I couldn’t put this book down, and once I finished it, I needed several days to process what I’d just read. Beartown (published by Simon & Schuster) lives and breathes for hockey – the kids start young and pour their hearts into the sport in hopes of eventually making the top team of the organization (and maybe even a professional contract someday). From the beginning you can tell that the hockey organization is corrupt – from the President and Board of Directors, to the coaches, to the parents, to the entitled athletes. Members of the hockey organization run the town and everyone is enamored by them. The story builds up to one drunken night and the repercussions that follow.
I used to believe in the benefits of playing sports, but as I’ve become a parent of a child that’s on various sports teams, it’s become more and more evident that the culture of sports has changed. When I was younger and played sports, there was an emphasis on player development, team work, and integrity. Your teammates became your family. Now, teams change so much from year to year because it seems as if the parents are always seeking the next “better” team so their child will continue to advance their skills – and more than likely, their wins vs. loss records. There are clearly different motivating factors behind the coaching philosophies these days: win at all costs, reward/ignore selfish behavior, and unsportsmanlike conduct. It’s disappointing that what used to build character now seems to destroy it instead. It’s no longer about the kids; oftentimes, it’s more about the parent’s egos.
This book reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, a real-life account of a very similar scenario. Sadly, as a former Division 1 athlete, the stories in both of these books (Beartown and Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town) are very realistic. There’s a sense of entitlement being fostered in elite athletes (some, not all!) and I wonder when we, as a society, start to acknowledge this behavior and work to change it. I am hopeful that we will stop putting these children on pedestals and start instilling the characteristics that sports used to be about. I’m as competitive as the next person, but when we’re ignoring player development and ethical behavior/sportsmanlike conduct because winning is more important, we have a problem.
This is the second book I’ve read by Backman (I also read, A Man Called Ove). Beartown is very different than that one, and I think it has a Jodi Picoult vibe – effectively explores every angle of the situation and character’s points of views while challenging everything you personally think and feel about the topic. I have found myself returning to the plot over and over again; it’s definitely a book that will stick with you!