s nothing wrong with their kid: “Little Suzie is just fine, Mrs. Smith. That’ll be $200. You can pay at the desk as you leave.” It’s worth noting, too, that the “overweight” and “obese” ratings seem to be based on BMI%, not BMI per se. In other words, the highest 5% of BMIs will always and forever be considered “obese,” whether that is an accurate description, even in BMI terms, of 1% or 20% of the population.

More importantly, the principal advantage to BMI as a tool is that it’s easy: easy enough that parents could do it on their own (as if glancing at their kid weren’t enough to give a rough idea). How hard is it to measure your child’s height? There are short horizontal lines at various heights on walls and door jambs all over the country that suggest the process isn’t terribly taxing. Then you plop the kid on a scale, enter the results into one of the manifold online calculators, and bammo-whammo, you know the BMI. So why, exactly, do we need to spend public funds to do this? Why should government be allowed to intrude into the private medical details of, well, anyone? And, especially since we’re talking about growing, changing bodies, why on earth would anyone pay the slightest attention to any of this? But to ignore the authority of the “fat letter” takes either educated resolve or ignorant bluster, and the majority of the population will adopt neither of those approaches. The point is, parents who care about this stuff have ready means to take appropriate measures. Those who don’t—whether that hesitation comes from skepticism about the usefulness of BMI as a determinant of relevant information or dismissiveness of the legitimate perils of obesity—aren’t going to care what the stupid form says.

Anyway, all these stories are about volleyball, but none of them are really about volleyball, are they? They say (whoever “they” are) that sports are a microcosm of life. These three stories, about incompetent school administrators, bureaucratic intransigence, and nannyish intrusion would certainly seem to suggest as much.

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