Neal’s no-show a lesson for all

To the right of the cafeteria stage at Kyrene De La Esperanza Elementary School is a bulletin board listing six virtues its students should practice: Caring. Fairness. Respect. Responsibility. Trustworthiness. Citizenship.

Davonte’ Neal must have lost sight of those virtues, at least temporarily.

The state’s most celebrated prep football star was a no-show for his originally scheduled press conference/circus on Tuesday, where he was supposed to announce his college choice.

Instead, Neal was embroiled in what the Arizona Republic reported was a tiff with his father, Luke Neal, over which school Davonte’ Neal should attend. Davonte’ wanted to go to Arizona, Luke wanted him at Notre Dame.

Dad won out, and Davonte’ eventually showed up at Kyrene De La Esperanza Elementary School to make his announcement later on Tuesday afternoon, minus much of the fanfare and spotlight the two had sought, but with a nice added touch: Neal asked to visit classrooms to apologize to students personally for his no-show.

One would think Neal and his dad could have avoided this mess by agreeing on a college before pulling about 600 elementary school kids out of class to sit on the cafeteria floor and wait for his breath-taking words that never came.

As the time of Neal’s original address approached, a group of students entertained the astoundingly patient masses by playing xylophones. As the time for Neal’s appearance passed, faculty, like Neal’s third-grade teacher, Martha Takacs, stalled the troops with tales of Neal’s days at the school.

This was supposed to be an educational moment, a chance to see what hard work could produce, right here, inside these walls. Over and over, principal Cheryl Greene told the students that Davonte Neal is “just like you.” And the congregation responded: “Just like me!”

Let’s hope not in this instance.

Make no mistake that Neal’s father is the biggest part of this problem. Whether he was school-shopping his son or manipulating him behind the scenes, Luke Neal hasn’t personified the ideal of supportive father.

But for those who want to give Davonte’ Neal a pass for skipping out on his original engagement, remember he agreed to it. He agreed to speak to 600 kids about his life’s lessons. He made a commitment. He’s old enough to understand and keep that commitment and He’s young enough to learn from his father’s poor example.
That he showed up later, amid a media firestorm, doesn’t excuse the original actions, but it does show that he might have learned something from them.
It wouldn’t have mattered if Neal had showed up Tuesday morning and told the kids he hadn’t made a college choice yet. They didn’t really care about whether he would play next for Arizona, Notre Dame or someone else. They cared about a star player – one of their own – coming to speak to them. By showing up, Neal becomes an instant hero to them and perhaps, a role model.

Maybe his original no-show was his silent protest against his domineering dad. Maybe this was him finally making his own mark in the world. But the wreckage in its wake was more than Neal imagined – and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Every year, the spectacle of high school students announcing their college choices gets more and more attention. Every year, the idea that this choice is important to the wider public gains credence through media coverage, without anybody asking if it’s really a good idea.

My own outlet was broadcasting live from the school. Local newspapers and television stations spend enormous resources to cover high school football and none to cover budding high school artists or math whizzes. It’s all about the traffic to our web sites, the ad revenue to our papers and stations. We share the blame with coaches, parents and administrators who coddle athletes from the time it’s apparent they can outrun, out-leap or outshoot the rest.

If you don’t think all of this coddling has consequences, think back to LeBron James’ announcement that he was taking his talents to South Beach. When the backlash hit, James couldn’t understand why people were so upset. It had been all about LeBron all of his life. What was wrong with hours of TV coverage for a simple statement? What was wrong with that spectacle of self-absorption? What was wrong with being “just like me.”

When you looked into the eyes of those 600 kids, you understood what was wrong with it.

The words on that cafeteria bulletin board preach an important message. But the cameramen, the reporters, the administrators, the teachers, Luke Neal and Davonte’ Neal were preaching an entirely different message on Tuesday morning – the former four with their presence, the latter two with their initial absence.

Maybe Davonte’ Neal understands this now. If that’s the case, then maybe Tuesday’s sideshow was an educational moment, after all.