Athletic Shorts: Teens CAN Handle the Truth

Crutcher, Chris. Athletic Shorts. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989, 1991.

athleticshorts.jpgIn the foreword to Athletic Shorts, the author, Chris Crutcher, states that he, “[is] constantly asked what happens to certain characters in [his] books” (ix). He goes on to say that this question was his motivation for writing Athletic Shorts, which is a compilation of short stories based on the lives of characters from his previous novels. Even a reader who is unfamiliar with Crutcher's other work can be easily drawn into the lives of the various characters he “visits” in these stories. However, while the book is generally appealing and relevant to the challenges that many adolescents face, it has been heavily contested due to its controversial subject matter (see "Regarding Censorship" below). Many of the book's six stories deal with issues that are common to teenagers and readily discussed: concerns about weight or physical appearance; intimidating athletic challenges; peer pressure. Other issues in Crutcher's stories are heavier and are often uncomfortable topics of conversations for adolescents as well as adults: death; homosexuality; racism. In Athletic Shorts, Crutcher dares his readers to face these issues, as difficult as that may be, with the goal of teaching young people the importance of acceptance. While he wrote this book in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Crutcher’s message is just as important for today's adolescents.

“A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” is told from the point of view of the titular character. Angus is an overweight young man (with two sets of gay parents... not exactly a ticket to popularity) who has recently been elected Winter Ball King of his high school. As a part of his royal duties, he must dance with the Winter Ball Queen, the popular and beautiful Melissa Lefevre. The story focuses on Angus’s preparation for this event, during which the reader can see that he struggles with self-esteem issues. In spite of his apprehension, Angus goes to the Winter Ball, dances with Melissa, and even ends up leaving with her, much to the dismay of her good-looking, popular, and extremely rude boyfriend.

While Angus’s tale is about a social underdog, the next story in the collection, “The Pin,” is told from the point of view of a funny, outgoing character. Johnny Rivers is a star wrestler with many friends, but Crutcher shows that Johnny’s pleasant outward persona hides a troubled family life. Johnny’s father pushes Johnny to be the best, but the reader learns early on that this is probably a result of Johnny’s father’s past. He, too, was a talented wrestler, but he only made it to second place at Oklahoma State. Now, as a father, he wants his son to carry on his legacy, but when Johnny beats his father in a wrestling match at the end of the story, the reader sees that Johnny’s dad really only wanted his son to be second best.

Following “The Pin” is “The Other Pin.” This story focuses on Petey Shropshrire, Johnny Rivers’s good friend. Like the friends of protagonists in many stories, Petey is less popular and self-assured than Johnny, usually wrestling for the JV team. Nevertheless, Petey has “volunteered” to drop several pounds in order to compete in a high-profile wrestling match against a well-known opponent from another team, Chris Byers. The twist? Chris is a girl. Petey is nervous prior to the match, and he decides to talk to Chris face-to-face about his concerns. This meeting results in the two coming up with a plan to make their match entertaining for reasons other than their gender difference. The match ends in a tie, as they planned, and at the end of the story the reader learns that Petey has a date with Chris.

Although the first three stories in Athletic Shorts are somewhat lighthearted and discuss problems that many adolescents face, the second half of the book deals with heavier issues. “Goin’ Fishin’” is the story of Lionel Serbousek, a young man dealing with the death of his entire family a few years earlier. His mother, father, and five-year-old brother were killed when a drunken boat driver (who happened to be Lionel’s childhood best friend) slammed his boat into theirs. Since then, Lionel has been living on his own. He is a very angry person, and he deals with this anger through swimming and the help of his swim coach and a few trusted friends. One day, Neal Anderson, the young man who caused the boating accident, comes to Lionel’s door and tries to talk to Lionel about how bad he feels. Neal has obviously gone downhill since the accident; the once well-dressed, rich boy is wearing ratty clothing and is under the influence of drugs. Neal makes it clear that his condition is a result of the excruciating guilt he has felt since the boating accident, but Lionel wants nothing to do with Neal’s apology. However, after speaking with Neal’s mother and reflecting on what he said, Lionel chooses to begin the process of forgiving Neal and invites him to go fishing.

“Telephone Man” is another serious story, and the most heavily contested one in this collection. It describes an awkward young man who always wears telephone equipment around his waist. His father has shown Telephone Man, by his own example, that people can all be categorized into different groups. Whites are superior, people of other races are inferior, and black people are the worst. Although Telephone Man goes to a school with a diverse population, his racism has become a part of who he is. He discusses one specific incident during which an African-American classmate helped him get past the taunts of a group of bullies. Telephone Man was grateful, but he did not know quite what to think. After all, if a black person was willing to stand up for Telephone Man when no one else was, is this supposedly inferior race really all that bad? This story is controversial for obvious reasons. Telephone Man's father refers to each racial group using a politically-incorrect slur, including the "n-word." Crutcher does this purposefully, though, and he explains his reasoning in a short introduction to the story: "Racism speaks volumes about those who hide behind it, says exactly nothing of those at whom it is directed" (134). Through Telephone Man's character, Crutcher is making the point that racism comes from closed-mindedness. Telephone Man does nothing but regurgitate the racist remarks his father makes, and when he is met with a situation that shows him how kind people of different races can be, he does not even know how to react.

The final story, "In the Time I Get," explores Louie Banks's encounter with a young, gay man who is dying of AIDS. Again, Crutcher is dealing with a controversial subject, but as with "Telephone Man" and all of the other stories in Athletic Shorts, he is doing so to teach the importance of acceptance. The man suffering from AIDS, Darren, divulges to Louie that since his diagnosis, no one, even people with whom he shares a close relationship, will touch him. This makes his life very lonely. At first, Louie, too, is afraid to be around Darren and avoids him at all costs, but after some reflection he decides to give Darren a chance, and eventually Louie goes as far as holding Darren's hand in the hospital. Louie understands the risks involved in daring to care for someone who is different, and even loses his best friend as a result. In the end, though, Louie knows that he has made the right decision in choosing to be there for Darren when he most needed a friend.

Recommendations for Teachers
Despite the controversy associated with Athletic Shorts, high school teachers should not hesitate to use this book in class. It is the job of high school teachers to prepare their students for life in the "real world," and the "real world" is complicated. Hiding this fact from adolescents is doing them a disservice. By introducing high school students to Chris Crutcher's characters, teachers can show young people that the world is a mosaic of different types of people: black; white; Asian; gay; straight; fat; thin, etc. None of these groups should be valued over another. Crutcher's work can also show high school students that tragedy happens. It is not something that anyone can hide from; everyone who cares for anyone must face tragedy at some point. Tragedy is difficult and messy. It is not, however, a reason to fall apart completely, and it can teach us many important lessons like forgiveness and the value of friendship.

That said, the controversial, difficult themes that Crutcher tackles in Athletic Shorts could provoke strong reactions from students. For example, a student who has recently (or ever) lost a family member might experience strong emotions while reading "Goin' Fishin'." Others may feel uncomfortable with the topics of homosexuality or racism, which are addressed in some of the other stories. Frequent class discussion will help students process their feelings about these issues and will aid them in understanding Crutcher's message of acceptance.

Activities to get the most out of Athletic Shorts:
  • Pre-reading journal entries based on main themes from each story: Prior to reading "The Pin," for example, students could write a personal journal entry using the following prompt: "Is it possible for a parent to care too much about his or her child's performance in school or athletics/ other activities? Why or why not? Have you or someone you know ever felt pressure from a parent or other authority figure to do well? Explain." Writing a journal entry like this, especially if students are able to link the topic to a personal experience, will get them thinking about the theme and will whet their appetites for the story.
  • Bookmark activity during reading: While reading each story, students could jot down reactions to parts of the stories on one side of a vertically-folded paper and questions the reading provokes on the other side. They could use this paper as a bookmark, but they would also use it to contribute to class discussion following the reading of each story. Source: Daniels, Harvey and Steven Zemelman. Subjects Matter: Every Teacher's Guide to Content-Area Reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2004. 116-117. Print.
  • Carousel brainstorming after reading (the entire book): Students could get into groups based on the major themes discussed in the book: Family (and the complications that go with it); dealing with death; accepting oneself, etc. Each group could brainstorm on a large sheet of paper the places in the book that address their theme. Each group could then attach its paper to the wall and the groups would all rotate to see what other groups had written about other themes, adding to the lists where appropriate. Following the activity, the class could discuss the different themes as a group, and this could possibly lead to each person choosing one of them and writing a theme analysis paper about Athletic Shorts. Source: Daniels, Harvey, Steven Zemelman, and Nancy Steineke. Content-Area Writing: Every Teacher's Guide. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2007. 81-84. Print.

About Chris Crutcher
Photo credit:

Chris Crutcher was born in Dayton, OH on July 17, 1946. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Idaho, where Chris would grow up. Following high school, he studied psychology and sociology at Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington University) and went on to teach both primary and secondary school in Washington and California. He spent almost a decade teaching at-risk youth in grades K-12 and later worked as a child and family therapist. Both of these professions influenced Crutcher's writing, allowing him to write authentically from adolescents' points of view. His nine novels, two short story collections (including Athletic Shorts), and autobiography have earned some criticism, but also quite a bit of critical acclaim. Among many other accolades, Crutcher received the National Council of Teachers of English's 1998 National Intellectual Freedom Award. Crutcher continues to write today and is also a very successful columnist and public speaker. He resides in Spokane, Washington.


Video Clips:
In the first video, Crutcher discusses the importance of being honest with teenagers about even the toughest subjects. The second deals specifically with his thoughts on censorship. The third video is the official trailer from the 1995 film Angus, based on the first story in Athletic Shorts, "A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune."

Additional Resources:

About Chris Crutcher

About Athletic Shorts
Regarding Censorship
Teaching Activities, etc.

--Name of Reviewer: Susan Michon