Archive for January, 2013

LEGAL CONCERNS: Children with Disabilities – What the New Directives Mean


Equal Sports Opportunities for Children with Disabilities: 

The U.S. Department of Education’s New Directive

By Doug Abrams


On January 25, the U.S. Department of Education instructed the nation’s public school districts that federal disability law requires them to “provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics.” The Education Department’s authority extends only to the nation’s public schools, but the equal opportunity impulse should also guide private youth sports programs that federal disability law does not directly reach.  This column primarily concerns the lessons that private programs should draw from the Department’s instruction.

Striking a Balance

In last week’s directive, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that public schools “may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified.” “While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team,” he continued, “students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.”

Federal disability law strikes a balance. “[S]chools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game,” Secretary Duncan explained, “and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage.  But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to insure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.”

Last week’s Education Department directive reaffirms that students learn, hone their social skills, and develop their self-esteem both in the classroom and on the sports field.  The directive comes two years after the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that students with disabilities participate in elementary and secondary school sports “at consistently lower rates than students without disabilities.”  The Department is right that, while maintaining the essential character of a particular sport and conferring no special advantage, schools can do a better job of delivering on public education law’s core commitment to “leave no child behind.”

Applying Equal Opportunity to Private Youth Sports Programs

For children with disabilities, the rewards of participation in sports remain constant in public schools and private programs alike. “To the maximum extent possible,” I wrote in my December 21 column, private “leagues and teams should permit children with disabilities to participate in sports with other children if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise other players’ safety.  Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.”

The Local Roles of Parents and Coaches

The Education Department’s directive from Washington sets the proper tone and content, but directives and statutes are only the first step.  In public schools and private sports programs alike, responsible local administrators and coaches and parents ultimately play the central roles in assuring that qualified athletes with disabilities are mainstreamed and not cast off. 

In my December 21 column, I wrote about a youth hockey game that I coached on Long Island in the mid-1980s against a visiting team from Pennsylvania.  Local responsibility was on display that morning.  A few minutes before the game, the opposing coaches approached our coaching staff and the referees to say that (like the track runner in the Education Department’s example last week) one of their players was deaf.  He told us that the player might throw a late hit because he would not hear the whistle and he depended on his teammates to stop him. 

Without fanfare, the coaches simply did what our instincts told us was right. In the locker room, we told our team that the deaf player deserved our understanding. The Pennsylvania player did indeed throw a few late hits, but the game proceeded without incident because players, coaches and parents knew the circumstances in advance and never even considered using disability as an excuse to exclude him.

Good for Young Athletes and Good for America

The Education Department is right that children with disabilities deserve a fair chance to play sports in accordance with their abilities, desires, and willingness to contribute to the team.  The media regularly reports how children overcome Down syndrome, missing limbs, and other disabilities to win their teammates’ acceptance, support and respect. Sports teaches children with disabilities, but these children also teach everyone else through their perseverance and determination to overcome barriers that teammates and their families previously never thought much about. The other day, the Department’s balanced directive reminded public school districts and private programs that the impulse to include, rather than exclude, young athletes marks youth sports at its finest. 

Inclusion is good for the young athletes, and it is good for America.         


[Sources: U.S. Dep’t of Education, Arne Duncan, We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities (Jan. 25, 2013); U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Students with Disabilities: More Information and Guidance Could Improve Opportunities in Physical Education and Athletics, p. 1 (June 2010); No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425]

HS CODE OF CONDUCT: Here’s How One Athletic Director Makes His Program Work

If you have a chance to listen to the interview I did this AM with Chris McCarthy, the Athletic Director at John Jay HS in Cross River, NY, it will be well worth your time.  I have said many times on my show that there are very few jobs that are as demanding and as daunting as being a modern-day HS athletic director.

As Chris pointed out, he’s responsible for not only overseeing the entire athletic program, but that means he oversees more thn 90 coaches. And when coaches depart, it’s his charge to go out and find new ones – which is not an easy process. Some of the other key takeaways today:

To become a coach in New York State, one needs to be certified and licensed by the State. That involves being trained in advance First Aid and also trained in CPR. Coaches have to take a number of classes in order to be licensed. And of course, they have to be fingerprinted for background checks by the State.

Bear in mind that coaches earn anywhere between $4,000 to $8,000. And by the way, all of the CPR and First Aid and training course come out of the coach’s pocket, not the school’s.

In other words, if you want to work with kids as a coach, you have to make a real commitment. And that’s the way it should be.

Chris also revealed that he protects his coaches by telling parents that the school has a 24-hour black-out period, where Moms and Dads are not allowed to approach or speak to coaches for at least 20 hours after the end of a game.  If parents have an issue, Chris strongly suggests that the parent calls him – the AD — directly, and he’ll intervene.

That’s a bold but enlightened approach to deal with parents these days. But Chris says it only works it the school administration backs him up. Without the administration’s support, this kind of approach wouldn’t work.

And of course, Chris has not only a Code of Conduct in place for the student-athletes, but he also has a Code of Conduct for the parents as well.

Bottom line? McCarthy senses that parental issues about sports in his school district have really begun to level off, as the parents now know they can go to directly to him with an issue. The coaches like the set-up, and so does the school district.

DEALING WITH FINANCIAL CONCERNS: “Scholarships at the Youth Level”


Financial Assistance for Families in Need:

More Strategies for Achieving Diversity in Youth Sports

By Doug Abrams


When I was president of the local youth hockey association nearly 20 years ago, one of our families hit temporary hard times.  The father was laid off, and the mother had been working only part-time so that she could be home when the hockey player and his siblings finished school each day.  Jobs near the small community were scarce, and the family took a sudden financial hit through no fault of its own.

The player was well liked by his teammates and coaches, and his parents had always supported the coaches and respected the game. Hockey is expensive, and the board of directors grew concerned that the father’s unemployment might lead the family to leave the association as the parents tightened the purse strings.  We did not want that to happen.

The media regularly reports that youth sports is recession-proof because parents typically sacrifice to assure their children’s continued participation.  Sacrifice, however, has its limits.

In the past month or so, I have written two columns about achieving diversity in youth sports by encouraging participation by children who might otherwise find themselves shut out.  In December, I wrote about children with disabilities.  Two weeks ago, I wrote about refugees and other immigrant children. The two columns shared a common theme: “The impulse to include, rather than exclude, children marks youth sports at its finest.”

 This column continues the inclusion theme by discussing meaningful strategies for enrolling children whose families appear unable to pay standard fees, which may exceed a thousand dollars annually nowadays.  The number of financially-distressed families whose children seek participation each year might seem small in many associations (as they were in ours), but the stakes loom large for the child who would be sidelined.


Our hockey association always stood ready to assist families that faced financial limitations, usually only about one or two families in most years. The affected child might have played with us in the past, or might be seeking to enroll for the first time. In appropriate cases, we would waive all or part of the registration fee and, where appropriate, assist with other hockey-related expenditures. The association called the assistance “scholarships,” a name that made sense because, to paraphrase Congress when it passed a major education bill in 2001, we would “leave no child behind.” We always told people that our hockey association was a “family,” and we proved it by doing everything we could to assure that financial circumstances would not sideline a boy or girl. 

Our scholarship decisions focused on the family’s needs, and not on whether the child might score plenty of goals. Many youth sports associations already maintain scholarship programs for needy children, complete with proven methods that make the programs work.  Here are five guidelines that assured the success of our hockey association’s program:

1) “Room for one more.”  Our association paid a standard hourly fee for ice time and referees. Our other expenditures also remained relatively constant over time, though we anticipated that they would modestly increase from year to year. 

Let’s assume that in a given year, we enrolled 150 players whose families each paid the full registration fee.  Our expenditures would not change if the number became 151 because we added one player who received a total or partial scholarship.  Our only “loss” would be all or part of one registration fee, which we never had in the first place.  We balanced the books with budget management and more focused fundraising.

When a family requires assistance with fees and costs, a youth sports association should apply the lesson that Cary Grant learned in a 1952 film when his wife (played by actress Betsy Drake) continued taking foster children into their home — There is always “Room for One More.” 

2)   Act discreetly.  When a family needs financial assistance, parents may remain reluctant to ask for it and may even feel embarrassed to accept it.  Parents usually want to assume responsibility for raising their own children and usually resist advertising dire straits. 

Our hockey association made sure that the identities of scholarship recipients did not become known, in the association or elsewhere, without the consent of the recipients’ parents.  Rather than require a formal letter or application, a board member would talk privately with the parents to ascertain their position and explain why we wanted to help assure their child’s participation.  In some years, the board would appoint the treasurer or another member to make scholarship decisions, though in particular cases we might rely instead on a board member who knew the family. 

One way or another, what happened in the board room stayed in the board room.  Our budget, which was publicly available to member families, recited the number of scholarships awarded without naming the recipients. I believe that in some cases, even the players themselves did not know that they were scholarship recipients because our discussions were exclusively with their parents.  If a player learned the circumstances, the word came from the mother or father. 

3)  Suggest the parents’ active participation in the association.  For parents who might seem reluctant or somewhat embarrassed to accept a scholarship, personal sensibilities may matter.   Sometimes the board would suggest that in return, the parents assume a more active role in the association, such as greater responsibility for apparel sales or participation in some other administrative capacity.  Over the years, every parent who received financial assistance pitched in with gusto.

Creative fundraising can also assist families that feel the financial pinch.  Our association published an annual yearbook that featured not only the players’ headshots and biographies, but also advertising that players would secure from local businesses and individuals. The ad campaign boosted the association’s treasury, but any family could credit a set percentage of its ad revenues to offset a portion of the registration fee.  Rarely was the percentage enough to offset the entire fee, but the percentage could surely make a significant dent if a player was particularly industrious. 

Some families feeling financial distress have the sort of personal connections that produce ad revenue from non-relatives, and some families do not.  Board members often steered advertisers to players whose families needed the offset but struggled with finding advertisers for themselves.     

4) Consider the family’s other sports-related expenses. In youth sports nowadays, the registration fee may be only the tip of the iceberg for parents who then face steep costs for equipment, uniforms and travel.  Waiving or adjusting only the registration fee may simply position the parents for failure.

Our youth hockey association conducted an annual preseason used-equipment sale and exchange to permit any parent to purchase quality pre-owned equipment that other children had outgrown.  On road trips, families sometimes saved on gas by doubling up in the car or van, and a player might occasionally bring a sleeping bag and camp out on another family’s hotel room floor if his own parents did not make the trip.  One way or another, we always made the season work.

 5) Consider outside sources.  Money can be tight, but alternative avenues are worth exploring. Rather than having all or part of the registration fee waived, some families may feel more comfortable with an installment payment plan.  Local businesses might be willing to sponsor a particular player identified by the board. If the sports association has an arrangement with the parks and recreation department or a local charitable foundation, these sources may already maintain scholarship programs for qualifying families whose children participate in sports or another extracurricular activity.          

The Beneficiaries of Inclusion

To finish the story that began this column, the laid-off father found new employment locally after a few months of uncertainty, and the family even paid a higher registration fee for the next two years to return the scholarship and help make assistance available to someone else.  His son continued playing hockey for several more years, and the family remained an asset to the association.  Few people knew what we had done, but the few who knew felt mighty good about it, and rightfully so.

The media occasionally reports about a youth sports league that goes a step beyond what our hockey association accomplished each year.  Sometimes with corporate or foundation support, the league outfits all players and charges no registration fee.  Like associations that perform what this column describes, these initiatives deserve respect and gratitude.

The immediate beneficiaries of scholarship programs are the youth leaguers who get the chance to play, but they are not the only beneficiaries. Parents also benefit because sports provides their children lifelong memories of victory and defeat shared with family and friends.  Board members benefit because they know they have done something worthwhile for a deserving youngster. The community benefits because lessons learned on the field help build solid citizens, many of whom remain in the community to raise families years later.


OBNOXIOUS SPORTS PARENTS: Don’t Make the Mistake of Making “Special Requests” at Sign-up Time

It’s that time of year when Moms and Dads are eagerly signing up their youngsters for spring sports…and when that happens, invariably lots of special requests and favors are being asked of the volunteers who run the registration desks. Requests like:

“Can you arrange to have my son be on the same team with Joey? They’re best friends…”

“My daughter has a full slate of activities each Saturday. Can you make sure she’s on a team that practices no later than 9 AM on Saturday?”

“My son really enjoyed playing for Coach Brown last year…can you make sure he’s on Coach Brown’s team again this year?”

You get the idea…everybody seems to have a very innocent and simple request. Problem is, the amount of requests go up every year to the point where the volunteers just can’t keep up. Remember – these are volunteers – friends and neighbors who are just trying to help out. They really aren’t there to help accomodate every favor that’s asked.


That policy should be spelled out in any correspondence that goes out in the pre-registration letters and it should be posted in bold letters at the registration desk.

In my opinion, we are becoming too much of a society of entitlement, and I believe a lot of this starts with our kids signing up for youth sports. And by the way — hey, coaches, just because you’re volunteering to coach your team doesn’t mean you’re entitled to any special perks either. You aren’t entitled to special treatment by the league, such as choosing your own team, having the best practice slot, choosing your game times, etc. The concerns with entitlement cuts both ways.

Bottom line? Let’s keep everything fair and square. As I said on my radio show this morning, there’s a very simple test when it comes to these issues…ask yourself, is this action fair for all the kids? If it isn’t fair, then it’s your obligation as a parent and adult to make sure the playing level is fair and level.

That’s the key…make sure it’s all fair. That’s all that the kids want.


Storming and Dogpiling:
The Perils of Uncontrolled Victory Celebrations In Youth Sports

Tragedy nearly struck Saturday afternoon at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina moments after the North CarolinaState men’s basketball team upset the No. 1-ranked Duke Blue Devils, 84-76.  At the final buzzer, a few hundred jubilant Wolfpack fans stormed the court to celebrate the dramatic victory.

One of the first fans to reach center court was N.C.State senior Will Privette, who was wheeled by a friend.  In the crush, Privette was quickly toppled from his wheelchair onto the floor, unable to move or escape the growing stampede.  Play-by-play announcer Dick Vitale appeared shaken by what he was watching.

After scoring 25 points to pace the victory, the Wolfpack’s C.J. Leslie saw the danger, elbowed his way through the growing throng, picked Privette up in his arms, and rescued him from being trampled.  Even though we know that Privette escaped injury thanks to the player’s quick thinking, the video is riveting to watch for what might have happened. (1:00);

Privette waited around after the game to thank Leslie “saving my life.”  The fan had plenty of reason to be thankful. (0:52).

“Storming” and “Dogpiling”

Saturday’s harrowing scene happened at the collegiate level, but its potentially grave consequences hold two lessons for youth league and high school sports programs, and not just in basketball.  The first lesson concerns “storming,” and the second concerns “dogpiling.”

Storming the court or storming the gridiron at the end of a game continues to be a tradition in sports such as basketball or football, where no barriers typically separate fans from the field.  The Sporting News has called storming incidents “invitations to riot” and “licensed madhouse celebrations,” fueled by “stampede pathology.” Flying objects can cause serious injury, and anyone who stumbles risks being crushed.  The “anyone” might be an older adult, a student such as Privette, or even a 10-year-old who gets swept up in the excitement.

Even when no fans storm from the stands at the end of a game, the winning team’s own celebration — commonly called “dogpiling” — holds similar dangers in sports like hockey, baseball and soccer.  We have all seen the pros and collegians pile on top of one another at the pitcher’s mound or the goal line to celebrate a big victory, and even the youngest kids like to imitate what they see on television.

“You Feel Like You’re Going to Get Killed”

Storming and dogpiling may look like innocent fun, but both come with real potential for permanent injury.  Sometimes the danger is not merely “potential,” but actual.  Press accounts report punches thrown, fans shoved to the ground, knee ligaments torn, skulls fractured, and other bones broken.

Perhaps the worst high school basketball storming incident occurred on February 6, 2004, moments after 18-year-old TucsonHigh School senior Joe Kay scored the game’s last points with a two-handed slam dunk to upset an archrival.  About 200 frenzied fans stormed the court to celebrate the victory, and one tackled the 6’6” Kay, the class valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar who was headed to StanfordUniversity on a full volleyball scholarship.  Kay suffered a broken jaw and a torn carotid artery, which caused a stroke that left him unable to speak and paralyzed on his right side. Joe Kay, wrote the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, was “the schoolboy hero one minute and the trampled victim the next.”

A night after Kay lay on the court bleeding, Stanford downed Arizona, 80-77, on a last-second shot by the Cardinals’ Nick Robinson.  Robinson described how it felt to be on the bottom of a crush of humanity when hundreds of fans stormed the court.  “I put my forearm and a hand over my face to make sure I could breathe. . . . One guy whose throat was pressed against my forearm was choking.”

New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte describes a similar reaction to his teammates’ dogpiling after a big game.  “I’ve been on the bottom,” he says, “and you feel like you’re going to get killed.  You’re screaming and trying to get people off you.”

Adults’ Responsibilities to Youth Leaguers

The Wall Street Journal reports that “[w]hen Duke [men’s basketball] loses on the road, the home team’s fans rush the court – almost every single time.” A website announced that thanks partly to Will Privette’s “bravery and hustle,” “N.C. State reaches the pinnacle of court-storming.”  Another website recently asked its followers to discuss whether “no storming the court hurt[s] UF [University of Florida] basketball enthusiasm.” The San Diego Union-Tribune dismisses dogpiling as “the collegiate baseball equivalent of a champagne shower celebration in the majors,” and collegiate coaches sometimes encourage dogpiling to motivate their players.

Professional and intercollegiate leagues can set their own standards and police conduct at their own games.  But storming and dogpiling, with their significant risk of injury to players and fans, call for a more protective response in youth leagues and interscholastic sports programs that adults conduct for the benefit of children.

In my own sport of hockey, storming is not an issue because the boards and glass separate spectators from the ice surface, but high school players and youth leaguers of all ages risk serious, avoidable injury when they dogpile after winning a game.  In the 5-8-year-old mites, 15 teammates amount to several hundred pounds on top of the goalie and whoever else lands on the bottom of the pile. Fifteen high school teammates, each weighing as much as 150 pounds or more, can total more than a ton of weight on the players at the bottom.  That’s a lot of weight in any sport, even ones whose players squirming for position do not wear skates with razor-sharp blades.

A Wise Investment of Time

According to a researcher who studies sports behavior, coaches sometimes overlook storming and dogpiling as acceptable traditions. “[C]oaches have so much else to worry about,” he says, that “they’re usually not going to spend 15 minutes going over the possible consequences of the dogpile.”  Because a youth coach’s first priority is to assure the safest possible playing environment, however, inattention is no excuse. Fifteen minutes, followed by meaningful season-long reinforcement, is a wise investment of time before injury strikes.

Interscholastic sports programs and youth leagues should take meaningful crowd-control measures to keep fans from rushing the field or court after the game, should fully and candidly explain the reason for the prohibition, and, if necessary, should arrange for security to enforce it. In sports that are prone to dogpiling following big victories, coaches should establish and enforce a no-dogpiling rule for their own teams.

In our youth hockey association, coaches from mites to high school found the no-dogpiling rule easy to administer.  The coaches would discuss the rule with players and parents before the first game of the season.  In the last minute or so of every game that we were going to win, the coaches would remind the players on the bench to “Go out and congratulate the goalie. Celebrate big-time.  Pat the goalie on the back, hug him if you want to, but stay on your feet.  No piling on.”

Parents and players did not feel that the no-dogpiling rule shortchanged anyone.  A few parents recalled that goalies destined for the bottom of the pile would sometimes skate away from teammates who were pursuing them at the end of big games, and now the parents understood why. A few parents even mentioned that they would discuss dogpiling with coaches in their children’s other sports.

Savoring a victory is an important part of sports, but the victory means just as much when teams celebrate safely.  Our team’s post-game celebrations were plenty spirited, but no player ever suffered an injury from seemingly innocent horseplay turned bad.

Last Saturday night’s near tragedy in Raleigh, North Carolina should be a wakeup call for decisionmakers in the youth leagues and school.  Benjamin Franklin was right: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  And the ugly scene in Raleigh, like the one in Tucson, Arizona a few years earlier, reminds us that the consequences of uncontrolled postgame celebrations sometimes have no cure.

[Sources: Nicole Auerbach, How C.J. Leslie Saved Wheelchair Court Stormer Will Privette, USA Today, Jan. 12, 2013; Dave Kindred, A Stampede Isn’t a Celebration, The Sporting News, Feb. 23, 2004, p. 64; Brent Zwerneman, Mad Dogpiles, San Antonio (Tex.) Express News, June 30, 2004, at 1C (quoting Andy Pettitte and Prof. Christian End); Steve Solloway, Storming the Court, and a Storm of Controversy, May 5, 2006, at D8; Storming the Court Is a Given After Beating Duke, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 14, 2013; Does No Storming the Court Hurt UF Basketball Enthusiasm?,;  Brian Floyd, N.C. State Reaches the Pinnacle of Court-Storming,]


SPORTSMANSHIP: Should All Coaches and Kids Be Forced to Speak English?

Celebrating Diversity in Youth Sports

 On December 8, two referees in Cooper City, Florida ejected a volunteer youth soccer coach from a game for instructing some of his 14-18-year-old players in Spanish.  The coach had refused to heed the refs’ instructions to speak only English.  The ejected coach later said that various referees had also tried to discourage players from speaking Spanish to one another during games.

The Cooper City story recalls a similar incident that took place in 2005 during a Little League state tournament game in Lakeville, Massachusetts. In the third inning of the semifinals, a Methuen assistant coach instructed his 14-year-old pitcher in Spanish to try to pick off a runner at second base.  The press reported that Methuen’s pitcher and catcher did not speak English fluently.

The umpire in Lakeville stopped the game, instructed the assistant coach to speak only English, and threatened to eject any player or coach heard speaking Spanish. Methuen manager Chris Mosher called the umpire’s instruction “sickening,” but he continued the game when the tournament director on the scene backed the umpire.

“It appears,” a Little League spokesman said afterwards, that “the umpire was concerned that the coach or manager may have been using a language other than English . . . to communicate potentially ‘illegal’ instructions to his players.” The umpire reportedly also thought that speaking a foreign language might give Methuen an unfair advantage.

In both Cooper City and Lakeville, embarrassed officials disavowed any English-only rule within a few days.  Little League International, which publishes its rule book in both English and Spanish, also instructed state officials to remove the Lakeville umpire from further games in the state tournament.

Participating in Mainstream American Culture

According to press reports, most of the Cooper City and Methuen youth leaguers spoke English, a few were bi-lingual, and a few recent arrivals relied on Spanish as they were learning English.  This breakdown is exactly what we would expect in towns with relatively small immigrant communities.

Disturbing incidents like the warnings in Cooper City and Lakeville likely happen rarely.  But they remind us about how youth sports can provide unique opportunities for youngsters of various backgrounds and life experiences to participate in mainstream American culture.

Just last week, for example, Jim Fennell wrote an excellent column in the New Hampshire Union Leader about Manchester Memorial High School’s basketball team, which includes players who emigrated to the United States as refugees from distressed African nations.  In May, CNN reported about a thoughtful San Diego youth soccer program whose players include refugees who have escaped strife in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, including children who (like some of the Methuen and Cooper City players) do not speak fluent English yet.

Forcing children to speak a language that they do not yet speak fluently — or else to risk exclusion from wholesome activities common to American childhood — serves no worthwhile purpose.  When children from diverse cultures play clean and follow the rules of the game, the nation wins when local sports programs enable them to participate with other children.

The Value of Inclusion

In a column last month, I encouraged leagues and teams to enroll children with disabilities. “To the maximum extent possible,” I said, programs “should permit children with disabilities to participate in sports with other children if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise other players’ safety.”

Disabilities and language barriers surely raise several distinct issues, but they also share these common themes grounded in mutual respect for individual differences: Children facing either barrier deserve a fair chance to play sports in accordance with their abilities, desires, and willingness to contribute to the team. Because sports is rightfully called “a microcosm of American society” and “one of the most powerful social forces in our country,” youth sports should look like America. The impulse to include, rather than exclude, children marks youth sports at its finest in the United States, whose national educational policy vows to “leave no child behind.”

Assessing the “Adultification” of Youth Sports

The broader question emerging from the Cooper City and Lakeville controversies is whether the “adultification” of youth sports sometimes hurts kids rather than helps them.  Until a few decades ago, children generally conducted their own games on local sandlots or playgrounds without adults calling the shots.  Today, of course, the landscape has changed and most sports for children is conducted by adults who create, incorporate, administer, outfit, coach and officiate “organized” leagues.

If the Cooper City soccer players and the Lakeville Little Leaguers were playing their own sandlot games rather than games conducted by adults, I doubt that any of the youngsters would have cared whether a few players spoke Spanish.  News reports do not suggest that any of the Cooper City or Lakeville kids cared.  Only some people over 18 cared, and they cared so much that they threatened to banish some children.

Multi-lingual games are as old as American youth sports. Only the foreign languages have changed from generation to generation.  The Cooper City and Lakeville stories remind me of an amusing story often told by Ralph Guzewicz, a popular history teacher at W. Tresper Clarke High School in Westbury, New York when I attended in the 1960s.  He told us that when he was a kid playing sandlot football (probably in the 1930s or 1940s), he and his neighborhood teammates would often call plays in Polish, knowing that the opposition would not understand what they were saying. “Mr. Guz” told the story with a smile and great relish — and in perfect English.

Different times.  Different foreign language.  Same story.

[Sources: Aurelio Moreno, Coach Speaks Spanish, Is Tossed: Cooper City Soccer League Says It Has No Such Rule, Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Dec. 21, 2012;  Assoc. Press, Ump Bans Mass. Team From Speaking Spanish, USA Today, July 29, 2005; Mark Zeigler, Ump Out – Told Massachusetts Little Leaguers: English Only, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 30, 2005; Jim Fennell, Memorial Hoop Is On a Crusade, New Hampshire Union Leader, Jan. 6, 2013; Kathleen Toner, Soccer Helping Young Refugees Find Footing in U.S., ]; Kenneth L. Shropshire, In Black and White: Race and Sports In America 16-19 (1996); Brian Lampman, Sport, Society, and Social Justice, in Learning Culture Through Sports 255, 257 (Sandra Spickard Prettyman & Brian Lampman eds., 2006);  No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425]

PUBLICIZING YOUR TEAM: Writing About Youth Sports in Letters to the Editor – Part II

 Writing About Youth Sports in Newspaper Letters-to-the-Editor (Part II)

Last week, Part I encouraged parents, coaches, and even youth leaguers themselves to write about youth sports in letters-to-the-editor to local, regional and national newspapers.  The article began sketching a roadmap to the editorial pages with five initial steps.  Part II now discusses how to polish and submit the letter, and it ends with a sample.

6.  Focus thinking.  Because newspapers generally restrict letters to a maximum of only about 200 words, the New York Times advises writers to “[m]ake one argument thoroughly, point by point; the more detail the better. . . . If you try to do too much, you can wind up . . . saying nothing.”

7.  Take a position. Letters appear on the opinion pages, so editors tend to favor statements of opinion rather than free-form essays. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, wants “vigorous, clear argumentation within the confines of the short essay – the voices of well-informed, opinionated citizens speaking to others in the widest possible forum.”

8.  Reason and passion. Letters-to-the-editor should speak forthrightly and with dignity.  Dignified writing does not mean toothless writing, but most newspapers reject letters laden with innuendo, insults, sarcasm, or defamation. “It’s fair to criticize the ideas or arguments of others,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch instructs, “but we don’t allow name-calling.”  Letters that spew venom and bile usually get a quick “delete” because busy editorial staffs do not have the time or inclination to phone writers and negotiate about civility.

Youth sports often engages passions, and letter writers sometimes react in the heat of the moment. A brief “cooling-off period” may allow reason to temper passion. If you sense that your draft letter skates near the edge, ask a spouse, friend or colleague to review it for tone and content. Even if the letter seems finished late in the day, sleep on it overnight before hitting the “Send” key. Anything the newspaper’s editorial staff can do with the letter late in the afternoon, it can do first thing the next morning.

9.  Public interest.  Letters reach hundreds or thousands of readers, and editors have a feel for what will strike a chord with their mass audience.  A submitted letter does not stand much chance of publication, for example, if it merely tries to score points about a private spat between a parent and a coach.

 10.  Good writing and brevity. The Chicago Tribune advises that letters that are “succinct rather than rambling, and that are factually accurate, stand the best chance of being selected for publication.” Papers normally reserve the right to edit for length, accuracy or clarity, but editors may recoil from doing a major rewrite. Rejection is easier.

“The writing must be clear and accessible to the general reader,” says the Wall Street Journal. Proper grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax are essential.

Brevity is best. The Boston Globe, for example, advises that “[t]he best way to increase the chance of having your letter chosen is to make it timely, original, and short!” “Be ready to be edited,” warns the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Our first concern is to preserve the essential voice, style, and viewpoint of each author, but . . . [s]pace wins every time.”

Even if a newspaper imposes a 200-word maximum limit on letters, writers who weigh in at, say, 150 words improve their chances of publication. Brevity also helps engage the paper’s readers, who might scan the editorial pages while they are on the go, unable to devote undivided attention for very long. The prime goal of any writer is to finish before the reader finishes.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch founder Joseph Pulitzer stated four ground rules for newspaper writing: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”

11. Cutting for brevity.  The newspaper’s maximum word limit requires self-discipline. Even for writers thrilled by the sound of their keyboards and the sight of their words, cutting usually improves initial drafts. This 23-word sentence, for example, might open a draft letter about youth sports: “It is with great disappointment that I read about the decision of the city council to reduce the budget of the parks department.” Cutting this bloated sentence in half is easy:

Delete “throat-clearing.” Nobody cares about the writer’s great disappointment, and everybody knows that the writer read about the budget cutting. Get to the point: “The decision of the city council to reduce the budget of the parks department is wrong.” The sentence now consists of 16 words, but why stop here?

Use possessives: “The city council’s decision to reduce the parks department’s budget is wrong.” Twelve words and still counting down.

Keep cutting: “The city council is wrong to reduce the parks department’s budget.” Final sentence: 11 words, less than half the original length. The writer now has 12 more words to bolster the argument later in the letter.  The result is clearer and more readable, and writer and reader both win.

12. The supporting materials. A submitted letter begins “Dear Editor” and requires no other cover letter. The writer’s introductory paragraph, however, should crisply summarize the earlier article or event that prompts the letter. Readers may not immediately recall it, but lengthy summaries unnecessarily consume the newspaper’s tight word limit.

Most newspapers require the letter writer’s name as it should appear in the paper, plus the writer’s mailing address, email address, and phone numbers. This identifying information enables the editorial staff to call and verify the writer’s authorship, and perhaps also to seek needed clarifications. Newspapers usually do not publish the writer’s identifying information, except for the hometown.

Below the writer’s name and contact information, the submission should include a one-sentence statement of the writer’s credentials, if they are relevant to the letter’s subject (for example, “Sam Smith is president of the X Youth Soccer League.”) Even if the paper does not publish the statement beneath the letter, the statement may lend an aura of expertise that impresses the editorial staff who screen submissions. For a distant newspaper, recite a connection to the newspaper’s market area if possible.

13. Persistence pays.  Newspapers reject plenty of publishable letters for reasons unrelated to quality or content.  The paper, for example, may recently have run letters on the writer’s topic and may now seek commentary on other issues. The paper simply may not have room for today’s letter.

If the letter concerns incidents likely to happen again (such as acts of parental violence or acts of sportsmanship), save the letter for resubmission next time, when space limits and other circumstances might be different. Newspaper letter writing may require patience and perseverance following initial rejection. As a successful writer named William Shakespeare said, “all’s well that ends well.”

Joining the Discussion About Youth Sports

“[G]ood letters to the editor,” says CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer, “are indeed widely read by public-opinion molders, and they’re very significant.”  One blogger acknowledges that “[a] published letter to the editor probably has 1,000 times the readership and impact of a comment on a blog.”  Journalists regularly report that “[l]etters are one of the most popular, widely read parts of the newspaper because people like to know what their neighbors are thinking.”

Letter writers continue to compete for space on the nation’s editorial pages because they know that readers pay attention. Coaches, parents, and youth leaguers can make their voices heard with letters that help shape discussion about youth sports.

* * *

A Sample Letter

To illustrate what newspapers look for, here is my 85-word letter that appeared in the Kansas City Star in June of 2011, soon after the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga pitched his near-perfect game, which was spoiled only when the first base umpire erroneously called the 27th Cleveland Indians hitter safe after an infield grounder, an error that the umpire later acknowledged.  (The letter evidently did not persuade any baseball writers or anyone in Major League Baseball!).

“To the editor:

 Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga deserves serious consideration for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.

With his graceful reaction to the umpire’s admittedly incorrect ninth-inning call that deprived him of a perfect game and baseball immortality earlier this month, Galarraga set a sterling example of sportsmanship and respect for the game that will itself grow immortal.

After years of steroids scandals and other embarrassments, nothing could be more valuable to Major League Baseball than that.

Douglas E. Abrams


[Sources: Douglas E. Abrams, Trading In the Marketplace of Ideas: Letters-to-the Editor and Op-Ed Articles – Parts I and II, Precedent (The Missouri Bar’s quarterly magazine) (Fall 2008 and Winter 2009); David Firestone, Israel Occupies the Op-Eds, Newsday, Jan. 11, 1988, at 3; John K. Wilson, How to Write a Letter to the Editor, (Aug. 3, 2008); Wanted: Pen Pals With Opinions, Dallas Morning News, Jan. 5, 2005, at 4B]

SPORTSMANSHIP: Why Do Basketball Coaches Allow Lopsided Scores

It’s become so routine that the final scores no longer shock sports fans.

It happens in all sports, but it really has become an issue primarily in HS basketball, both in boys and girls.

I’m talking about routs. Lopsided scores. Recent games have included final c0unts of 107-2, 100-0, and other ridiculous scores. Even at the collegiate level, when Jack Taylor of Grinnell College recently scored 138 points in a game against Faith Baptist Bible College, Grinnell won by more than 70 points.

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