They’re also asking my mother for money: The manipulation behind the water polo care packages

On Monday, December 9th, 2013, I received an e-mail informing me that my parents had ordered me a “Finals Care Package” from the Macalester Water Polo team. I wondered immediately, as someone from a poor family cannot help but do instinctively, how much money it must have cost. Already, I felt vague tinges of regret that my parents had purchased a frivolous token that they likely could not afford, and furthermore, that they had been pressured to do so in order to validate their love for me. However, I pushed those feelings aside, figuring that I would reserve judgment until I had at least seen it for myself.

The next day, I wandered over to the Leonard Center to do just that. Mildly curious and very skeptical, I approached the table in front of the pool to claim my package. Someone working there checked me off from a long list of names, then handed me the gift—a mesh drawstring bag filled with cheap junk—and read the accompanying note from my mother.

Right away, I sent her a text message, unsure of exactly what to say or, rather, how much to say. I thanked her for the package, fighting against my impulse to ask how much it had cost. I knew that whatever it was, it was too much. The last thing I wanted was to tell her that it was a waste of money. I didn’t want to criticize my mother for buying me a care package, of all things, and I didn’t want to make her feel bad by expressing my dissatisfaction. Not with her, of course, but with whoever it was that had advertised and sold it.

I discovered that my parents were solicited multiple times about the packages. An e-mail from the Women’s Water Polo Head Coach and the Water Polo teams’ captains (subject line: “Help your Macalester student through finals”) reads:

“Finals are just around the corner and students are beginning to feel the academic crunch. For most students, this means a bad case of the munchies, high stress levels and thoughts of home, family and the upcoming winter break. The Macalester Water Polo teams have come up with a great way to help your favorite student(s) through the rigor of final exams. … [Our care package] is an easy way to help alleviate anxiety… A personal note of encouragement can be added to each order so your students know how much you care. ” [emphasis mine]

The price? 45 dollars. I was outraged. Granted, the bag included a Dunn Bros. gift card, with a definite value of 10 dollars. This leaves 35 dollars. The other objects—a single packet of hot cocoa, a highlighter, a marble-sized rubber ball, and a variety of other plastic trinkets of dollar store quality—could not have been worth even a third of that amount.

I am not alone in my frustration. When I informed my friends of the amount their parents had been asked to spend, each and every one of them were surprised and upset at how expensive the packages were. I recall the article “Asking my mother for money” by Lauren Elizabeth Johnson, published this past May in this paper. Specifically, I recall Johnson’s disgustingly accurate conclusion regarding donation requests from the school: “[W]e are being forcefully fed a reminder that certain accomplishments and people are only worth acknowledging if there is money behind them.”

I understand that fundraising is necessary; the Water Polo teams are, after all, teams, and teams have expenses. What I take issue with, more than the actual price of the packages alone (especially compared to the relative quality of their contents), is the predatory method employed by the Water Polo teams to peddle them. I say predatory because the fact is, they intentionally and expressly capitalized on my parents’ emotions in order to charge them an exorbitant amount for a bag of garbage.

Additionally, by incorporating my name into the product, they weren’t even selling care packages. They were selling care packages for Jordan. Without commodifying my mother’s affection, and then pressuring her with this affection, the packages could not have sold at the price they did.

For these reasons, I have determined that the money from these sales was raised in bad faith. I will certainly counsel my parents against similar sales from now on. However, barring the possibility of a total refund to my mother for the bag, I sincerely hope that in the future, the Water Polo teams will take a more ethical, transparent approach to fundraising.