Learning When to Take a Knee

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

When I was a teenager growing up in Winnipeg, I played football and team handball. Those were my two “go to” sports. I was good at both, better at the latter and decent at the former. I wasn’t a big guy, which hurt me a bit in football. I made up with it because I was a smart football player, I must say. I understood the game, if that makes sense. I still do, in fact, until the point where I’m completely and utterly wrong about everything football.

In deconstruction, I was sensible; dedicated; caring; hard working. I wasn’t close to being the best player on the team—not remotely close—but I was the hardest worker on the team. Every practice. Every time.


I would like to think it was my profound physical talent that won the Fort Garry Lions three consecutive provincial championships (equivalent to state). It wasn’t, of course. But we were a very, very good football team.

I remember the championship game one year. I believe it was 1978. Snow. Cold. This was Winnipeg, to be fair. November. Did I say cold? Man, it was cold. We played in a place called the Velodrome in Winnipeg, which was a cycling ring with a football field in the middle. The concrete on the outside made it that much colder looking and feeling. I am so pleased they tore that thing down. I believe it is a Starbucks and Home Depot now.

My team was kicking the crap out of the other team. I honestly cannot remember who they were; it may have been East Kildonan. I don’t know. But we were there to beat them and we were beating them to a pulp.

By the fourth quarter, I had no significant feeling in any of my extremities. But my most profound moment of amateur football came in the final minute of play. As stated, we were kicking these guys. It was a lopsided win. We had been quietly celebrating for five minutes because it was a done deal. In the final 60 seconds, we were up by, I’m sure, 20 points. I don’t remember exactly how much, but enough that this was a sealed and delivered deal. We were on offence and within striking distance. In fact, we were in the red zone. In amateur ball, if you have a good team, 20 yards is nothing. We could do that, especially at the end when we have momentum and adrenaline and they were facing defeat and cold and downtrodden. Easy peasy.

Our head coach was a good guy but he was going crazy. He hated the other coach and the other team. So much yelling. Everything you really don’t want to see in amateur sports. We were the soon-to-be championship team and we were acting like hacks. This is a group of 16-18-year-olds. Old enough to get in tremendous trouble but young enough to be very impacted by the actions of their elders and confidents. Beyond the euphoria and hysterics of adolescence, that age group doesn’t need crazy adults directing them. Still, this is what was transpiring on a frozen tundra in the middle of Winnipeg, Manitoba, that cold Saturday afternoon. Our coach called for us to stuff it down the opposition’s throats and score another touchdown. Some of our team, including the captains, were rambunctious in approval.

I was not.

I found the suggestion to score again, in the last minute of the game, repugnant. I was on the sideline at the time (did I mention I wasn’t the best player on the team?) and remember walking over to the coaches and yelling at them to “down the ball.” That is, play out the clock. We didn’t need more points. Our opponents could not win. There was no need to inflict any more damage. Of course, we were taught not to like the opponent. Football is a gladiator sport and they were our enemy. In my mind, the damage was done. An infliction was made. Our opponents knew the score. And so did we. There was no reason to drill the message down their collective throats.

Still, no one listened. The coach continued to shout. Veins popped. I said again, “Down the Ball!!! We don’t need to do this!!!” The message echoed, largely unheard. Finally, one of the assistant coaches walked over me and said, “I heard you. You are right, but calm down.” He walked over to the head coach and forcefully convinced him to down the ball. We did. Guess what? We won anyway.

This was a story I remembered tonight. I’ve thought of it many times before, but something brought it back tonight and it made me write it down. This moment was a big piece of my youth education. I’m not saying I was better than anyone. I sure wasn’t on the football field, although I’ll always be proud of my work ethic. I could throw, punt, kick, run. I could do it all. But I was also 155 pounds and five-foot-seven. My football partner was a combination of rocket ship and cargo train. I was good. Just not good enough.

But my mind was right. I had the right attitude. I worked hard. And perhaps more importantly, I had, and still do, a respect for the other side. There is a time to fight. A time to endure. And a time to let it go and move forward.

I’m not sure where it came from, but I guess I have to thank my parents for both the DNA and the fortitude to understand bad, good, and better; the right things to do, even, and especially, when we didn’t do those things. Something clicked in my older brothers and me. And most of my friends and teammates were the same way. Not all of them, though. We didn’t always learn the same lessons or understand the same things.

How we raise kids—how we teach and let them learn—are critical endeavors on the lives of youth. How we articulate the importance of hard work, of empathy in the art of winning while also being appreciative of the effort of the opposition when you lose. We’re all in the same game. Only one team will win. The other team still played and still got to the final game. They had something in them, too. They just didn’t do it on that day. We did. I’m not sure I’d say it was a coin flip. It was good coaching, solid conditioning, and so many nights after school on either a sickly warm or deathly cold field that it was hard to count. It was mom leaving dinner under a pie plate in the oven so we could eat at 9:30 or 10:00pm. It was 40 plus guys, plus the coaches and trainers and everyone else who gave their time for something “more.” This situation still plays out across the US and Canada year round. Early morning skates or laps at the pool. Late night training.

This is the attitude we need now. I look across the United States, where I have lived for the past 28 years, and even across my homeland of Canada, where I lived for the first 28, and this much is clear: we need more. The human condition is such that it can cut us down at the knees if we let it; if we listen just a little bit too hard, it can cut us deeply. Our world seems a little too much of “us versus them.” Sometimes I feel like I am back on the cold battle field of a “game” where I am questioning what our goal is. Is it to win? Or is it to play the game fairly, prudently, and proudly?

I can bring in a bunch of statistics and other information to show how the playing field is so stacked against some groups of our youth. If you are a young student who is poor, Black, Hispanic, Native American, or first generation, the tables are stacked against you. The numbers don’t lie. The numbers are devastating.

Back in 1997, when I worked for the College Board, First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke at our National Forum in Chicago. I remember it like it was yesterday, only because I like clichés. But I do remember the day vividly. It was Hillary’s birthday, so it must have been October 26th, in fact, somewhere on West Wacker. The College Board crew brought out a humongous cake for her. Kind of corny, but that’s what you do at these things. The crowd loved her, of course, given that most educators are, for better or worse, of that political attire.

But it is what Hillary said that struck me to my core. This isn’t politics, folks, so don’t read that into this diatribe of mine. The First Lady did all the niceties and thanked all the people. She was a Chicagoan, for what it was worth. She then launched into a description of her visit to an elementary school earlier that day. She told a story of a couple of girls who were dressed up in their Sunday bests, because, of course, they knew they would be meeting the First Lady. And they showed Ms. Clinton their work and were proud, as they should have been. Then the First Lady said this:

“I looked at those girls in the eyes, and in my heart, I knew they didn’t have a chance.”

That statement was profound to me, for several reasons. First, because it was true. These girls, from a desperate area of Chicago, without the necessary resources and family commitment and all the other things that plague low-income families, had such a massive hurdle in front of them. To them, they were showing their best work. But it was only evidence of how much behind they truly were.

This moment also resonated with me because the First Lady, with press present in the hall, told it as it was, even though it wasn’t pretty. She told the truth. “In my heart, I knew they didn’t have a chance.” I was floored. I remember thinking to myself: “Oh my, this isn’t going to play well on NBC tonight.”

It never played on NBC. Or ABC. Or CBS. Or even CNN. It didn’t play at all that night.

I’m not sure why. It was kill cream and the networks like nothing better than a soundbite that can cause excruciating pain. It isn’t fake news, but let’s be real, the networks—all of them—want fresh blood. They always do. Don Henley had it right: they want dirty laundry. But they let this one go. I remained flabbergasted. Maybe it was a busy news day. Maybe they didn’t care. And maybe they let her go with that one. I kind of wish everyone saw it, although I’m sure Newt and the Gang (they sang Celebration several years before) would have had a field day.

Twenty-years earlier, I sat on the sidelines after the clock ran down. We were the provincial champions. It was the second of three for me. But I was cold; frozen. Everyone around me was celebrating. I took a moment to myself. There was something about that moment. I was proud of winning, but I was also proud of taking a stand against my authorities to “play better.” In retrospect, that isn’t a lesson that a young man should be teaching an elder, but that’s how it went down. I took a stand, even how little, against bullying against some team that was at the losing end of a championship game.

I was 17.

I don’t know what the press were thinking that day back in 1997 just south of the Chicago River. My football exploits and a chance encounter with Hillary do not make a linear analogy, but something in my mind brought these two pieces today. It was a bit of civility in a constant civil war between what is decent and what is much less so.

I understand that a lot of people do not think very highly of Hillary Clinton in this country. I don’t agree, but everyone is equally entitled to their opinion. On that morning, 21 years ago, my jaw dropped, thinking: “Wow. She had the balls to say that in public. Good for her.”

We need to do better. We need to give people some slack while always asking for their best. We need to understand that people have different stresses and issues. Not everyone can win, and winning, sorry, isn’t the goal. Having one team win over everyone else is ‘sport,’ but it sure as hell isn’t life. We need to understand that some of the people in our society have it really, really hard. We all have hard times. We all have life and death struggles. Hardships and happiness. For some, there is much less rather than much more. It remains a struggle for 40 percent of our society. Perhaps more.

“A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” A quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but apparently words that never left his lips. Still, the words speak truth. Something to remember.

In the end, we need to do better. It starts by deciding how we should treat each other.

“Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

-Pearl Buck (1892-1973), Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1932

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