I coach my kids’ soccer teams – head coach for one, assistant for another. This weekend, one of the teams played a team coached by a hyper-aggressive type who seems to be working out some unresolved childhood stuff through the next generation. There is a rule in this rec soccer league that, when the goalie has the ball — even a finger on it — the other team is to back off. These are 8 and 9 year old girls. The goalie is often in an exposed position, we don’t need kids getting hurt. At one point during the game, one of our girls was bobbling the ball a little bit but still had her hands on it. The girl on the other team kept coming, kicking at the ball, either kicking our player or nearly missing. The opposing coach yelled encouragement to his player: “Way to be aggressive!”
My wife later said it looked like there was going to be trouble between the opposing coach, myself, and our head coach. When we challenged him for encouraging that kind of play, he feigned shock that we would be critical of him encouraging aggressive play. And, hell, who knows, maybe he really didn’t understand that one 9 year old girl kicking at another 9 year old girl, on the ground and focusing on the ball, might lead to unnecessary injury. Or, maybe he didn’t care – because it improved his team’s chances of kicking the ball into the goal. If the ref didn’t call it, then it’s not a foul, right?
There is a cultural divide of sorts among people who prefer a lot of civilized rule following and others who think that all of these protective rules are weakening us, that kids these days are too soft. As a parent, it’s been tough to teach my kids to be kind, sharing, conscientious rule followers on the one hand, then when sporting events come up, try to teach them to be rougher and more selfish – with the added ambiguity of being as physical as the rules allow — which always seems to be slightly beyond the amount of contact that the rulebook contemplates.
That opposing coach is, there is no doubt in my mind, of the school of thought that says kids these days are being made too soft. And, yet, I am sure that if I had walked up behind him and clubbed him over the head with a brick, he would have taken offense. And, if I’d explained afterward that I was just being aggressive that he should thank me for making him tougher, I doubt he would have been mollified. Personally, I’ve always been willing to play games as aggressively or unaggressively as the rules permit. I just want the rules to be clear in advance and everyone to play by the same rules. If we’re playing a friendly game, that’s great. If we’re playing a game where I can replace you with a smoking crater, that’s cool too. It’s when people break the spirit of the rules in a plausibly deniable way that I start feeling stabby and indignant.
Thing is, people behave this way because they get away with it. Cheaters absolutely prosper. Turning this to a legislative focus, the curious case of Rep. Turner comes to mind. Even if we find that his lobbying activities fall within the letter of the General Assembly’s ethics rules, I doubt they were within the spirit. But, hey, he was just being aggressive right? Think he made his millions by working hard and playing by the rules? Or did he make them by aggressively riding the edge of the rules in a plausibly deniable way?
In any event, it’s not rocket science – at the end of the day, we as a society will get more of the behavior we reward.