Gordon Monson: Parents of Utah athletes, quit blaming trans kids, quit freaking out over winning

The UHSAA was forced to investigate when Utah parents complained a high school athlete might be transgender after she beat their daughters.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) East High school students organize a walkout on Friday, April 15, 2022, to protest HB11, which bans transgender girls from participating in female school sports.

The line between parents who rightfully care about the interests of their children competing in junior and high school sports and those who are out of their minds in that caring, lost somewhere in the ego of their (kids’) success, can be as thin as the string of a tennis racket.

I know this because I’ve seen it, again and again.

All parents — especially those new to games played among children and schools, but also those who have lived through them for years — need to know one thing.

Winning isn’t everything. It isn’t the only thing.

Even Vince Lombardi knew that. He said when he was quoted as saying it, he meant the will to win, the effort made in doing so.

Parents in this state who would and do complain about their kid losing a prep competition, questioning the gender of a competitor who beat their own child, as was recently reported, need to rearrange the way they think.

They are messed up in the head.

If that’s indelicate, sorry.

When the Utah Legislature passed HB11, preventing trans girls from lawfully participating as girls in high school sports, you knew stuff like this was going to happen. Zealous parents who run into a fog about what’s most important in prep sports wanting winners to “prove” their gender, especially if they don’t look or seem feminine enough, leaving school officials to have to figuratively check under the hood to make sure the engine is what the law says it has to be.

The premise for all of this was flawed from the beginning.

Lawmakers and supporters of the move said over and over that they wanted high school sports in Utah to be “fair.” Sports, in my estimation and experience, in covering them for 45 years now at all levels, have never been completely fair. Some athletes are more gifted than others, some have trained harder, some have better training on account of their financial situations, some are tougher not just physically, but mentally.

Beyond my profession, I’ve lived the parental sports experience in a very personal way. My five daughters, all of them adults now, devoted large amounts of time and effort in their youth playing sports. Three of them specialized in tennis, one in soccer and one in volleyball. They were good. Very good. Remarkably good. Rarely the absolute best.

They won a lot. (They took after their mom.) They lost some.

And, either way, it was OK.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, in a society somehow programmed to worship only winning, even at the youth levels, I can’t stress that enough. If your kid loses, it’s gonna be all right. Neither their identity, their self-worth, nor yours, needs to be wrapped up in it.

My daughters who played tennis traveled from Florida to Hawaii for high-level competitions, crushing some of their opponents, getting bettered by others. It’s just the way it is.

And at those competitive elevations, and at some sea-level ones, I saw kids and parents throw tantrums in defeat. I saw many competitors under great duress, feeling that pressure from somewhere, often from within the walls of their own homes.

After one match, a loss, I witnessed a youngster taking a verbal assault from her father and yelling right back into his face, “I’m going to kill myself.”

She was 14.

I saw behaviors from children and so-called grown-ups, all in the name of winning, that would disgust any caring human being.

I saw a group of parents at a girls’ high school softball game start to climb a backstop and scream at the umpire with such force that blue called for blue-with-badge backup for his own protection.

Asked to speak once at a preseason team barbecue for a high school volleyball squad, with parents in attendance, I told the girls and their parents that none of them, in all likelihood, would go on to play volleyball in the Olympics, and that they should approach their practices and their season with lots of effort and lots of joy, not stressing over whether they’d catch the eye of a national coach or even a college recruiter. If that were to actually happen, fine. But instead, relish the experience of playing a high school sport with their friends. They only get to do that once.

The coaches later passed along that a couple of the parents had complained about that message.

Look, if your kid has the talent to play college sports, has the talent to gain an athletic scholarship at some school somewhere, that ability will become apparent to most college recruiters. There are some misses, but not all that many.

Finding a way for your child to get noticed by a college coach is a fool’s errand. If that’s where a parent’s emphasis is aimed and energy is spent through the junior and high school years, what a shame. Shame on Mom and Dad, a shame for the kid doing her or his best to prosper at and enjoy the sport being played.

No scholarship, no amount of winning, is worth ruining your own kid’s athletic experience, and certainly not worth ruining another kid’s, not worth messing with the idea of proving another’s appearance or measure of femininity.

That would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

After my girls were done competing in their sports, two after high school, three after college, they put their trophies, their rackets, their Nikes, their cleats away. All of them picked up other venues for competition in other pursuits. And it was all good.

I asked them how they would have felt losing to a trans girl in a major match, a national tournament, and all of them said it would be no big deal. One said it would have been an “honor.”

Sometimes young people are smarter than supposedly wise adults.

Let the kids play, then — play — their sports without spoiling the experience with worries or accusations or investigations about what’s fair and what isn’t.

This isn’t the pros.

At the high school level, winning is not everything, nor is it the only thing.

It’s just a thing. Same as losing.