Matt Barkley is an impressive kid, by athletic standards. In a country such as ours which sometimes values sports accomplishment to the point of worship and idolatry, a kid like Matt Barkley is destined to be a top news-maker for years to come.
Barkley was the most heralded high school quarterback in the nation in 2008, breaking all sorts of records and winning several national awards. After graduating high school six months early, he enrolled in USC and became the first true freshman at that university to ever start in the season opener. As he enters his Junior year he is already the 6th all-time leader in total passing yards in USC history.
Fulfilling part of his news-maker destiny, the young quarterback was recently interviewed on ESPN. The interviewer asked the typical array of questions ranging from USC’s prospects for the coming year to Barkley’s take on the recent alleged ethics violations within the Ohio State University football program. Like the burgeoning news-maker that he is, the good looking, clean-cut Barkley fielded each question with the poise and confidence that he exudes on the football field. The headlines will be safe in this young man’s hands for years to come.
The interviewer also asked Barkley about his recent December trip to Jos, Nigeria organized by his family as part of a relief effort for orphans, widows and others in need. Since USC was banned from Bowl participation due to prior years of NCAA violations, Barkley and his family found themselves with an opportunity to make the 11-day post-Christmas journey to this impoverished and destitute region of Africa. It was the second such relief trip for their clan in three years.
The Barkley contingent of friends and family loaded up 21 large duffel bags with 1,300 pounds of supplies including food, toys and hygiene items, plus a number of soccer balls as well. The relief effort was warmly welcomed by a community whose region had been scarred by violent religious conflicts which left scores of orphans and widows its wake.
When asked by ESPN what his most memorable moment of the trip was, Barkley responded that it was whenever they handed out a brand new soccer ball. “It was like gold,” he said. “As soon as we broke it out the whole community of children came running over with huge smiles on their faces.” He reflected at how just one soccer ball could unite an entire community by bringing the joy of a simple game to its children.
He also said that it changed his perspective. “It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself for losing a game or making a bad play when at least I have running water and a roof over my head,” he added. “Those people have close to nothing.”
Two Sides To Every Ball
A soccer ball, hockey puck and baseball have been known to unite countless communities in our country as well. From men’s softball leagues to kiddie soccer games, we have come to experience sports as a social event, solidifying old bonds and forming new friendships along the way. It’s become an increasing focal point for many American families and communities, occupying a growing number of our daily hours, to a point of excess some would say. Still, it can be very enjoyable and healthy for all involved.
But in our country there’s a dark side to sports too. A side that divides us as a community. The “industrialization” of organized sports in this country has produced an adverse side effect of over-zealous and over-involved parents who lose perspective and lose emotional control. Stories of rageful parents engaged in on-field confrontations with coaches, referees and fellow parents are captured in the headlines constantly. Countless other ugly incidents go unreported, but happen at an alarming frequency. At some point most of us ourselves have witnessed a fistfight, an exchange of insults, cursing and threats of violence; some directed at adults, some even at young children. And even behind the scenes of these games, grown men and women on sports committees spend untold hours on team “drafts” and selection processes, debating the relative skill sets of “players” (i.e., 8-year-old girls and boys), arguing over the respective talents of these kids as if preparing for the NFL draft. The process itself begs contentiousness and resentment, and serves to divide, not unite us.
At it’s worst, our division over sports can turn deadly. Riots break out in the name of sports. Mob mentality at large stadiums can pop up instantaneously. The Philadelphia Phillies turned a basement room in their baseball stadium into a make-shift courtroom to handle all of the cases of violence. A few months ago an innocent baseball fan was beaten nearly to death by opposing fans, leaving him in a coma, unlikely to recover. All in the name of sports.
It’s contradictory and confusing how sports can be so uniting, and yet so divisive too. But mostly, it’s just sad. Compared to Jos, Nigeria we are rich in so many material ways. But maybe that causes us to be deprived of other important possessions, like a healthy perspective and an appreciation for what we have.
Matt Barkley is only half way through his college education, but it sounds like he could already teach us a lot about how to be better sports fans, and better people too.