Feb 26, 2009

There's a boy who I've come to adopt, if not legally, in some other senses. He's already 15 or he's almost 15, depending on which certificates you've seen and believe. His father lives abroad, in Georgia. The two of them haven't seen each in years. Every year the boy is going to visit his father next summer. But then next summer comes and the trip is called off. His mother does what she can to survive. Perhaps, she is training to be an accountant; I don't know. She speaks very good English. She is exceptionally pretty and stylish. She always wears dark glasses. I've seen her eyes just once. She and her son live in a small run down apartment, in the Western Addition.

This boy is a very good soccer player, not on his way to the national team perhaps but very talented. He's strong, fast and quick. He's played in several state cups. You notice him right away; he's got a long ponytail. And he's relentlessly slaloming through a defense or running down a forward. He's also mouthy and quick to blame a teammate. I've told him to cool that and he's trying but his first instinct is to find fault. As a result he's unpopular with certain parents, particularly those who don't like his public rebuke of their sons. 'C'mon, what are you doing?' he'll say. 'Pass me the ball.' Some of these parents roll their eyes and curse him under their breath. "Ball hog," they'll say. "Shut up," they even shout out.

But then very often he'll save the game, he'll come up with the winning goal or the tying goal, and then what can anyone say? They don't like him, but he wins games and these are parents who need a winning team.

Many of the other boys go to exclusive private schools. One of the fathers drives a Maserati. One of the boys has a nanny, a late 20-something man, long and thin, who arrives with his charge and picks him up. The boy has that perm-a-press confident smile that you sometimes see on the faces of the entitled.

So the social differences are great. This boy goes to a large public school, which worries his mother no end. And who knows how well he is doing. One time he tells me he's getting all As; the next time it's Cs and Ds. He has problems speaking proper English; my wife helps him. He doesn't like Science but he loves History and sometimes at the dinner table he'll engage us. The other day he wanted to describe the battle of Stalingrad and wanted to know whatever we knew. One minute he takes pride in his Russian connection and teh next he'll say how he loathes the Russians, particularly after the fighting last summer.

So this boy and my son have been together for years and in recent months they've drawn ever closer. They have little in common and yet they see themselves as outcasts who have found this soccer theater to play in.

All was fine until the other day when the team manager began looking into his birth records. This manager is on the board of one of the leagues and serves on the disciplinary committee. She often has to decide what to do with kids and coaches who try to get kids to play up or down illegally. If caught, a player or coach can be suspended for up to two years. This would be a killshot for the coach in this case who depends heavily on income from players to make ends meet.

What the manager was able to confirm was that this boy was born not on 12/6 but on 6/12. Officials had been told over the years that this was merely a European affectation and that all was in good order. But the manager had the original document in Russian translated and found that the June birthday was the real one, which meant the boy would have to play on an underp-16 team, not the under-15 team, with all his friends, and with a record of success he was unlikely to have if he played up.

The woman came to me and asked what to do. I suggested nothing be done and the coach agreed. If he had gone this far then let it go. After all, only three of us knew the truth. The manager said that was impossible and after many calls back and forth and much headbanging she decided that if she gave up her position as manager (her son is on the team) then she could look the other way.

That seemed to be her position. The boy was relieved; his mother was relieved, at least partly. The coach was relieved. I was relieved.

But then a few days later the manager decided she could not stick with her decision. She talked to the boy still again, to find out why it was so important to stay on this team, especially when the older team needed plaers. She spoke to his mother twice. She wanted a moral conviction but she couldn't find it and couldn't pretend not to know the truth.

There were other factors. She didn't particularly like the mother. She wondered if the boy wanted to stay with his team only because he would have so much more success. She kept worrying that the boy would be found out and then what?

What's wrong with that, I asked. Even if that's true that he wants to stay on this team to succeed... Why not. The one solid structure he has in his life is this team. Why not let him have it? Why not risk this?

I'll call you back she said. That was a week ago. Nothing has been decided. And a moral question hangs in the air, a question that could be answered either way. There's morality at both ends.

It was the coach who first suggested 'doing nothing.' What an odd alternative I thought at first but I've come to accept the idea, for the first time in my life, that you could refuse to decide such a matter....