By Doug Abrams
In the spring of 1968, I was finishing my junior year at W. Tresper Clarke High School in Westbury, and I was also nearing the end of my Little League playing days with the Central Nassau Athletic Association. I had umpired CNAA games in the lower age divisions for three years, and I had just finished managing a younger team that spring. At the suggestion of CNAA President Leif Birkeland, I ran for secretary, won the election, and joined the association’s board of directors.
More than 40 years later, I still believe that my year serving on CNAA’s board helped sharpen leadership skills and self-confidence before I left for college a year later. Perhaps I also played a small part in building the CNAA into an organization that I understand still brings sports to boys and girls of all ages.
Through bylaw amendments if necessary, youth sports leagues and associations should reserve at least one voting board position for a high-school-age player who, like me, wants to run for election and serve after rising through the ranks as a player. The teen may still be an active player in the association, or else may be a former player who has moved on to high school competition. If a few teens wish to serve in a particular year, they could go through the same contested election that adult candidates do.
I do not make this recommendation lightly. I recognize that in many youth sports associations today, the board of directors faces challenges that were largely unknown in the late 1960s. I cannot recall the CNAA’s board ever grappling with a truly contentious matter during my year of service, but many leagues and associations now regularly face disputes driven by the passions of parents, coaches, players and other constituencies. Strident controversies before, during and after the season can raise the decibel level much higher than it ever was forty years ago.
Controversy or no, however, encouraging board service by a responsible older player teaches leadership, and might even also help create a more equitable program for players of all ages.
In this column a few weeks ago, I quoted Aristotle’s wisdom that people “learn by doing,” and not simply by listening to instruction about what to do. Parents and coaches want sports to teach children leadership skills, yet we adults sometimes forget that adolescents (like the rest of us) learn leadership best when they actually lead. Too many players miss out on real learning because from their earliest years until they “age out” of youth-league play, they simply follow decisions made by adults.
Responsible teen players can serve effectively on the board of directors if the adults would only give them a chance. The teen board member might need some time to grow into the position and might even make some mistakes along the way, but the same can be said for adult board members. The association’s bylaws might disqualify the teen member from deliberating or voting on particularly sensitive matters — such as whether to suspend a parent, coach or fellow player for misconduct — but selective disqualification should be the exception rather than the rule. In the meantime, the teen member can help (as I did) with other important board functions such as equipment purchase and maintenance, operating concessions, producing the newsletter, and maintaining communications with individual families.
Can teens really meet the responsibilities of board membership? For the answer, we need look no further than the nation’s courtrooms, where teens capably shoulder even greater responsibilities. In more than half the states, juvenile court judges permit trials of some delinquency cases to proceed in so-called “teen courts” or “youth courts.” First-time offenders who have admitted their guilt, usually for non-violent misdemeanors, consent to appear before a “jury” of teens that determines punishment — generally community service, counseling, restitution, writing an essay of apology, or some combination. A teen or a volunteer attorney may serve as judge, and teens may serve as prosecutor and defense counsel.
In the American system of justice, passing sentence on offenders is serious business. The American Youth Policy Forum reports that each year, more than a thousand teen courts nationwide decide cases involving between 110,000 and 125,000 juvenile offenders (about 9% of juvenile offenders). More than 100,000 youths serve as teen court decisionmakers in these proceedings. The American Bar Association encourages creation of teen courts and anticipates that by 2015, they will decide up to 25% of all juvenile cases nationwide.
The bottom line is that if courts can trust responsible teens to impose sentences for some juvenile crimes, youth sports associations can trust responsible teens to serve on the board of directors.
Encouraging more equitable programs
Board membership clearly teaches the teen leadership skills and self-confidence, and that is reason enough for leagues and associations to have a teen board member. But there might be another reason. Perhaps having a teen board member can also help create greater fairness and reduce favoritism.
In more than 40 years, I have rarely served on a youth hockey board that was comprised entirely of members who were committed to the best interests of all boys and girls who played. Board service should not be belittled because it consumes both time and energy, and because many board members – probably most, in the typical association – do care plenty about children and teams other than their own. But I have also found that regardless of lofty rhetoric, one or more members of the typical board want no part of equity.
Board members know that they will be involved in the association for only a few years while their own children are involved. With brief tenure assured at the outset, some parents may seek board service to position their own children and their teams favorably.
I wonder whether having a teen board member might help muzzle an adult member who is bent on favoritism when the board discusses a particular issue. A teen board member might understandably be reluctant to engage an adult member in debate at a board meeting, but I doubt that such youth-on-adult debate would normally be necessary. When other adult board members challenge an effort at favoritism, just having a teen sitting at the table might lead a selfish member to think twice. With a teen listening, word might get around among the other youngsters. Favoritism is sometimes best secured behind closed doors or in discussions among adults, and a healthy dose of embarrassment among the kids might just go a long way.
[Sources: American Bar Association, Youth Cases for Youth Courts Desktop Guide: A Guide to the Typical Offenses Handled by Youth Courts (2006); Michelle E. Heward, Update on Teen Court Legislation (U.S. Justice Department 2006); Sarah H. Pearson & Sonia Jurich, Youth Court: A Community Solution for Embracing At–Risk Youth (2005).]