Leaving home for the court

home school basketball tournamentIf you are part of a family that homeschools its children and is religious, The New York Times is your friend Sunday morning. The newspaper's sports section has a nice news/feature story on last week's national homeschool basketball tournament in Oklahoma City, and for once, the story doesn't take the "zoo approach" toward homeschooling. (As a disclaimer, my 15-year-old sister played in this basketball tournament this past week.) What I mean by the "zoo approach" is when a reporter sees a homeschooled family or organization of homeschool families and reports and writes about them as if they are covering an odd new species at the local zoo. Everything they do is considered suspect and strange. Their successes, whether it is spelling bees or starting higher education at age 14, needs extra explaining, prodding and poking around.

This story takes a different approach that seeks out the positives and finds the success stories among the stay-at-home high school basketball players. The story also appropriately highlights the religious aspect of this tournament right in the lead:

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Taber Spani, one of the best high school girls basketball players in the nation, holds hands with two opponents as a coach reads a Bible verse. It is the way each game in the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships begins.

This is more than a postseason tournament for the 300 boys and girls teams from 19 states that have competed here over the past six days. As the stands packed with parents and the baselines overrun by small children attest, this is also a jamboree to celebrate faith and family.

"You build friendships here with other girls who know what it's like to be self-motivated and disciplined and share your values," said Spani, a junior who plays for the Metro Academy Mavericks of Olathe, Kan. "I wouldn't trade this tournament for anything."

Only a decade ago, home-school athletics was considered little more than organized recess for children without traditional classrooms. Now, home-school players are tracked by scouts, and dozens of them have accepted scholarships to colleges as small as Blue Mountain in Mississippi and as well known as Iowa State.

I can't help but wonder if this story was influenced by the recent California homeschooling case. Are homeschool scholars becoming more sympathetic to journalists as a result?

The story also nicely highlights some of the challenges homeschool families have when it comes to extracurriculars like basketball and how things have changed recently thanks to the growth of homeschooling. I've always been curious as to why basketball seems to be the sport of choice for homeschoolers, but that's probably an issue for a longer more features-oriented article.

From a sports perspective, I found the article rather soft, and its claims a bit unconvincing. A quick reading of this story, and you'd think this tournament was a powerhouse tournament that all college recruiters attend. I don't doubt there are talent players there, but not every player in this tournament is considering college scholarship offers to play for Tennessee's Pat Summit. But this is not the first time a bit of hype has slipped into the sports pages.

The religion angle continues throughout the piece, and it rightly points out that many of these families choose to teach their children at home for religious reasons:

"Our Christian faith is No. 1 why we did it," Gary Spani said of why he and Stacey chose to home-school their children. "We're team oriented, and we wanted to make sure our family was supporting one another. We also agreed that when our daughters reached eighth grade, we’d let them decide if they wanted to go to high school."

But that's only half the story. As the accompanying audio slide-show points out, many people homeschool because they are tired of dealing with the problems that can come with the public schools.

Overall, the straightforward nature of this story is refreshing but probably not that unexpected from a sports reporter. I would be curious to see how this type of story would have turned out if it went through the newspaper's national desk, or The Washington Post style section.

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