Fame '09

Sympathy for the Football Player

We are fortunate to be living in the Golden Age of YA fiction.

Seriously. There's such an amazing amount of talent in YA fiction right now, and some, or even most of the best work being done in almost every literary genre is happening in YA.  (If you don't believe me, I'm not going to try to convince you,but you are missing out on some great stuff.)

And yet I have to complain, because it's what I do.

As I read more and more YA fiction, I'm noticing the football player emerging as the kind of stock villain of YA fiction set in high schools.

Now, I have no doubt that there are indeed some football players who are slow-witted bullies.  I further believe that many, if not most YA authors were not themselves football players and were indeed not even the kind of people who hung around with football players.  My own high school did not have a football team.  The football players I met in college always appeared to me to be slow-witted drunkards, but since I only really ran into these guys at keggers, it's really not a fair sample.  I probably was not at my best at these events either.

In my years as a high school teacher, I found that football players ran the gamut of personalities and intellectual abilities, much like pretty much any other group at school.  I definitely knew football players who were smart, thoughtful, and sensitive. And the meanest kid I can remember, the one who enforced the code of conformity more brutally than anybody else, didn't play a sport at all.

So I challenge myself and my fellow YA authors to stop leaning on the football player as the symbol of everything that's wrong with high school.

For one thing, it's lazy writing.  Stop giving us two-dimensional football players when you want a villain; it's been done. 

For another thing, it's mean writing.  It's you, YA author, being a bully. 

Because now, out of high school, you've got the word processor and the publishing contract, and therefore the power, and you need to stop singling out a class of people to pick on.  That's what bullies do.

All the best work in YA fiction about high school seems to me to be an attempt to sand down some of the rough edges of that experience, to show that the harsh judgments teens mete out-- to each other, and most importantly, to themselves-- should be tempered by understanding whenever possible.  We're only perpetuating the nastiness and stratification that we write about so disapprovingly when we consistently present these young men as evil.