Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

This article was originally published in the February 2018 Princeton Echo.

When I walk into my son’s room one afternoon at 5 p.m., his friend Justin is sprawled fast asleep on the bed, still wearing his shoes and coat.

“He came to do his homework,” he explains, “but before he put down his bag he collapsed.”

“What happens now?” I ask.

“Let him sleep,” my daughter says. “Do not wake him up. He is exhausted. Tomorrow morning he has to get up at 4 a.m. for ice hockey.”

In America, sports are the religion of the masses. Every third-rate swim team is treated as if it were the Olympic delegation. Our Dutch national team would struggle to keep up with these boys and girls who have to train endlessly at the most impossible times between school days crammed with tests and exams and homework. When Justin is not asleep in our bed, his sister Julianne is often collapsed there.

To parents, sports are the great equalizer. If your daughter is not proficient in math or a language, well, every girl can try her luck with tennis or hockey. Elite universities maintain this illusion by fighting every year to recruit the best high-school athletes. They lure them with full scholarships, supplemented with privileges such as their own single room. Long before everyday students can even sign up for the ruthless admission process, the football and lacrosse teams have already filled out their rosters.

The media play an important role in abetting this practice. Local newspapers print separate color sections for school sports. Games between 12-year-olds are described as if they were the finals of the World Cup. For a high school, nothing is better publicity than a photo above the fold in the local newspaper of a spectacular winning goal. The walls along the school hallways are lined with clippings and trophy cases filled with glittering prizes. You would almost forget that schools are here to help kids learn.

Many a parent believes that sports are the fast lane to a long and happy life. When a baby arrives, the parents have already chosen his or her activity. Toddlers are assigned private trainers. This path to the university seems easier than learning six languages or doing the homework in algebra or history.

Of course, there is a fallacy at work here. There is not just one Johnny who is good at football or ice hockey, there are hundreds of thousands. The path to grab the brass ring in sports is long and hard — and crowded. Children in volleyball and soccer teams fly for the weekend to tournaments in Florida, California, or Texas. Then they catch a return flight on Sunday night and go directly to school on Monday.

What does all this effort provide? For most children, certainly not a golden envelope with an entrance ticket for a prestigious university degree. Many athletes wash out in college, or lose their scholarships, and have an athletic career with the half-life of a mayfly. Some of them wind up back in their old high schools, working as history teachers and part-time hockey coaches, where they can pass on their dreams to another generation of willing believers. And so the game goes on.

At 3:45 in the morning, I wake up to the sound of noises in the house. The shower goes on and off. Tea is steaming in the kitchen. In the darkness, I see Justin walking to his car, carrying his athletic bag. He stumbles over his hockey stick while he waves at the girl next door who is leaving for her own practice.

Meanwhile, our son rolls over in his warm bed and pulls up the covers. Three more hours in dreamland.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.