Archive for April, 2012

A Fresh, New, and Intriguing Way to Do Kids’ Sports

Danny Bernstein grew up on Long Island where he played a variety of sports, most notably soccer. He was the goalkeeper on the Roslyn HS team which won the first NYS HS championship. Danny then went onto Amherst College where he continued playing soccer, and captained his college team.

After graduating, he spent a number of years in the family business. But then, a few years ago, he had a revelation that he wanted to get involved in sports again, and also, give back to sports in some way. He did just that by creating a company called Backyard Sports, (www.byardsports.com) which allows kids to enjoy playing sports while eliminating the outside pressures of parents, coaches, travel teams, and so on.

The result is a unique program where youngsters “mix and match” in something akin to the old standard of pick-up games, where you find yourself playing with kids from all over. The idea, of course, is for the youngsters to make new friendships, learn how to become a leader, and most importantly, to enjoy playing sports without feeling that it’s all about winning all the time.

Kids find this approach refreshing and liberating. So do their parents. Each session starts with one of the “teaching coaches” at Backyard spending a little time instructing the kids on a particular skill or drill. From there, teams are selected, and play begins. Like when we were kids, these youngsters pretty much regulate themselves — there’s no need for refs or umps, and of course, there are no league standings or playoffs. It’s all about enjoying the game today…the other stuff is more for the parents anyway.

We had a number of calls on the show this AM all praising what Danny has put together. Maybe, just maybe, parents are beginning to wake up to the reality that kids really need to first develop a passion for their sport before we can expect them to spend 10,000 hours trying to become a pro at it. And that passion is ignited by kids having fun…the kid of fun that Danny Bernstein is advocating. In short, it would seem we’re looking ahead to the future by going back to the old standards of fun from the past.

How to Keep Your Players From Going Viral and Ruining Their Youth Sports Careers

By Doug Abrams

The past few weeks have not been kind to Annette McCullough and Austin O’Such.  Both players competed in games that otherwise would have attracted little attention locally, and no attention elsewhere.  But both players committed flagrant fouls that went viral when films were posted on YouTube.  Thanks to the national – and indeed, international – notoriety that has dogged the two, their sports careers will never be the same.  The permanent damage holds important lessons for parents, coaches, and players in the age of the Internet and social media.

Momentary Lapses of Teenage Judgment

In a March 26 girls’ soccer game in South Carolina, Lewisville High School’s Annette McCullough was chasing the ball with a Chester High School opponent.  After routine contact, the two went down.  The 18-year-old senior McCullough arose, grabbed the opponent’s hair, and began punching her in the face and head nearly a dozen times.  The opponent, still on the ground, covered herself to fend off the blows until a woman separated the two.  An official showed McCullough a red card and escorted her from the field.  “Some incidental contact ended in one girl going down and [McCullough] just got up and started pummeling,” the referee said after the game.  “Contact is a part of soccer, but when you retaliate like that, . . . there is no place in the game for that.”

In Arizona three days later, a dispute broke out after a Scottsdale Community College batter laid down a bunt near the first base line in the top of the ninth inning of a close game against Yavapai Community College.  Players from both teams gathered and began exchanging words on the right side of the infield, but with little or no pushing or shoving.  A Scottsdale runner, with his back to the outfield, stood alone on second base watching and waiting for play to resume.  Within a few seconds, Yavapai’s 18-year-old freshman left fielder Austin O’Such left his position to race toward the commotion.  On the way, O’Such charged full speed at the unsuspecting base runner, blindsided him, and sent him sprawling into the basepath as his helmet flew off.  After a few moments, Scottsdale’s trainer helped the base runner to his feet.

A local television station caught the soccer assault on film, and a spectator filmed the blind-siding on second base.  As of April 18, the McCullough soccer film appears on at least 31 YouTube sites, which have received a total of more than 300,000 views.  The O’Such baseball film has received more than three million views on a YouTube site entitled “The Worst Cheap Shot Ever in Baseball.”  (This column’s readers can view the soccer film (2:16 in length) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI9zOkM5vjA, and the baseball film (1:32 in length) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UywRu8QPXA ).

Both players quickly forfeited their personal privacy as bloggers responded with nasty, and sometimes vulgar, commentary directed at them by name.  Newspaper stories from as far away as Britain and Australia also reported the incidents and named names.

The Worldwide Aftermath

Cheap shots have surely marked local sports for decades.  Charges and counter-charges might simmer for a while, but memories and bad feelings would soon fade for lack of permanent evidence as players and families moved on with their private lives.  Annette McCullough and Austin O’Such were not so fortunate. 

McCullough was charged with third-degree assault and battery by prosecutors who undoubtedly felt local pressure to respond swiftly to an attack that a worldwide audience of thousands saw on film.    

O’Such apologized and the college suspended him for the rest of the season, but someone anonymously posted his personal information online.  He and his parents began receiving death threats by email, texts and phone messages from all over the country.  Threats also came to Yavapai’s coach from people who charged that his team had planned the blindsiding.  Yavapai’s athletic director told the New York Daily News that “People were saying, ‘We’re going to come out and get you, we’re going to take care of this.’  Kinda crazy talk.  But in this day and age, you don’t know who’s serious and who’s just talking.”

O’Such heeded advice from campus police and his athletic director to leave school for his own safety. The left fielder returned home to his family in California, reportedly began taking online courses, and says that he is unlikely to return to college to play baseball again.  According to the Arizona Republic, “O’Such ran over [the runner] and then social media ran over O’Such.” 

An Ounce of Prevention

What lessons do the unhappy McCullough and O’Such episodes hold for parents, coaches and players in youth leagues and the high schools?  On “The Sports Edge,” Rick Wolff and I have urged parents and coaches to provide their players advance instruction about the Internet’s dangers, and not to avoid the dialog until after something bad happens.  The Internet and the social media are facts of life today, and adults ignore their potency at their children’s peril.  

Proactive, open communication is key.  Parents at home need to talk with their players about self-discipline on the field in the Internet age; coaches must discuss cyber realities during preseason meetings with players and parents alike, and then must reinforce warnings periodically throughout the season, when teenage temptations to exercise bad judgment may grow stronger as pressures build.  Benjamin Franklin was right that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but he wrote before the Internet.  The McCullough and O’Such stories demonstrate that youthful lapses in judgment sometimes have no cure at all.  Once an incident goes viral, the electronic media is unforgiving and the incident remains in the public domain.

How can youth coaches warn their players and parents about the electronic media most effectively?  Each coaching staff is the best judge of its own team’s circumstances and the sensibilities of its families, but the adage that a “picture is worth a thousand words” provides a good start.  

I would urge coaches to show the brief McCullough and O’Such videos to the players and parents at upcoming meetings in the next few weeks or months.  Indeed, the coach should repeat the videos two or three times in succession if they initially astound viewers.  Then the coach can reinforce the lesson by distributing one or more news stories about the lasting fallout from each filmed incident.  Stories, including ones cited below, can be retrieved from Google.

In grade school, “Show and Tell” taught us that people respond best to instruction that they both see and hear.  By presenting both film clips and news stories, coaches encourage parents and players to grasp the ultimate lesson – that a teenager’s momentary on-the-field impulsiveness can wreak serious, often permanent damage because barely noticeable surveillance devices in public places dominate our public lives nowadays.  If an incident from an otherwise nondescript South Carolina high school soccer game or Arizona community college baseball game can go viral within minutes or hours, an incident from any game can go viral. 

An old saying reminds us that “Integrity is what you do when you don’t think anyone is watching.”  Playing sports the right way has always demanded integrity, but the demand is even greater today because someone may very well be watching – with a camera. 

[Sources: Scott Bordow, Game Between Yavapai College, Scottsdale Community College Hits 1 Million Views Online, Arizona Republic, Apr. 9, 2012; Rheanna Murray, Baseball Player Leaves College After Video of Him Pummeling Opposing Athlete Goes Viral on YouTube, Prompts Threats, N.Y. Daily News, Apr. 10, 2012; Thomas Durante, Hardly a Fair Fight: Shocking Video of College Baseball Player Plowing Over Oblivious Rival During Game, Daily Mail (Britain), Apr. 8, 2012; Louise Boyle, Red Card! Female Soccer Player, 18, Drags Rival By Hair and Punches Her 11 Times After Being Tripped During Match, Daily Mail (Britain), Mar. 29, 2012; South Carolina Girl Charged With Assault Following High School Soccer Brawl, http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/south-carolina-girl-charged-with-assault-following-high-school-soccer-brawl/story-e6frfku0-1226313348498;

Cameron Smith, South Carolina Teen’s Brutal Soccer Attack Earns Assault Charge, Yahoo! Sports, Mar. 29, 2012]

Talking Sports with my Son on the Radio…

Every so often I find it very refreshing – and even somewhat therapeutic — to take a few moments and simply talk sports (and sports memories) with my son. (John is now 28, all grown up, and onto his busy career on Wall Street as an investment hanker.)

But that’s just what I did this AM on WFAN, and John related his stories from his days in minor league baseball, talking about playing with such current NY Mets players as Daniel Murphy, Josh Thole, and even batting against El Duque, Billy Wagner, and John Maine. It was a simpy wonderful, fun-filled hour.

But like any proud parent, no matter how old my son gets, he’ll always be my “little guy” (even though John now towers over me). I still recall very vividly marvelling at how a 6-year-old John could lace on ice skates and glide over the ice (parental admission: I can’t skate at all)….or that warm sunny day when John got his first line-drive base hit playing on the  HS varsity baseball team…or the day he scored a crucial goal in an all-important HS soccer match).

In truth, my wife Trish and I have been truly blessed to have witnessed so many wonderful sporting events in John’s life. And not to be outdone, our daughters Alyssa (lax and swimming) and Samantha (lax, volleyball, soccer, and basketball) went through their sports careers that were just as thrilling for us. In short, we have been very, very fortunate with all three of our children.

Does that mean that our kids didn’t go through disappointments, setbacks, or adversity? Of course they did. But for the most part, they had a ball, and hopefully wonderful memories.

I think the takeaway we have always wanted for our children is that when their HS sports careers finally came to an end, that overall, they had positive memories from their involvement – with memories that would last them a lifetime. And hopefully,  if our kids loved playing sports, maybe they’ll encourage their own children to play as well. I know I spend a lot of time talking and writing about the hazards or downside of youth sports, but as noted, every so often it’s worth taking a moment to remember just how much pure joy and fun our kids (and us) get out of sports.

 

The Law’s Limited Role in Injury Prevention

By Doug Abrams

My last three columns told the story of 15-year-old sophomore Neal Goss, who suffered a broken neck when an opponent blind-sided him at the end of a Chicago-area junior varsity hockey game that had spiraled out of control from the opening faceoff.  The trilogy’s central point was that national playing rules protect youth athletes best when parents, coaches and officials actually enforce the rules at the local level. 

This column discusses the lawsuits that Neal Goss’ family brought after his catastrophic injury. The central point here is that litigation is no substitute for rules enforcement, adult education, and sportsmanship among competitors.  Because lawsuits happen only after the injury, prevention remains the best child-protective strategy.  Litigation cannot necessarily make the injured youth leaguer’s life good; the most that litigation can often do is make that life less bad.

Neal Goss’ story demonstrates that litigation is essentially reactive and not proactive.  Neal would likely have escaped injury altogether if parents, coaches and officials had taken reasonable proactive steps to assure a clean, hard-fought game on that cold November night.  Instead, the Goss family was left to react by filing multimillion-dollar negligence lawsuits, which provided compensation but did nothing to avoid their son’s lifelong paralysis.

The Law’s Limited Role in Injury Prevention

“If your only tool is a hammer,” the old saying goes, “all your problems will look like nails.” When I attended Columbia Law School more than 35 years ago, the curriculum conditioned students to view accidents and other significant problems as potential lawsuits destined for the courtroom.  Law schools tend to do the same thing today, even though most lawsuits actually end with negotiated pre-trial settlements.  Non-lawyers also tend to perceive litigation as the tool of choice because most Americans develop their impressions of the legal system either from watching television law dramas or from serving jury duty.  Despite this popular perception, however, the law has only limited influence on youth leaguers’ safety.

  1. A.           Premises Liability

The law’s impact on youth leaguers’ safety begins with “premises liability,” the obligation to assure that safe conditions mark fields, gymnasiums and other places where organized sports contests are played. The prospect of negligence liability may help prevent some injuries by encouraging precautions by school districts, parks and recreation departments, and private businesses that manage the places where games are played.  These managers are more likely than other persons to be familiar with legal proceedings, and more likely to retain lawyers and insurance risk managers who understand that potholes, poor lighting, and similar hazards invite litigation, much of it avoidable or made less costly by exercising reasonable care.

The specter of lawsuits, then, does play some preventive role in youth sports.  In more than forty years, I cannot recall ever coaching a youth hockey game in an ice rink that appeared unsafe or genuinely enhanced the risk of injury.  No media report, and no allegation in the later lawsuits, suggested that conditions at the Chicago-area ice rink had anything to do with the injury that confined Neal Goss to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

In my experience, fields, gyms and other facilities tend to be kept in pretty good shape.  I suspect that some facility managers might pay less attention to maintenance if they knew they could cut corners and get away with it.

  1. B.           National Safety Standards

The specter of potential negligence liability may also enhance player safety by encouraging improved protective equipment and safer national playing rules.

Concern about negligence liability doubtlessly influences engineers who design protective equipment, and national youth sports governing bodies (USA Hockey, USA Soccer and others) that establish and periodically refine playing rules.  Decisionmakers act not only from genuine desire to prevent injury, but also because they know that their organizations typically have “deep pockets” that attract plaintiffs’ lawyers seeking damages.

USA Hockey’s national safety standards did not fail Neal Goss.   He was injured while wearing a helmet, face cage and other protective equipment that met USA Hockey safety specifications. Nobody questioned the sufficiency of these specifications.  No report indicated that any coach or referee had evaded or failed USA Hockey’s nationally-mandated criminal or child abuse background checks, or lacked the classroom training certification required of coaches and officials.

Nor was negligence evident in USA Hockey’s national playing rules, which impose penalties for both “checking from behind” and “cross-checking,” the violations committed by Neal Goss’ opponent at the end of the game.  Media reports indicated that the opponent also received a 30-day suspension pending a hearing before state amateur hockey officials.

C.      The Legal Process

Neal Goss and the other players on both teams were left vulnerable, not by inadequate national safety standards, but by rabid local adults who neutralized these standards by letting the game get out of hand.  Post-injury lawsuits can do no more than play catch-up by providing players a measure of compensation, with a third or more of any recovery often going to the player’s lawyer under the contingent-fee agreements common in personal injury suits. 

Facing lifetime costs for medical and around-the-clock personal care, Neal Goss and his family filed a multimillion-dollar civil damage action.  The suit alleged that five defendants negligently failed to maintain adequate control over the game – the opposing player; the opposing coach; the Illinois Hockey Officials Association; the Northbrook Hockey League, which sponsored the opposing team; and the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois. The parties reached private settlements in some of the civil suits, and USA Hockey’s insurance also helped meet the injured player’s ongoing expenses. Neither the settlements nor the insurance did anything to reverse the effects of avoidable injury.

Conclusion 

Last week’s column discussed the recommendations of a 2008 study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.  The researchers urged parents, coaches and officials to remain proactive with “targeted education about the dangers of illegal activity/foul play for players, coaches and referees.”

“Each sport has . . . rules developed to promote fair competition and protect participants from injury,” the researchers explained. “[E]nforcing rules and punishing illegal activity is a risk control measure that may reduce injury rates by modifying players’ behavior.”

Translation: Youth leaguers are much better off when their elders emphasize proactive local enforcement of national playing rules, and not essentially reactive legal rules applied later in the courtroom. 

 

[Source:  Douglas E. Abrams, Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy, Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, vol. 22, pp. 1-27 (2012), downloadable at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1807404 ]

Adversity Drives Great Athletes

People always ask me about the so-called “intangibles” that we (and our kids) take away from sports. And most of the time, I rely on the usual platitudes: teamwork….setting and reaching goals…sportsmanship…and so on.

But of all the life-long lessons that sports provides, I truly think that the one lesson that stands above them all is that sports forces all athletes to come to terms with adversity. That is, all athletes come face-to-face with adversity in their careers, 

I have had the privilege to have known a number of top professional athletes in my life, and they all share one thing in common: they have all had to deal with some form of adversity in their life, and sports helped them (even forced them) to overcome that setback.

Adversity shows itself in many ways: injury, a disjointed family, a physical disability, lack of money, etc. But for those individuals who can find it within themselves to find enough inner strength to lift themselves to a higher level, well, those are the athletes who will succeed…not just in sports, but that same determination will most likely propel through life after sports.

The examples, of course, are endless: Cynthia Cooper, the famed basketball player who was the WNBA MVP three times, didn’t even start playing basketball until she was 16 because she was too busy just trying to survive the tough streets of LA. Michael Jordan, of course, was cut as a sophomore from his HS basketball team. Jeremy Lin, the NBA star, couldn’t even get a college scholarship for basketball. Victor Cruz, the star wide receiver for the NY Giants, signed as an undrafted free agent for zero dollars. Jim Abbott, the former major league pitcher, was born without a hand, but that didn’t get in the way of his dreams.  Shaquille O’Neal was also cut from his HS team, even though he was 6-8.

I could go on and on. But trust me…adversity, which is always very painful for athletes, forces the individual to make a choice. Either one resolves to work that much harder to overcome the setback, or one decides to walk away. For those who find it within themselves to fight back, well, those are the ones who will also become successful once the games are over. Always bear that in mind when talking with your youngster about dealing with setbacks. Remind them that it’s okay to feel angry or sad for a couple of days, but once the sting of the setback is over, hopefully they will resolve to get back to work and overcome that adversity.

 

“All Saftey is Local” – (Part III)

By Doug Abrams

My last two columns have explained how national playing rules protect youth athletes best when parents, coaches and officials actually enforce the rules locally.  The first column largely reflected my experiences as a youth hockey coach for more than 40 years, and the second column drew largely on polling data that consistently paints a disturbing picture of adult misconduct that can heighten safety risks during children’s games.  This week’s column draws from leading medical researchers, who concur that adult combustion in the heat of youth-league games can thwart the best efforts of national rulemakers to keep the games as safe as possible.     

The two earlier columns told the story of 15-year-old sophomore Neal Goss, who suffered a broken neck when an opponent blind-sided him at the end of a Chicago-area junior varsity hockey game that had spiraled out of control from the opening faceoff.  Goss would likely have escaped injury if level-headed parents, coaches and officials had adhered to USA Hockey’s national playing rules and the basics of sportsmanship and spirited competition.  Instead, the rabid adults tolerated, and indeed encouraged, a toxic atmosphere of cheap shots and dirty play that escalated until it was too late.  Long before tragedy struck at the final buzzer, the game was a recipe for needless injury.

 “A Risk Control Measure That May Reduce Injury Rates”

 

Medical researchers have defined a central role for local enforcement of a youth sport’s national playing rules.  A 2008 study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, one of the nation’s most comprehensive pediatric hospitals and research institutes, tells the story. The study’s findings underscore not only how clean play enhances safety, but also how dirty play enhances avoidable risk.

The Children’s Hospital study concerned nine high school sports (boys’ football, soccer, basketball, wrestling and baseball; and girls’ soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball).  The researchers estimated that between 2005 and 2007, more than 98,000 injuries in these sports were directly related to an act that a referee or disciplinary committee ruled illegal.  Thirty-two percent of these injuries were to the head or face, and 25% were concussions.

In four of the nine sports studied, illegal acts were responsible for more than 10% of injuries: boys’ soccer (11.4%), girls’ soccer (11.9%), boys’ basketball (10.3%), and girls’ basketball (14.0%).

The Children’s Hospital researchers called for better local rules enforcement though “targeted education about the dangers of illegal activity/foul play for players, coaches and referees.” “Each sport has . . . rules developed to promote fair competition and protect participants from injury,” the researchers explained. “[E]nforcing rules and punishing illegal activity is a risk control measure that may reduce injury rates by modifying players’ behavior.”

 

A “Public Health Concern”

 

In a 2009 article, three medical researchers intimated that the United States should view sports-related violence as a “public health concern.”  The researchers described a perfect storm — millions of children play youth league and high school sports each year, and this “widespread” violence can inflict serious short-term and long-term physical and emotional injury on players.  

The three researchers defined “sports-related violence” to include (1) brawling before, during and after games; and (2) “foul play” during games themselves. Publishing in a British medical journal, the researchers recognized that brawling may be more prevalent in international soccer than in American youth sports, but they concluded correctly that foul play in youth sports knows no national boundaries. The article recommends stemming sports-related violence with such local measures as “peer-pressure, coaches’ influence, parental examples and expectations, . . . community and school legislation, [and] referee enforcement of sporting rules.”

Conclusion

The recent medical researchers deliver a common lesson concerning player safety:  A youth sport’s playing rules are conceived at the national level with sound medical input over time, but youth athletes compete at the local level, where adult irresponsibility can put children needlessly in harm’s way. National rules resemble an impressive building, which may take years to design and construct, but which can be imploded locally in moments.

 

[Sources:  Douglas E. Abrams, Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy, Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, vol. 22, pp. 1-27 (2012); Doug Abrams, A Winning Equation: Sportsmanship Plus Respect Equals a Safer Game, USA Hockey Magazine, p. 20 (Aug. 2011); Christy Collins et al., When the Rules of the Game Are Broken: What Proportion of High School Sports-Related Injuries Are Related to Illegal Activity?, 14 Injury Prevention 34, 34 (2008); S.K. Fields et al., Violence in Youth Sports: Hazing, Brawling and Foul Play, 44 British Journal of Sports Medicine 32 (2009)]

“Big Brother is Watching You!”… Colleges Hire Outside Firms to Monitor Athletes’ Posting on Social Media

“So here’s how it works…if your son or daughter wants to play intercollegiate sports at our university, he or she has to first sign a waiver that gives us access to all of her social media, including the password to their Facebook account, twitter account, and so on.”

Can that be possible? Isn’t that illegal? Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?

According to law professor Doug Abrams, actually, this IS possible….it’s NOT illegal…and it’s NOT an invasion of privacy.

I’m oversimplifying, of course, but more and more colleges and universities with big-time sports programs don’t want to risk having one of their athletes post something in cyberspace that might somehow jeopardize the overall athletic department. According to an excellent article by Pete Thamel in the NY Times, this is exactly what happened to the football program at the Univ of North Carolina, when a player posted a tweet that mentioned that he received some free (and illegal) benefits.

That tweet caught the NCAA’s eye, an investigation ensued, and UNC ended up being punished by losing 15 scholarships and not being able to go to a bowl game.

With millions on the line for major sports programs, no athletic director wants to be tripped up by some poorly thought-out comment online by an athlete. As a result, colleges are now hiring outside services to monitor the activities of their athletes in cyberspace.

The lesson? Student-athletes have to be strongly educated and cautioned about the kinds of comments and opinions they post online. As Professor Abrams suggests, the best way to do that is to be proactive and lto aunch a major offensive which educates young athletes to THINK TWICE before tweeting or writing comments on Facebook.

Don’t forget the example of Yuri Wright, the top HS football prospect from northern NJ. He wrote some stupid tweets, and within 24 hours, the Univ of Michigan rescinded its scholarship off and his HS (a parochial school) expelled him.

The bottom line? Yes,  colleges and most likely high schools CAN monitor your kid’s online postings. Better to warn your kids now before they suffer the consequences.