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In Robert Strauss' memoir, "Daddy's Little Goalie," the former reporter for Sports Illustrated shares funny, heartfelt stories about raising his two athletically inclined daughters, Ella and Sylvia. Strauss, whose byline has appeared in the New York Times and many other publications, is also an adjunct professor of writing in the English department at the University of Pennsylvania. espnW caught up with Strauss to talk about the book and his experience as a father of "girl jocks."
espnW: What inspired you to write the book?
Robert Strauss: I would tell stories of my kids in sports that weren't "My kid scored 40 points today," it was, "You're not going to believe what happened at this game today," and it would be some goofy little thing. A friend said you ought to write a book about this. I said, "This is the kind of book that's already been written several zillion times," and he said, "No, not by you."
My kids and I relate through sports, like many parents and their kids. I'm a dad of daughters, and most books like this -- parenting books -- are written by women. Those written by men are usually about their sons, and usually they're serious, and mine was a little less serious about it. That's where it comes from.
espnW: What is one of the biggest lessons you've learned from your daughters through sports?
Strauss: About two or three weeks ago, I saw what will probably be the last event. It was shocking to me. My younger daughter [Sylvia] happened to be the captain of the New Jersey state championship-winning tennis team this year, so they ended on a glorious note. She was only the sixth-best player on the team, but the team was so good that she was [named] All South Jersey. They were winning everything. The last match was a playoff for the South Jersey doubles championship, and the only people who were there were the two coaches, one of the sisters, one of the sister's friends and me. What I learned is that sometimes it's only for you and your kids. Sometimes the memory is all that matters, and this is a goofy ending to a 17-year run of watching your kids play.
espnW: Can you share one of your favorite stories from the book that best exemplifies your experiences?
Strauss: One is that Sylvia, my younger one, must have been about 10 years old and playing in one of those super-duper basketball tournaments. After the game I go over and put my arm around her and say, "Well, Sylvia, it was great that you were the high scorer of the team. It's a shame it was only with one point." They lost 44-1. Let's face it, if she had scored 19 points, it would have been an unmemorable game, but the idea that she made one foul shot, and that was the only shot, and [means] we can remember just as happily a game where it was a slaughter on one side as the other.
The other was that my older daughter [Ella] decided to be on a diving team. She gets to her first meet at the pool that most of her friends belong to, and she came in 28th out of 28 -- whatever it was, it was last. She's holding her little slip and her lip is somewhere down around her ankles, and I give her this pep talk, and then I said, "But there are your friends over there." They're all waiting for her to come over, and they start cheering to her: "El-la! El-la!" Both of those things show that the real spirit of all of this is that you can lose without being a loser.
espnW: Why is it important for fathers to be involved in their daughters' sports?
Strauss: I hate to say that there's still gender inequity that goes on, but if I had sons, which I don't, and my son was standing on the mound of Little League, I would be having that little bubble overhead saying he's going to get the $20 million contract or be the next Roy Halladay or something like that. I realized early on that wasn't really going to happen for us. I think it's important to find that bond with your kid, and if you can do it in this cross-referenced thing -- a guy with girls' athletics -- and be sane at the same time ... they will tell you that I was at everything but I never screamed at a ref, I never screamed at a coach, I never screamed at a kid. It was great to have this venue of sports, but it's probably because I was an ex-sports writer and watched sporting events. When you're 5 years old, you cuddle up to your parents doing whatever they do. If I were the best French horn player in the world, I'm sure [my daughters] would be doing that. If I were in theater, I'm sure they'd be doing that. It just happened to be sports for us.
espnW: What do you think was the turning point for it to be more acceptable for fathers to be more involved in their daughters' sports?
Strauss: There's still a paucity of women's coaches in higher-level and in sandlot sports. At some point, the dads said, "I played soccer or baseball or whatever it is, so all right, I'll do it." There's ubiquity -- Title IX and its ancillary things where girls go out and play soccer at age 4 -- like I said in the book and I truly believe, I can look at my high school yearbook -- and I graduated high school in 1969 -- and there certainly were girls playing sports, but I don't remember it. I see the swim team photo, and I see the field hockey photo and it happened, but I wasn't a part of it even for the girls who were in my class. There was a leap that was made sometime after that that really made the difference and made it easier.
espnW: This year is the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Why do you think sports are so important to girls as they develop?
Strauss: I live in a small town of overachievers -- Haddonfield, N.J. -- and one way to overachieve is in sports, because it's statistical and it's out there. There's somewhat of an equality, even up to high school sports. One of the things I point out, and this year it happened again: The homecoming queens for the four years surrounding my older daughter's time in high school were three field hockey captains and a girl who became a Division I soccer player. I can tell you, when I was growing up, that was not the entrée to becoming the homecoming queen. Now that's just part of what you do as a high school girl or as a junior high school girl -- at least in this town -- is play sports. That's part of the milieu. It's the way you get into group activities, it's the way you show leadership, it's part of the fabric.
espnW: What did you learn about yourself and your relationship with your daughters through writing the book?
Strauss: I'm a journalist who's written a lot through my life, but I always wanted to do something like this. It made me wish that my parents had done it, and I encourage every parent to do it even if they don't publish it as a book. I know that I wish that I could know what my mother and father thought while I was doing whatever it was I was doing back then. It's made me think more about what I want for the rest of my life. It's made me conscious of wanting to care for my kids even beyond that last tennis match or that last run with them.