Archive for May, 2011

Why Sports Need More Theodore Roosevelts Today: Concussions and Leadership

By Doug Abrams

By late 1905, college football was at a crossroads. In that season alone, eighteen players had been killed and scores more had been seriously injured during games. Americans cringed at news accounts of bloodshed on the field, and calls to abolish the sport as barbaric grew louder. Games and death did not seem to mix on college campuses.

Death in college football was serious business at the dawn of the 20th century.  A national professional league was still a few years away, so the collegiate game was the highest and most publicized level of competitive football in America. Even one on-the-field death among several thousand college football players today would attract national attention; because far fewer students played college football in 1905, 18 deaths in a single season was an astounding percentage of all players. Because the rules permitted such mayhem as the Flying Wedge by players wearing flimsy protective equipment without helmets or face guards, the annual death toll showed no signs of abating.

President Theodore Roosevelt grew concerned that without rules changes to insure greater player safety, public revulsion would lead colleges to ban football altogether. Indeed, fear of death had already led some colleges to end their football programs.

Roosevelt had reasons to care. For one thing, he was a vigorous sportsman who had respected athletic competition all his life, indeed one of the most athletic Presidents we have ever had. For another, his Rough Riders who charged San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War only a few years earlier had included several former college football players who won his respect.

In October of 1905, the President summoned representatives from the “Big Three” — Harvard, Yale and Princeton — to convene at the White House and explore ways to maintain football’s distinctiveness as a collision sport, but also to stem the game’s largely unregulated brutality. By this time, TR had proved himself to be a skilled mediator. In 1902, he had ended a bitter national anthracite coal strike through negotiation at the White House, rejecting the approach of previous Presidents who broke strikes with federal troops. Just a month before the White House football summit, he had won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, his latest successful effort to bring people together around the table.

With participants who were considerably less hostile to one another than labor, management and warring nations, the White House football summit led to several rules changes that continue today, including some that previewed further changes in later years. Without diminishing the game’s national popularity, these innovations made the mounting death toll a thing of the past. Players no longer die on the field today, yet football remains the nation’s most popular spectator sport each year in the annual Louis Harris poll. The highest award the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) can bestow on an individual is the Theodore Roosevelt Award, a perpetual honor to the man whose initiative saved the game from itself.

* * * *

Today the nation faces a crisis similar to the one that motivated President Roosevelt more than a century ago. Today’s crisis concerns concussions and traumatic brain injury in contact and collision sports, particularly football and hockey, but also in other sports including soccer, basketball and lacrosse. The crisis reaches the professional and amateur ranks alike.

Emerging medical research and a steady stream of news stories demonstrate that many professional football and hockey players face the prospect of disability and early death — not the immediate disability and death that stained college football in 1905, but lingering disability, dementia and eventual death from the cumulative effects of brain trauma. Professional players themselves have grown so concerned that several have donated their brains to medical research for examination and study after their death. A few players have committed suicide in apparent attempts to escape the ravages of mental decline.

By reviewing rules changes in the pursuit of greater player safety, professional leagues summon Americans to consider how much risk we are willing to tolerate for weekly public entertainment in collision and contact sports. As I wrote in last week’s column, however, parents and coaches need to settle on a much lower toleration level for concussions and traumatic brain injury in youth sports. When it comes to player safety, professional sports bears little resemblance to youth sports. Pros are multi-millionaire adult public entertainers who presumably can make their own risk-taking decisions; youth leaguers are children playing games as part of their upbringing.

After more than four decades as a youth hockey coach concerned about player safety, I draw two core propositions from the emerging medical consensus about the devastating harmful short-term and long-term effects of concussions and other brain trauma:

First, adults who conduct organized youth sports nationally and locally cannot remain satisfied with what passed for safety years ago. As I mentioned last week, many youth hockey safety rules and much protective equipment that appeared satisfactory in the 1960s would appear silly today for their inadequacy. We know more today about the debilitating effects of concussions and traumatic brain injury than we knew even ten years ago, and certainly much more than we knew in prior decades. The old ways are no longer acceptable.

Second, youth leagues protect children most effectively with proactive, rather than merely reactive, safety measures. About a dozen state legislatures have passed laws mandating precautions that must be taken before youth-leaguers may resume playing following a concussion. More state legislatures are considering such laws, and so is Congress. These enactments point in the right direction, but they are merely reactive because they confront concussions only after they have occurred. Effective safety regulation must also address proactive measures designed to prevent a significant percentage of concussions in the first place.

Because organized youth sports is much larger and more diverse than college football was in 1905, prevention does not depend on the President of the United States or any other single national political leader. Prevention depends largely on national youth sports governing bodies (USA Hockey, USA Football, and others), and on the state high school activities associations that oversee interscholastic sports. As protective equipment continues to improve, these groups must continue to weigh reasonable rule changes that maintain the essence of the particular sport, but also enhance safety for the children and adolescents who play. Last week, I wrote about prudent proposals to modify body checking rules in American and Canadian youth hockey.

In collision and contact sports, each youth sports governing body and high school activities association needs its own Theodore Roosevelt at the helm, someone willing to implement medical research and common sense in the best interests of the players. Someone who, like Roosevelt more than century ago, recognizes that contact and collision sports depend on a measure of controlled violence, but who also seeks consensus to enhance safety with prudent rule changes in what are, after all, kids’ games.

 

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Follow Up on Tommy John Surgery “Sports Edge” Show

By Steve Kallas

On the Sunday, May 22,2011 edition of Rick Wolff’s “The Sports Edge” show, Rick paid special attention to an article by John Erardi that appeared in the May 13 edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer entitled, “”Tommy John’ not just for big leaguers.”  The article discussed, among other things, the Tommy John surgery performed by Dr. Timothy Kremchek on 14-year-old pitcher Kyle Cotcamp.

Back in November 2007, Rick Wolff and Steve Kallas wrote an article that was published in the November 12, 2007 edition of Sports Business Journal.  The article discussed many of the problems facing Little Leaguers, specifically discussing pitch counts, curve balls and aluminum bats.

In that article, the authors pointed out some of the ridiculous pitch counts that had taken place in the Little League Williamsport Tournament of 2007.  Included in those numbers was the pitch count for Kyle Cotcamp of Ohio, who threw a total of 267 pitches in nine days in a Little League Regional.  The authors were reminded of this statistic after reading the recent Enquirer article that identified Kyle Cotcamp as one of the young pitchers who had Tommy John surgery.  In the 2007 article, reprinted below, the authors spoke to Dr. Kremchek (who would eventually perform the surgery on Kyle Cotcamp in 2009), among other experts, to get his thoughts on young pitchers throwing curve balls and pitching as much as 255 pitches in seven days.

It makes for very interesting reading, almost four years after the fact.  In the next week or so, there will be an update posted here of the three points discussed in the 2007 article, bringing up-to-date the changes (or lack thereof) that have been instituted by Little League Baseball to deal with various problems.

Travel Teams Continue to Impinge Upon HS Teams

I had seen a troubling column by Paul Tenurio of the Washington Post regarding the United States Soccer Federation, and how the USSF was lengthening its soccer season from 7 months to 10 months. To do that, USSF coaches in Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, and now the Washington, DC metro area have been instructing talented soccer players that if they want to stay on the USSF travel team, then they have to stop playing for their HS team.

I see this as just another example of the growing power of travel teams in this country. In effect, travel programs are mandating that soccer players make a very difficult choice: either play on the USSF team, or go back and play with your buddies on your local HS team. True, that might be more fun, but in the end, everybody agrees that the HS competition is a lot lower than at the travel level.

So how does a kid make this choice? And more importantly, why should they be forced to choose one or the other? A lot of the reasoning has to do with the fact that the US wants to be as competitive in soccer as other nations around the world, and in order to do that, American soccer players have to practice a lot more against top-level competition. That means year-round soccer practice, and only playing games against other top players.

But at what cost? According to Tenurio, there are lots of college soccer coaches who claim that this is not a good pathway to follow, plus there are lots of top soccer players who are opting to leave their USSF team and return to play for their HS team simply because it’s more fun.

On a larger scale, what all this means is that you shouldn’t be surprised when other traditional team sports like baseball, softball, ice hockey, lacrosse, and others follow suit. It’s already happening with AAU basketball. Before too long, HS varsity programs will be relegated to being comparable to local rec programs. Along the way, talented HS coaches will also jump to travel team programs simply because they want to work with talented athletes.

In short, HS sports and travel teams are clearly in a state of major transition. Ask yourself: what would you advise if your son or daughter made a travel team in a sport, but was then told that they couldn’t play with their friends on the HS squad?

Let me know your thoughts.

 

Why are so many young pitchers suffering serious arm injuries?

There was a disturbing piece that ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer last week about two young pitchers from Ohio who had both pitched in the LL World Series a few years ago. They were thrilled to have played in front of thousands in Williamsport, PA.

Problem is, due to overuse of their arms and by throwing too many curve balls, they both had to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair their elbows. Can you imagine? Tommy John surgery is usually performed on major leaguers who, in their 20s or 30s, are simply trying to extend their professional careers.

These two kids were 14!

Kyle Cotcamp and Tyler Richards both love baseball, but they both admit that they were overused in LL Baseball and on their travel teams, plus they threw too many curveballs.

As you know, my colleague Steve Kallas and I have been forceful critics for years about why LL Baseball allows kids to throw curveballs. LL points to a recent study from the athletic institute that Dr. James Andrews that says that throwing curve balls probably is not the reason why kids hurt their arms. But Dr. Andrews, who has often said that he’s not in favor of having kids throw breaking balls before they can shave, was so concerned by that study’s conclusions that he recently told the NY Times that he’s worried that parents and coaches will think that it will be seen as a green light to let kids throws deuces and sliders.

In fact, Dr. Andrews says that the study was conducted in a lab, and not in the field, and as such, parents and coaches might not want to rush to embrace it. In other words, he’s saying, in effect, that he’s not so sure that parents can let kids throw curves.

Dr. Timothy Kremchek of the Cincinnati Reds is even more emphatic. He absolutely insists that kids should not be allowed to throw curves before the age of 13.

And finally, Dr. Andrews says that in his research, kids who throw for more than 8 months during the year are 5 times more likely to need surgery!

Bottom line? Parents and youth coaches, here are some simple guidelines:

Don’t let any kid under 13 throw more than 75-80 pitches in a game. And if they do, give them 4 days of rest between starts.

Don’t let any kid under 13 throw a curveball or slider. Let them work on a change-up instead. It’s a much better pitch, and much more effective.

If you’re a parent, even if your kid is the next Sandy Koufax, insist that you keep the pitch count of every performance. That is, don’t necessarily trust the coach.

Finally, let the kid pitch from April through the spring and summer, and maybe into Sept, but then give him the winter off. Let his arm recuperate and get stronger. Too much pitching at a young age can have disastrous results.

What’s your sense of this? Why do you think LL Baseball allows its players to throw curve balls?

Why Moving the Age of Legal Body Checking to Bantam Hockey is a Good Idea

By Doug Abrams

The winds of change are blowing again in youth hockey.

USA Hockey, the national governing body for ice hockey in the United States, currently bans body checking in the mite and squirt divisions, which enroll players under the age of 11. Next month, the organization’s board of directors will decide whether to extend the ban to the pee wees (ages 11-12), and thus postpone checking until the bantams (ages 13-14). The decision would affect only boys’ hockey because checking is already banned in girls’ hockey.

After playing college hockey and then coaching youth hockey in winter leagues and at summer camps for more than 40 years, I believe that the winds of change are blowing in the right direction. Moving the age of legal body checking to the bantams is a prudent measure to enhance player safety, permit greater skills development, and help local associations recruit and retain more beginner players.  

Player Safety: Accepting Progress

The debate about youth-league checking is the latest step in a march toward greater player safety that USA Hockey began decades ago. Over the years, I have watched each step meet initial skepticism from administrators and coaches resistant to change, but I have also watched each step win wide acceptance before too long. Hal Tearse, Minnesota Hockey’s Coach-in-Chief and Safety Committee Chair, predicts that “[t]he Peewee no-checking rule will win the same acceptance.” “The more we can educate people about the scientific information and the rationale behind the proposals that are out there, the more accepting the hockey culture will be,” concurs the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s Chief Medical Officer. After watching proven safety measures turn skeptics into believers time and time again, I think that Tearse and Stuart are right.

Much of what passed for protective equipment when I first laced on skates in youth hockey nearly 50 years ago would appear laughable today to anyone who thumbs through family snapshots in an old scrapbook. Youth-league helmets were flimsy contraptions that left the ears and much of the head exposed. Forwards and defensemen played without face cages or internal mouth guards. Most goalies wore “form-fit” masks that left the eyes, neck, and usually the scalp and skull dangerously exposed; cage masks were generally reserved for goalies whose eyeglasses left them little choice but to endure the teasing, and helmets were generally reserved for goalies who had suffered a prior head injury.  

Old hockey ideas sometimes die hard, but perceptions can quickly change. In the early 1970s, a forward, defenseman or goalie wearing a cage looked like an oddball. Then came the face cage rules in youth leagues, high schools, and colleges when solid medical evidence showed how cages prevented devastating injuries. Today the oddball would be a forward or defenseman who tries to skate cage-less, or a goalie who tries to wear a form-fit mask, in an informal contest.

Progress means acknowledging that the old ways need to change in light of new learning. In the old days, facial cuts, sutures, lost teeth and even eye injuries were tolerated as “part of the game” for even the youngest youth-leaguers. Concussions and other head injuries must have been common, if often undiagnosed or misunderstood.  

Things are different today. Medical studies now describe the risks of concussions and other traumatic injury to athletes in contact or collision sports, particularly football and hockey. As National Hockey League and National Football League rulemakers debate how much risk they are willing to let their players tolerate, parents and coaches need to set a much lower toleration level in youth sports. Multi-millionaire players are adults who presumably can make their own decisions about risk-taking, but youth leaguers are children who play sports at the beginning of a full and fruitful life.

If we adults seriously want youth sports to provide children lasting memories during a lifetime of good health, we also need to remain serious about player safety today, and not remain satisfied with what passed for safety decades ago. We know more today about injury prevention than we knew even ten years ago, and certainly more than we knew in prior generations.

Some risk of injury is inherent in collision and contact sports such as youth hockey, but tolerating some risk does not mean ignoring innovations that would create a much safer environment while maintaining the essential character of the game. Most medical studies – including ones published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics — find that body checking dramatically increases risks of concussion and other serious injury. These studies show that “an 11-year-old brain is more susceptible to concussion,” says USA Hockey senior director of hockey development Kevin McLaughlin.

“I have 11- and 12-year-old boys,” adds Hockey Night in Canada analyst and former NHL star Mike Milbury, “At that age, their heads and necks are not developed. They’re more susceptible to concussions and the after-effects. . . . They should take hitting out until kids are in bantam.”

Skills Development: Leveling the Playing Field

USA Hockey’s proposed rule to delay checking until bantams is “a skill development initiative first,” says McLaughlin. “We have to capitalize on . . . the optimal window of skill acquisition – the age that a kid can maximize his genetic potential, whatever that might be. In hockey, skill acquisition . . . is through 12 years old.” Learning, he adds, cannot flourish in “an environment where the focus is on hitting and not on making plays.”

I am not persuaded by the counter-argument that postponing body checking until bantams might unfairly disadvantage some players by leaving them ill-prepared to protect themselves later in high school or collegiate hockey. USA Hockey’s proposed national rule would maintain a level playing field because boys would not receive legal checks until the bantams, but would also not deliver legal checks until then. The learning curve would affect all players equally because the national rule would affect all players equally.

In any amateur or professional sport, the playing rules disadvantage no one if they apply equally to all competitors. That is why baseball allows batters three strikes not four, why golfers play eighteen holes not sixteen, and why football fields measure 100 yards not 105.  Games would not suffer if the numbers were four, sixteen and 105 because the rules would treat everyone alike. If we accept the consensus of medical experts that delaying body checking until bantams would help prevent avoidable injuries and help youth leaguers learn basic skills, contrary arguments grounded in allegations of unfair disadvantage do not change the calculus.

Collegiate and pro hockey may pit American players against Canadians who grew up with different checking standards (though Hockey Canada is also moving toward greater restrictions on youth-league body checking). Only a minuscule few youth-leaguers ever progress to the collegiate or pro ranks, however, and I doubt that different stages of younger development would make much of a difference by then anyway. Minnesota Hockey’s Tearse reports that “[a] multi-year study in Canada . . .  showed a 30% reduction in injuries at the Peewee level without checking, and a second study showed no increase in injuries for players who advanced to bantams without prior checking experience in Peewees.”

The odds favor a delay in checking until bantams. “Only one in 4,000 kids will ever make it to the big leagues,” says Toronto neurosurgeon Michael Cusimano, “but we estimate that some 15,000 to 20,000 kids and youth will suffer brain injuries in a hockey season.”

 

Player Recruitment and Retention: The Youth Sports Pyramid

In many associations, youth hockey enrollments continue to drop. Predicting the future is an imprecise art, but the prospect of $4.00 a gallon gasoline and other constantly escalating costs should spur strategies designed to recruit and retain players. The potential for enhanced player safety and skills development — the two reasons discussed above — provide reasons enough to delay body checking in youth hockey, but delay would also likely help enrollments by whetting and sustaining youngsters’ enthusiasm to play.

Like other youth sports organizations, a local youth hockey association resembles a pyramid. The strongest parts of a pyramid are at the middle and the base, and not at the top. The strongest parts of a youth hockey association’s “pyramid” are in the younger age groups. A local association thrives best when it encourages player development in the youngest divisions, sustains players’ interest as they get older, and counters attrition by replenishing the ranks with beginners of all ages.

In my experience, the mite and squirt divisions see the greatest swell of new recruits each year, with relatively few beginners joining at the pee wee, bantam or midget levels. USA Hockey reports that “the 2010-11 season was historic for the 8 and under membership” because national enrollment “surpassed 100,000 members in this age category for the first-time ever.” Among mite and squirt veterans, the attrition rate seems to pick up in pee wees and accelerate thereafter. Introducing checking in pee wees is not the only reason for current recruitment and retention trends, but I suspect that it is a reason, and perhaps a significant one.

Beginner pee wees may feel intimidated by immediate checking by experienced players, but might be more likely to enroll and continue playing with an initial opportunity to develop skating and other basic skills free from checking. Simcoe, Ontario minor hockey administrator Wayne King says that the pee wee division is “probably the very worst time to introduce” checking because “[s]ome boys have gone through quite a growth spurt while others haven’t. There can be quite a size differential.”     

About 70% of young athletes drop out of sports by their early teen years for a variety of reasons, including reasons that have little or nothing to do with the rules of the game. Checking, however, may be an aggravating factor in youth hockey. Many teens drop out of one sport for another or for worthwhile non-athletic activities, but other young teens turn to behavior that most adults would find unsavory. The youth hockey community would be much better off if more teens continued playing throughout their high school years.

Adults conducting youth sports programs fulfill their missions best by crafting new strategies to include players, even when progress means discarding old ways that now appear more likely to exclude. Moving the age of legal body checking to the bantams is a step in the right direction. The players will be the big winners, and they are the reasons why we all work so hard for success in youth hockey.

[Sources: Rachel Blount, Breaking Down “Hockey Culture” Barrier, Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Apr. 12, 2011; Bruce Dowbiggin, The “Wussifi . . .” er . . . Enlightenment of Mike Milbury, Globe and Mail (Canada), Mar. 25, 2011, p. S1; Hayley Mick, Hitting Younger Not Always Better, Globe and Mail (Canada), Mar. 15, 2011; Monte Sonnenberg, Taking Out Body Checking, Simcoe Reformer (Ontario, Canada), Mar. 8, 2011, p. 19; Hal Tearse, Making Hockey Safer and Better (Apr. 2011), http://www.minnesotahockey.org/page/show/84414-newsletters; Eric Duhatschek, U.S. Moves to Protect Its Pee Wees, Globe and Mail (Canada), Feb. 2, 2011, at S1; USAHInfo@usahockey.org; http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2011/02/18/sports/18hockeygraphic.html?ref=hockey;  http://slapshot.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/where-hockey-is-growing-state-by-state/?scp=1&sq=usa%20hockey&st=cse;  http://slapshot.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/hockeys-heartland-state-by-state/ (Thanks to John Coleman for calling the USA Hockey and New York Times websites to my attention)].

The Strange Case of Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi…

You don’t have to be a Yankees fan to become intrigued by the awkward situation that has engrossed the Bronx Bombers. Basically, Jorge Posada, who has enjoyed a wonderful career with the Yanks, finds himself starting this season as the team’s official DH. Even worse, he’s off to a slow start.

So, the other day, Joe Girardi, the Yankees’ manager, decides to drop Posada into the number nine slot in the batting order. From what I can gather, Posada must have seen the posted line-up and, totally miffed by this demotion, decided to sit the game out.

Of course, this resulted in a field day of major league proportions for the media. NY GM Brian Cashman went on national TV to discuss the situation, Posada’s wife tweeted about her husband, even Derek Jeter got sucked up into it. Just an awful mess.

So…from a sports parenting perspective, is there any way this could have been prevented? Again, I don’t have access to the Yankees or Posada or Giradi, but it seems to me that if Girardi had sought out Posada BEFORE the decision had been made to drop him in the line-up, and discussed the situation with him and gave him a chance to speak his piece, then this entire scene might have been avoided.

In other words, even at the big league level, a little bit of sensitivity from the manager would have gone a long way to have prevented this kind of flare-up. I honestly believe if Joe had gone to Jorge first, then all of this would have never happened.

What’s your sense? Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

How BBCOR Bats are Affecting the Game of Baseball

The reports are coming in from all over…because of BBCOR bats, baseball coaches everywhere this season are seeing a lot fewer HRs than in recent seasons, fewer runs are being scored, and in general, the game is quickly returning to its roots.

In short, the game is beginning to resemble the game how it used to be played – -i.e. with wood bats.

But bear in mind that nowhere will you see the bat manufacturers say this. All they will talk about is that BBCOR bats are superb innovations that make the game safer.

In short, we’re finally going back in the direction of wood bats. And it’s about time.

Smart coaches are now looking to build teams based upon defense, speed, and good pitching. Looking for sluggers who can power HR’s has quickly become a thing of the past. Skills like bunting and the hit-and-run have come back into vogue. Waiting for a three-run homer has become passe.

In short, it’s getting back to being baseball again.

Are HS Sports Destined to be “Pay to Play?

Over the last two years as the national economy went south, school districts everywhere were faced with cutting budgets…and invariably, the first to feel the pain of cuts were HS sports. In many schools, middle school programs were immediately abolished. Schools began to re-align schedules to play other schools that were geographically closer so that money could be saved on transportation (gas and tolls). And worst of all, many schools began to charge parents for their kids to play on the team – -in effect, a “pay to play” policy.

But that was when the economic recession was terrible. Yet now that things have stabilized, the truth is- more schools are staying with this pay to play policy. If a kid makes the HS football team, he has to come up with perhaps $300 to help cover the cost of equipment, coaching salaries, officials, etc.

And if the kid plays another sport during the winter and then the spring, he’s going to have to pay for those sports as well. Remember, this is all coming out of Mom and Dad’s pocket, even AFTER they’ve paid school taxes.

It gets expensive in a hurry. And remember, everybody pays the same, whether they’re the star of the team and play in every game, OR they sit on the bench and rarely play. That can be tough on the emotions of the parents.

Of course, parents already shell out big bucks for their kid to play on a travel team. They’re accustomed to that. But now, if their kid wants to play on the school team, that’s also going to cost some dough.

My question to you is this: is this pay to play going to be the way of the American sports scene? I have a feeling that it’s going to be.

Why? Because as more travel teams begin to take precedence over HS sports, parents are going to put their dollars into the travel teams – not the HS team.

What’s your thought? I have said for a long time that travel teams are going to gradually replace HS sports. In my mind, pay to play is only going to accelerate this transition. Is that your sense as well?

If Parents and Coaches Were Angels

By Doug Abrams

James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and later the nation’s fourth President, had an answer during the 1787 Constitutional Convention for critics who advocated a weak national government. “If men were angels,” he said, “we wouldn’t need government.” But, added Madison, men were not angels, so government was necessary to regulate behavior for the sake of law abiding citizens.

To paraphrase Madison, if parents and coaches were angels today, youth sports programs would not need to regulate the behavior of the relatively few adults whose antics can ruin everyone else’s fun and fulfillment. Adults with solid values, however, have their work cut out for them because not everyone is an angel. Parents and coaches must expect sportsmanship from themselves and their children, but they must also insist that schools and youth-league boards of directors hold all families to high standards.

Now that the behavior of many adults in youth sports has been spiraling downward for at least the past two decades, polls and surveys present a “glass half empty, glass half full” panorama. On the plus side, disruptive parents constitute only a distinct minority in most programs; on the negative side, however, even a troublesome minority can upset an entire program or team.
All in all, the polls and surveys do not paint a pretty picture.

Last year, Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos jointly conducted a 22-nation poll that ranked parents in the United States as the world’s “worst behaved” parents at children’s sports events. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials; runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), Canada (53%) and Australia (50%).

“It’s ironic that the United States, which prides itself in being the most civilized country in the world, has the largest group of adults having witnessed abusive behavior at children’s sporting events,” said an Ipsos senior vice president. The Reuters/Ipsos poll confirmed earlier estimates of adult excesses in youth sports. In a Survey USA poll in Indianapolis, Indiana, for example, 55% of parents said that they had seen other parents engaging in verbal abuse at youth sporting events, and 21% said that they had seen a physical altercation between other parents.

In a Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission survey, 45.3% of youth-leaguers said that adults had called them names, yelled at them, or insulted them while they were playing in a game. Twenty-one percent of the young athletes said that they had been pressured to play while injured; 17.5% said that an adult had hit, kicked or slapped them during a game; and 8.2% said that they had been pressured to harm others intentionally.

In a survey conducted by Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine, 74% of youth athletes reported that they had watched out-of-control adults at their games; 37% of the athletes had watched parents yelling at children, 27% had watched parents yelling at coaches or officials, 25% had watched coaches yelling at officials or children, and 4% had watched violence by adults. In a survey of adults and players conducted by SportingKid magazine, more than 84% of respondents reported that they had watched parents act violently (shouting, berating, or using abusive language) toward children, coaches or officials during youth sports events.

* * * *

We need to be careful about what these polls and surveys mean and what they do not mean. The fact that high percentages of respondents report having seen disruptive behavior at youth sports events underscores the conclusion, stated by a national summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports, that youth sports is a “hotbed of chaos, violence and mean-spiritedness.” The high percentages, however, do not mean that equally high percentages of adults engage in such behavior.

Even in the greater society, a rising national violent crime rate in a particular year does not change the fact that only a relatively few Americans commit violent crimes. Americans nevertheless find a rising national violent crime rate disturbing because the misconduct of a few can affect the many. We should similarly find the rate of adult disruption disturbing in youth sports, where the misconduct of a few can also affect the many.

These polls and surveys confirm what most of us already sense – that adult behavior in youth sports could stand some cleaning up. The National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that about 15% of youth league games feature a confrontation between parents or coaches and officials, a figure that seems realistic — and uncomfortably high — from my experience.

If all parents and coaches were angels, we would not need national organizations and influential individuals who advocate higher ethical standards in youth sports. If we could count on Americans to respect sportsmanship without prodding, we probably would not even need National Sportsmanship Day each year. Sports remains a valuable experience for most children who compete, but we still need vigilant parents and coaches who seek to teach children life skills — sportsmanship, respect and civility — as they learn the skills of the game.

[Citations to the polls and surveys recited in this column are available in a 32-page article I have written for the Seton Hall Sports and Entertainment Law Journal: “Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect As an Injury-Prevention Strategy.” The article will appear this autumn, but the manuscript is available for downloading now at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1807404 ]