My nine-year-old son had his first basketball practice last night and everything was going well. The group of ten boys ran up and down the court with the energy of a litter of puppies. They sprinted toward the basket, took an awkward shot, and ambled away with the gangly misery of a newborn pup. Every now and then, they glued their eyes to the net, held their arms in perfect position, and sunk the ball, fists raised in victory.
When the coach split them into shirts and skins teams for a scrimmage, three boys yanked their shirts off without a second thought. My son and another teammate stood baffled. Shirtless? In public? From courtside, my son appeared to be bargaining with the coach. He pulled his short sleeves up onto his shoulders as if that would make enough of a distinction from the other team. The coach got a good chuckle. My son edged to the side of the court. The team waited. Like a cowering pubescent teen in a locker room, he slowly peeled his shirt off and revealed a pasty white chest that has never seen the sun. He felt exposed. During the scrimmage, instead of covering a player on the other team, he tried covering himself with his arms.
“When the coach said we were skins, I thought he meant the Redskins,” my son said later. “Then Henry ripped his shirt off and I figured it out.” My kid had never heard of such a thing. And why would he? Growing up in sports where kids practice with flags or scrimmage vests to distinguish teams, no one uses shirts versus skins anymore. At the pool, I’ve always made him wear a rash guard to protect him from the sun. He doesn’t go shirtless in public.
My husband said they used to play shirts versus skins at school. My son’s jaw dropped at the thought. An image of all the boys in his P.E. class praying they didn’t get put on the skins team must have been flashing through his mind.
The truth always comes out though. My son goes bare-chested at home. It’s not like he’s uncomfortable without his shirt. So what’s the real reason behind the embarrassment? He was afraid a bunch of girls on the other side of the sports complex would see him shirtless.
That will change. One day, he’ll hope they do.