Archive for October, 2013

RUNNING UP THE SCORE: Bullying…or a Lack of Sportsmanship?


Memo to Sports Parents: 

How To Hurt Bullied Schoolchildren

By Doug Abrams 

On Friday night October 18, the powerhouse Aledo Bearcats improved their league-leading record to 7-0 by blanking the winless Western Hills Cougars, 91-0, in Texas 4-A high school football.  A lopsided final score from Aledo’s stadium normally would not make news outside the state – or perhaps even inside much of the state because the Bearcats had blown out opponents all season. They were averaging nearly 70 points a game and had won each week by at least 41 points.

The Western Hills contest attracted national attention, however, for what happened after the game.  In a formal written complaint filed with the Aledo school district, a Western Hills father charged Aledo coach Tim Buchanan with bullying the entire losing team. The father (who remained unnamed in the media) praised the winning players for their sportsmanship, but charged that “[w]e all witnessed bullying firsthand, it is not a pretty sight.” “Picking up my son from the fieldhouse after the game and taking him home was tough,” the complaint continued. “I did not know what to say . . . to explain the behavior of the Aledo coaches for not easing up when the game was in hand.”

Never mind that Buchanan appears to have eased up by playing his second- and third-stringers beginning in the second quarter, and by agreeing to a running clock in the second half.  Never mind that no other Western Hills parent filed a bullying complaint. Never mind that no one could recall any legislator or school official, in Texas or anywhere else, ever suggest linking bullying to the score of a game. And never mind too that even Western Hills coach John Naylor did not fault Buchanan, whose squad, he said, “just plays hard. . .  . They’re number one for a reason . . . . And they’re good sports . . . . [T]hat’s the way football is supposed to be played in Texas.”           

Texas law requires public school districts to investigate every formal written bullying complaint. The Aledo district investigated this one, and found (as they should have) that the disappointed father’s complaint was baseless.

Educators, coaches, fans and others can discuss possible reasons and remedies for lopsided scores in football and other interscholastic sports. Football scores of 91-0 do not happen out of the blue, so perhaps Aledo and Western Hills should not have landed in the same division. Perhaps they should not have faced one another. Perhaps (and this is hotly debated) leagues should adopt formal mercy rules that accelerate or end games when the score gets out of hand. Questions concerning lopsided scores deserve close attention from schools, coaches and league officials, particularly in contact and collision sports such as football, where mismatches can pose serious safety concerns.

I am not writing here to explore reasons, remedies or mismatches, however.  The frustrated father’s ill-conceived bullying complaint carries serious potential dangers that transcend one football game and interscholastic sports generally. This father recklessly trivialized efforts by Texas legislators and public school authorities to combat true bullying and cyberbullying, which victimizes nearly half the nation’s elementary and secondary students before they graduate.  If written complaints like this one spread to other states, the real losers will be genuinely victimized students who sit in America’s classrooms each year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies the epidemic of school bullying and cyberbullying as a “serious public health problem,” a realistic assessment echoed by the American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health. According to clinicians and medical researchers, “bullying” occurs when a student or group of students repeatedly cause intentional physical or emotional harm to another student in a relationship marked by imbalance in physical or emotional power.  The harm may come from physical assault, words, ostracism, teasing or some combination. “Cyberbullying” occurs when students repeatedly target victims with threats, rumors, gossip or insults through email, instant messaging, blogs, cell phones, social networking sites, and even websites featuring the victim.

The “serious public health problem” makes the bruised egos of a football player and his father after a loss seem inconsequential, doesn’t it?

“Bullycide” and “Cyberbullycide”

Bullied and cyberbullied students typically face genuine physical and emotional scarring unknown to football players who happen to leave the gridiron some Friday night on the short end of a lopsided score. Students who are socially isolated or afflicted with special mental health needs offer particular targets for bullies. So too may children who attract attention for such reasons as race, ethnicity, gender or perceived sexual orientation, physical or emotional disability, obesity, small size, or lack of social skills. Researchers even report a link between bullying and children with special physical health needs such as speech or language impairment, vision problems, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes or muscular dystrophy.  

Bullying victims may display psychosomatic symptoms resembling ones suffered by many child abuse victims, including sleep disturbances, bedwetting, abdominal pain, anxiety and depression, loneliness, low self-esteem and heightened fear for personal safety.  Victimscan also suffer school phobia, increased truancy, or impaired concentration and classroom achievement.  They may be at greater risk of dropping out of school before graduation, and may suffer lifelong emotional scars.

Worse yet, depression and suicidal thoughts appear common among nine- to thirteen-year-old victims. A rash of recent suicides have led medical and educational professionals speak about “bullycide” and “cyberbullycide.”  

A Fragile Consensus

Here is the real danger posed by trivial complaints such as the one filed by the Western Hills father. By inviting derision, they can provide a rationale for trivializing real bullying, an outcome that would leave vulnerable and fragile students exposed to unchecked physical and emotional intimidation.

Statutes in virtually every state require local school boards to adopt written anti-bullying policies and implement bullying prevention curricula. The near universal state legislation demonstrates an emerging national consensus that bullying inhibits learning by compromising victims’ physical and emotional security as they try to get through the day. Students cannot learn effectively when their stomachs churn and they must watch over their shoulders.

In some cities and towns, however, the emerging national consensus remains fragile because implementing anti-bullying policies and curricula costs money that some taxpayers resent spending. Resistant taxpayers do not need much excuse to advocate return to the traditional “kids will be kids” attitude, which dismissed bullying as an ultimately harmless rite of passage that students would outgrow after “toughing it out.”  Some observers even argued that bullying helps prepare its victims for the rough-and-tumble of the “real world.” 

If parents in football and other sports now begin filing similar irresponsible copycat complaints in other states after one-sided losses, many true bullying victims might lose public support for whatever protections their schools might offer them. Why support public spending to remedy a problem that we snickered about after today’s football game? The prospect of diminished public support threatens collateral damage far more universal, and far more severe, than losing an otherwise forgettable gridiron matchup.

Rules and Escape

In Texas and elsewhere, state anti-bullying statutes do not regulate interscholastic sports for a perfectly good reason – no matter how one-sided the game, the final score bears no resemblance to bullying or cyberbullying.  For one thing, bullies and cyberbullies play by no rules, but the essence of sports is that neutral game officials enforce the rulebook evenhandedly in a controlled environment. 

Victims of bullying and cyberbullying also cannot easily escape their plight. A stronger bully may corner a weaker victim in a secluded hallway or elsewhere on school grounds that permits no way out. Cyberbullying is even worse. “If someone is picking on you in the school yard, you can go home,” said the mother of a 13-year-old Virginia boy who committed suicide with a shotgun after cyberbullies taunted him about his small size and dared him to kill himself for more than a month. “When it’s on the computer at home, you have nowhere to go.”

Athletes, however, can readily escape defeat by not trying out for the team, by quitting the team, or by not playing in games whose scores may turn out lopsided.  In the hit movie, Hoosiers, high school coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) was right when he told his players that “[b]asketball is a voluntary activity; it’s not a requirement.”    


High school athletes tend to hold a circle of friends, but bullying or cyberbullying victims have few places to turn. The vulnerability of these victims increases when a parent sullies serious anti-bullying initiatives with a nonsensical, and rightfully ridiculed, complaint such as the one the disappointed father filed in Texas.


[Douglas E. Abrams, A Coordinated Public Response to School Bullying, in Our Promise: Achieving Educational Equity for America’s Children (Carolina Academic Press 2009),; Douglas E. Abrams, Bullying as a Disability in Public Elementary and Secondary Education,  Missouri Law Review, volume 77, page 781 (2012),]





ABUSIVE COACHES: Holding Coaches Accountable for their Behavior is a Welcome New Trend

There’s a new trend popping up about coaches.

In short, ever since the antics of Mike Rice, the former men’s basketball coach at Rutgers, was caught on videotape, more and more coaches at the HS and college levels have fallen  under the scrutiny of their athletic directors.

And that’s a good thing.

Why? Because while I fully support coaches and the challenges they face on a daily basis, there really is no reason for any coach to ever overstep the boundary of sensitivity to one’s players.

Consider, for example, that in recent weeks that the head women’s basketball coach resigned due to a history of saying inappropriate things to his players. In short, Coach Keith Brown was too much in the face of his athletes. And at Holy Cross, Bill Gibbbons, the long-time women’s basketball coach, is being sued by one of his former players who claims that he was verbally and physically abusive to her and the rest of the women on the team.

Then there’s the case of a HS varsity football coach in Rockland County, NY, who was so irritated by one of his players that he allegedly struck him in the face with a football helmet. That coach was relieved of his duties and arrested and charged.

The point is – there have been bad coaches for a long, long time, but now, we’re beginning to see a trend where these coaches are finally being confronted and being held accountable for their actions. In the past, coaches were usually let go solely based upon their won-loss record: there was usuallyu little discussion about how well or poorly they treated their athletes.

But now, whether it’s because of the Mike Rice case, or because parents are asking more questions, or even because coaches themselves are becoming aware that they need to be transparent and sensitive to the needs of their players, the so-called bad coaches are coming under greater scutiny.

Let’s face it – coaches still want to instill a sense of discipline in their teams, and they still want to motivate their players to a higher level of efficiency. That may indeed involve a raising of one’s voice to get a point across. But the days of grabbing a kid by the jersey, or getting in their face with a torrent of profanities is not only not acceptable, but it will also turn a kid and the rest of the team away from you.

I was heartened to see that so many callers today also agree that this new trend – of holding coaches responsible for their behavior —  is a good thing. Once upon a time, the ways of Bobby Knight were not only accepted but also applauded. Thankfully, those days are long gone.

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: The Question that Parents Need to Confront


                                                             By Steve Kallas

 The debate has been swirling now for a number of years.  With the recent publication of the book, League of Denial, and, more importantly (for our purposes), the Frontline documentary of the same name, a more intelligent discussion can, in this writer’s opinion, be had on the subject.

 While the book summarizes all that has happened in the last few decades, the Frontline piece brings it more to life, with more of a focus on young people playing football.


 Well, virtually everybody knows the problem by now.  With the discovery (in 2002) of Dr. Bennet Omalu that Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Fame center Mike Webster had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”), a disease of the brain that can only be discovered at death, the door was opened to a whole new area of research.  The pounding that Webster had taken over the years in the trenches for the Steelers had eventually led to a great decline in his mental faculties and contributed to his death at the age of 50.  

 While alive, Webster was examined by multiple doctors, including at least one NFL handpicked neurologist, as he eventually battled for an NFL disability claim.  These doctors, including the NFL doctor, concluded that Webster suffered irreparable brain damage from the repeated blows to the head that he took during his storied playing career.  He was compared by some doctors with boxers who had been diagnosed in the past with dementia pugilistica or, as it was known as far back as the 1920s, “punch-drunk” syndrome.  Boxers would be the first athletes to be diagnosed with CTE.   

 Unfortunately, and this is beyond the scope of this article, the NFL, in effect, went out of its way to minimize, or even refute, the science behind the discoveries in Mike Webster’s brain and those of many other former NFL players.  It got so bad that Representative Linda Sanchez of California, during Congressional hearings into the concussion/CTE issue in 2009, analogized the action of the NFL to that of the tobacco companies a generation ago (you know, cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer).


 The parents of a young child (6, 8, 10, 12 year olds) are really the ones who have to make this decision until they feel that their child can understand and contribute to the discussion.  While this writer would never think to tell a parent what to do (he has a son and daughter of his own), the following is meant to lay the groundwork for an informed decision that only a parent (or guardian) can make for a child.


 While the answer seems to be yes, and to some neuropathologists, like Dr. Ann McKee, the answer is clear, some critics say various things like: you have to consider “other things,” like steroid use or alcohol abuse or why do some players get it and others don’t, etc.

 The problem with the questions is, can a parent wait to find out if the Dr. McKees of the world, despite some overwhelming (to this writer) evidence that she is right, is really wrong?

 You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.

 Dr. McKee, who has looked at thousands of brains throughout her career, has examined the brains of 46 NFL players who died, some by suicide, some who were mentally and cognitively impaired at the time of their death and some whose brains were donated by concerned families.

 Of the 46 brains that she has looked at, 45 had signs of CTE.

 Obviously, a scary percentage.


 Many are familiar with famous NFL names like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, two former NFL stars who committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest.  Duerson left a note specifically asking his family to have his brain examined.  Seau did not leave a note but many believe that he did not shoot himself in the head in order to have his brain studied as well.

 Both men were diagnosed with CTE.

 But who was Owen Thomas?  Thomas was a hard-hitting lineman who played his college football at the University of Pennsylvania.  He had played football since he was nine years old and had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

 When he committed suicide by hanging at the age of 21 in 2010, Dr. McKee examined his brain, never expecting to find what she found: an advanced case of CTE.  In Dr. McKee’s words, “that changes the game for me.”  Now having to consider “sub-concussive” hits (that is, hits that don’t cause a concussion that happen all the time in any football game) as a possible cause of CTE, McKee said on Frontline:    

               “Those sub-concussive hits, those hits that don’t even rise to the

                  level of what we call a concussion or symptons, just playing the

                  game can be dangerous.”


Who was Eric Pelly?  Pelly was an 18-year old senior in high school, a straight A student who played multiple sports (a little bit about sports other than football later).  Pelly loved ice hockey and football (he wanted to play for the Steelers), and played those two sports as well as rugby.

 Ten days after suffering his fourth concussion, on October 10th 2006, Eric Pelly died.  When Dr. McKee looked at his brain, she was petrified, as she too had an 18-year old.  Dr. McKee found signs of CTE in Eric Pelly’s brain.  She said, clearly upset on Frontline as she was recounting her examination:

               “you know that, that brain [of an 18-yesr old] is supposed to be

                 pristine.  The fact that it [CTE] was there and he was only playing

                 high school level sports, I mean, I think that’s a cause for concern.”

 These are the two cases (but only two, some would say) that parents should at least think about when making decisions about their young child. .


 These are all very valid points and many scientists warn that there should be patience and more studies and more knowledge and information before drawing rock solid conclusions.

 But here’s the problem:  If you have a young child and have to make that decision NOW or NEXT SEASON, can you really afford to wait?  Can you really expect the NFL, with all of their new initiatives, to help you and your child?

 Shouldn’t you err on the side of caution?

 What happens if you decide that (despite all the studies and conclusions of Dr. McKee and many others and despite the fact that, maybe, the NFL is turning around after many years of what many (including this writer) believe was a cover-up if not intentionally misleading studies and findings) you’re going to let your young child play tackle football at [you fill in the age].  And then two or four or six years from now, it becomes conclusive that all this pounding causes CTE in a certain percentage of players (and you can fill in that percentage: 10, 20, 50, 5).

 Won’t you be the one who would never forgive yourself for risking your child’s health and mental well-being? 


 Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the leading neurosurgeons and concussion researchers on the planet, strongly believes that no child under the age of 14 should play tackle football.  On Frontline, Dr. Cantu said:

               “With what we know about the youth brain compared with the

                 adult brain, that it’s easily more disrupted than the adult brain,

                 the youth brain is lighter in weight so it has less inertia to put it

                  in motion.”


                “So you cap a youth head [hitting himself on the side of the head]

                 whose brain moves much quicker than a adult brain, it’s [the adult

                 brain is heavier and therefore has more inertia.  So I think we

                 should be treating youths differently.”               

 Harry Carson is an intelligent Hall of Fame linebacker who has studied the issue of concussions and mental issues for the last two decades.  On Frontline, Carson said:

               “From a physical risk standpoint, you know what you are doing

                when you sign your kid up; that he can hurt his knee, OK.  But

                what you should know now is, your child could develop a brain

                injury as a result of playing football.”   


               “It’s not just on the pro level, it’s on every level of football.  The

                 question is, do you want it to be your child? 


 Well, while the problem, according to high school studies, is most prevalent in football, there are other sports where concussions and brain trauma are a problem.  In order, after football, the most dangerous sports in terms of high school concussions are:  boy’s ice hockey, boy’s lacrosse, girl’s lacrosse, girl’s soccer, girl’s field hockey and boy’s wrestling.

 So, obviously, in 2013, this conversation is not limited solely to football.


 Dr. McKee, an avid Packers fan who comes from a football family, clearly is scared by what the future holds, despite saying that “I don’t feel that I am in a position to make a proclamation for everyone else,,” when asked if she had children 8-, 10-, or 12-years old would she let them play football and, when she said no, asked why, she said:


                “Because the way football’s being played currently, that I’ve seen,

                  it’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous and it could impact their long term

                  mental health.  You’d only get one brain.  The thing you want your

                  kids to do, most of all, is succeed in life and be everything they can

                  be and if there’s anything that may infringe that, that may limit that,

                   I don’t want my kids doing it.”

 Parents, the ball is in your court.






OBNOXIOUS SPORTS PARENTS: Should the Kids Be Penalized when their Parents are out-of-control?


Disciplining Parental Misconduct in Youth Sports

By Doug Abrams


Seven-year-old goalie Sabastian Elliott of Hamilton, Ontario will play hockey this winter after all. Citing misconduct last February by his mother Melissa Elliott, the Rosedale Minor Hockey Association rejected the family’s application to re-enroll. The boy will now skate with another association about a 25-minute drive from the Elliotts’ home.

CBC News reports that on February 17, Melissa Elliott instigated an on-ice protest by her 17-year-old daughter, Terry-Lynn, and some other players on the girl’s midget team.  Officials reduced the length of the team’s game because the preceding midget contest ran overtime after some spectators rushed onto the ice during a bench-clearing brawl.  When officials instructed Terry-Lynn’s team to return to the dressing room after their abbreviated game, Melissa Elliott in the stands shouted at the girl and her teammates to stay on the ice, which they did. The Rosedale association suspended mother and daughter for the rest of the season.

Speaking about the association’s refusal to re-enroll Sabastian this year, its president told CBC News that Melissa Elliott “was the one who stirred the pot that evening by keeping [the team] on the ice.  If parents act up, unfortunately the poor kid pays the price.”  The mother responded that her son asked, “I’ve done nothing wrong, mom. Why can’t I play hockey with my friends?”

Personal Accountability and Best Interests

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of Rosedale’s verdict on the Elliotts, this week’s Ontario news story invites discussion about how youth sports associations should discipline unruly parents, the troublesome few who threaten to spoil fun and fulfillment for the many. The threat does not confine itself to one sport, one age group, or one community. No association should consider itself immune from parental unruliness these days.

During my 11 years as president of a mid-Missouri youth hockey association, our bylaws contained a protocol for hearings to discipline disruptive parents.  The disciplinary hearing committee consisted of the entire board of directors, minus any board members who disqualified themselves in a particular case because of the parties or the charges involved.

The protocol applied to decisions whether to re-enroll a family for the upcoming season based on its prior track record, the issue that surfaced recently in Hamilton.  The protocol also applied to parental misconduct that occurred once the season began.  This column concerns our disciplinary protocol, which depended on two related principles – individual accountability for wrongdoing, and concern for all players and their families.

“Individual accountability” meant that each parent remains primarily responsible for his or her own wrongdoing. A child may mimic the parents or remain silent, but the child is normally bears no responsibility for the elders’ misconduct. Unless the player deserved a share of the blame in the particular case, our association’s board of directors strained to discipline a wayward parent with measures that would not diminish the player’s standing in the program. Sanctioning a wrongdoing parent is one thing; needlessly hurting the blameless child is quite another because youth sports serves the youth, and not their elders. We stood ready to suspend or dismiss a family from the association only as a last resort, but fortunately we never had to go that far. 

“Concern for all players and their families” meant that, with the nearest youth hockey association more than 100 miles away, making a youngster pay the price for the parent’s antics would likely have ended the player’s career.  Unlike Sabastian Elliott, our players did not have another association 25 minutes down the road.  

But all means all. We recognized that a small number of troublesome parents – indeed, sometimes even one – can sour the experiences of the majority of players and their families, become cancers in the association, or embarrass or otherwise damage the association. I know some wholesome parents who hesitate to bring their younger children to games in various local sports to shield them from what some other parents do or say in the stands. I also know some dedicated volunteer coaches who grow tired of spending the bulk of their hockey time corralling one or two parents. The majority deserves protection from the minority’s excesses, even if protection means a family’s long term suspension or removal in an extreme case.

The “Least Restrictive Remedy”

Here is how our association responded to cases of parental misconduct:

Regardless of whether the alleged misconduct involved a course of conduct or a one-time incident, the board of directors sometimes began with informal discussion that might spare the child needless embarrassment. The board would delegate a member to notify the parent about the complaint or charge, engage in a mutual give-and-take, and decide whether to proceed further. On more than one occasion, the parent already regretted what happened and the parent’s understanding resolved the matter in ways that produced no recurrence.

If the board had a sanction in mind (such as suspending the parent from the rink for a game or two), it might close the matter if the parent accepted the sanction. If the charges seemed too serious for informal discussion (or if the discussion produced no satisfactory resolution), the board would swiftly schedule a hearing, while memories were still fresh and the final decision would be most meaningful.  The parent could also request a hearing.

Disciplinary hearings proceeded in two stages.  The first stage sought to ascertain whether the parent violated the program’s bylaws, rules or regulations.  Evidence typically included statements from witnesses, and from the accused parents if they wished to be heard. The board often emerged with a better understanding after listening to both sides of the story. Because the association instructed coaches to provide each player full and fair participation in practices and games, for example, parental outbursts might seem less serious when we learned that the coach had consigned the player to chronic benchwarmer status without our having noticed.   

If the board found a violation, the hearing’s second stage decided what to do about it.  Here is where the core principles – personal accountability, and concern for all players and their families – assumed center stage. The board would try to fashion a remedy that would sanction the wrongdoing in the way least restrictive on the family, and particularly on the player.  The remedy might require an apology from the parent to others involved.  A more restrictive remedy might suspend the offending parent from the rink for one or more practice sessions or one or more games. (A short suspension might work if the other spouse could transport the child, but perhaps not if the offender was a single parent could not otherwise get the child to the rink.)  

The most restrictive remedy – the family’s long term suspension or complete removal, both of which happened in Rosedale – might be appropriate in extreme cases because of the magnitude of the offense and its effect on other players and families, the parent’s past failures to respond to less restrictive measures, or the parent’s continued non-cooperation. The board handled these extreme remedies gingerly lest the normally innocent player be left as collateral damage.        


Imposing discipline is the least savory aspect of being a youth league coach or administrator.  I much preferred to teach, instruct and lead players while enjoying harmony with parents who got along with one another and respected sportsmanship and camaraderie. I did not relish confrontation, but occasional discipline went with the territory. Disciplinary proceedings carefully calibrated to the offense are an important part of youth sports, for the sake of all the families who play by the rules and seek a wholesome experience from their children’s sports.


[Hockey Mom’s Spat With League Leads to Ban of 7-Year-Old Son, CBC News, Oct. 3, 2013; Kaleigh Rogers, Banned Seven-Year-Old Hockey Player Finds New Place to Play, CBC News, Oct. 18, 2013,]

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: Tough Decisions for Sports Parents whose Kids want to play contact sports

In light of the tremendous PBS/Frontline show on concussions that aired last week, I thought it was appropriate to once again ask the question of sports parents:

In light of what we now know about the dangers of concussions, what are you going to advise when your youngster wants to sign up for youth tackle football….or ice hockey…or soccer…or any other contact sport?”

Steve Kallas was my guest this AM, and of all the thoughtful insights he had, I thought he pinpointed the issue quite succinctly when he paraphrased NFL Hall of Famer Harry Carson who offered that — and I’m paraphrasing here – -“that parents know that their kids run the risk of a serious knee injury when they sign up for football, but nowhere until now have parents had to be aware that kids also run the risk of serious long-term brain damage or even death from concussions.”

It’s scary stuff. And even worse, parents today don’t really have any roadmaps on this one. It’s really unchartered territory.

Below, I have tried to present some of the highlights from the Frontline show, as well as from some of  the other radio shows I have done with Chris Nowinski, Dr. Robert Cantu, Steve Kallas, Doug Abrams, and others on concussions:

NO FOOTBALL HELMET OF ANY KIND CAN PREVENT A CONCUSSION. This comes directly from Dr. Cantu, who insists that despite all the new models being introduce onto the market, no helmet can prevent concussions. That’s something all parents need to understand.

THE BEST HELMETS CARRY A SOBERING WARNING. Look at your kids’s football helmet. Most feature fine print on the back of the helmet which warns players that “playing football can lead to serious injury including paralysis or death, and if you don’t want to risk that, then don’t play football.”

I’m paraphrasing here, but that is pretty close to the message that’s posted. Not exactly reassuring to a kid playing football.

INSURANCE PREMIUMS ARE GOING TO SKYROCKET. As insurance companies begin to realize that concussion claims are only going to rise dramatically, they are going to start raising their premiums. At some point, local HS football teams won’t be able to handle those costs, and will try to pass them along to the parents. Don’t be surprised if parents balk at this. Or, HS will ask parents to sign a waiver of liability.

The point is, it won’t be long until you see more and more HS begin to give up on football programs as it’s just too expensive from an insurance perspective.

EVEN YOUNG KIDS ARE VULNERABLE. As one caller pointed out, there are already medical studies out there which show that kids under the age of 12 who play tackle football are vulnerable to repeated hits. And it’s the repeated hits to the head, even if they seem minor to a parent, which can cause real trouble down the line.

This is one reason why Dr. Cantu suggests that if kids DO decide to play football, they should wait until they are at least 14 years old.

IT’S JUST NOT THE NFL. In discussing with Steve this AM, we tried to dismiss the myth that parents have that it’s only the NFL players who suffer dementia or death from concussions. We pointed to two young people – Owen Thomas, a lineman from the Univ of Penn, who killed himself while still in college. AN autopsy on the kid showed CTE, which is solid evidence of brain damage, even though he had never been depressed or complained of a concussion.

And then there was Eric Pelly, an 18-year-old from Pittsburgh, who played football, ice hockey, and rugby. He had endured a few concussions from those sports, but it was after suffering a serious concussion playing rugby in his senior year in HS that he died from his head injury.

And don’t forget from the world of ice hockey. Pat LaFontaine had to stop playing in the NHL because of serious concussions. Same with Eric Lindros, just to name two top players.

BOTTOM LINE: These are difficult times for parents to help guide their kids through contact sports. Concussions need to be taken seriously. Parents and coaches, you need to sit down and think this through carefully.

SPORTSMANSHIP: Kentucky’s Gaffe — The Importance of Communicating Clearly


What Coaches and Parents Can Learn From Kentucky’s Directive About Post-Game Handshakes

By Doug Abrams 

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association, the body that oversees the state’s interscholastic sports, made national and international headlines last Tuesday. KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett issued a confusing directive that seemed to question the wisdom of traditional post-game handshake lines. The directive explained that fights and other physical conflicts often break out when players line up to acknowledge one another after hard-fought contests in Kentucky and throughout the nation. USA Today reported that in the Bluegrass State alone, nearly two dozen disruptive incidents have included “punches being thrown during a postgame volleyball handshake, soccer players tripping over one another in a handshake line and football players throwing helmets.” 

Observers could not agree last Tuesday about what the KHSAA directive meant. According to one news outlet, the directive was “universally interpreted as a ban on post-game handshakes.” The Louisville Courier-Journal reported, however, that the directive only “recommended” that member school districts end the handshake tradition. USA TODAY said that the directive “threatened” the tradition without mandating discontinuance. The Los Angeles Times concluded that the directive permitted member school districts to continue post-game handshakes lines, but warned that the districts remain responsible for maintaining safety and decorum.

More Important Than the Outcome

Within a day, segments on ESPN Sports Center, Good Morning America, and other national broadcast news outlets produced near universal criticism of the KHSAA from people who took the directive as a ban on post-game handshake lines.  At least two Kentucky school districts announced that they would continue handshake lines as before. “Teaching our students to win and lose graciously,” the Jefferson County district said in a statement, “are life lessons that we hope and expect coaches to embrace. . . . “[V]ery few of our students will be college and professional athletes. However, ALL of them need to be able to demonstrate character at crucial times.” The Fayette County district athletic director concurred that post-game handshakes teach athletes how play with “dignity” and “class.”  

As Rick Wolff said on Sunday’s show, criticism of the KHSAA spread across the nation. The Illinois High School Association, for example, issued a statement calling post-game handshakes “a valuable tradition that helps provide perspective to participants that the value of participation is more important than the outcome of the event.”

Facing a growing firestorm, KHSAA Commissioner Tackett announced that the “poorly worded” directive had produced unfortunate “miscommunication.” His swift clarification said that “[s]chools continue to have the option to have postgame handshakes” because playing rules and KHSAA regulations neither mandate nor forbid the tradition.

The clarification stressed that local option confers local responsibility. At the end of games, referees and other officials will “quickly and efficiently” leave the playing facility because they bear no responsibility for supervising the handshake line. Handshakes “must be closely monitored by school officials,” and “any unsportsmanlike conduct . . . will subject the coach/player to penalties and discipline.” Commissioner Tackett’s bottom line to local officials? “Don’t do [a handshake line] UNLESS you can properly supervise it. . . . [I]f you do and problems occur, then you will be held accountable.”

Teaching Opportunities

Last week’s Kentucky controversy provides the latest reminder that shoving, insults and other disturbances do occasionally mar handshake lines after interscholastic and youth league games. Most post-game handshakes proceed without incident, but breakdowns sometimes lead coaches and league administrators to consider banning the tradition. 

At the state and local levels alike, bans would be a giant step in the wrong direction because the handshake tradition teaches players important lessons about sportsmanship and mutual respect. Beginning in preseason meetings and continuing throughout the schedule, thoughtful instruction from coaches and parents can prevent most troublesome incidents because most players do “get it.” Occasional trouble in handshake lines presents teaching opportunities when adults instruct that summoning strength to overcome tough losses defines an athlete’s learning process. 

Banning postgame handshakes would unwisely substitute avoidance for instruction. Interscholastic and youth sports leagues deliver citizenship instruction only when adults remain willing to draw positive lessons from negative events, and not when adults take the apparently easy way out by avoiding potential problems that remain manageable most of the time with little or no risk of injury. Teaching opportunities avoided teach nothing.   

“No One Wins All the Time”

What can coaches and parents teach players from the handshake experience?  On the bench in the final moments before our first victory of the season, I would tell my youth hockey players to remain dignified and generous as they went through the line. The opponents deserved our respect because there can be no winners without losers.

A few moments before the season’s first defeat, I would tell the players that proud hockey players leave the ice gracefully with their heads held high so that a spectator who just arrived would not know which team won and which team lost. Grace begins in the handshake line. The opponents earned the victory, and we would return for another day.

Throughout the season after the first win and the first loss, I would also paraphrase Olympic gold medal swimmer Amy Van Dyken.  “The most important lesson I’ve learned from sports,” she says, “is how to be not only a gracious winner, but a good loser as well.  Not everyone wins all the time; as a matter of fact, no one wins all the time. Winning is the easy part; losing is really tough. But, you learn more from one loss than you do from a million wins.  You learn a lot about sportsmanship.”

“It’s really tough to shake the hand of someone who just beat you,” Van Dyken explains, “and it’s even harder to do it with a smile.  If you can learn to do this and push through that pain, you will remember what that moment is like the next time you win and have a better sense of how those competitors around you feel. This experience will teach you a lot on and off the field!”

[Sources: Jason Frakes, Kentucky High School Athletic Association to Schools: No More Postgame Handshakes, (Oct. 8, 2013);  Assoc. Press, Backlash Ensues After No Handshake Directive, (Oct. 10, 2013); Eric Sondheimer, Post-Game Handshake Controversy in Kentucky, L.A. Times, Oct. 9, 2013; Handshakes After High School Games Banned in Kentucky, (Oct. 10, 2013);  Sportsmanship Quotes, (quoting Van Dyken)]



COACHING TIPS: Has the Time Come to Do Away with Trophies?

In truth, I don’t think I have ever officially addressed the issue of trophies to kids, but after Ashley Merryman’s column ran in the NY Times this past week, I figured the time had come to join in the debate.

And to help in my anecdotal research, I did bring the topic up on my radio show this AM. Not surprisingly, the reaction to this issue was all over the lot.

Just to recap Merryman’s perspective, she argues that giving trophies to young kids is not only a meaningless gesture, but that in the long run, this kind of “reward” system actually works against a child’s sense of hard work and in learning to overcome obstacles. That is, if a child gets the sense that he/she will always be rewarded, no matter how much or how little effort they put into their actions, then they will learn not to work very hard. In a sense, we’re teaching kids to feel entitled to rewards in life that aren’t earned.

Judging from the callers today, most had no problem giving “participation” trophies to kids under the age of 9. It was felt that kids that young still get excited by being given a trophy for simply being on the team. Maybe also give them a team photo that they can keep in their scrapbook.

But by age 10, the impact and thrill of getting a plastic trophy just for being on the team becomes less impactful and less motivational. Kids by that age begin to sense that in order for a trophy to have real meaning, they should earn it by either being on a team that wins the league championship, or if they are viewed as being the team MVP.

Both of those kinds of citations are unique and carry real psychological value to the child.

As they progress into middle school and HS, it was felt that this was the right track. Only one or two trophies should be handed out for MVP status or for making the All-League team. In other words, let the kids know that if they want to earn a trophy, then they really have to do something through real talent and effort to earn it.

Ironically, as opposed to when all little kids get trophies, at the HS varsity level, most athletes simply get a paper certificate or receive a cloth varsity or junior letter varsity. What I would suggest is at the end of the sports season banquet, it would be much more meaningful to the athlete and their family if the head coach got up and spoke for a few minutes about each athlete and offered substantial and meaningful praise about that kid. And then, as a really nice gesture, for the coach to give their written remarks about each youngster to the athlete and their family. Something that they can really put in their scrapbook.

By the way, several callers mentioned that a lot of HS coaches try to find ways to salute kids on their team by inventing new categories. One of the most offensivecategories  is the “Most Improved” athlete on a team. As one caller said, “My kid got that award one year, and his reaction was, ‘Wow, I guess the coach thought I really stunk last year’.”

I feel the same way. That’s one award that has good intentions, but is poorly named.


COPING WITH ADVERSITY: Understanding the Positive Aspects of Defeat


How Today’s Losses Let Adults Teach Children How to Win in Life

By Doug Abrams

On September 25, writer Ashley Merryman published a New York Times op-ed column, “Losing Is Good For You.” She urged parents and coaches “to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed.”

The Foundation of Skills Development

Ms. Merryman’s point is well taken. Too many adults impose unhealthy pressure on themselves and their youth leaguers because they mistakenly liken defeat to failure. Losing is a natural, inevitable and ultimately healthy part of growing up with sports. Every week of every season, half of all youth leaguers competing in America lose.  Each one returns to play another day.

A colleague once explained to me how working their way through defeat helps children win. Players on a winning streak, he said, sometimes lapse into complacency and take success for granted. When the team plays its best but drops a few games, however, players are more likely to begin healthy self-criticism. “What are we doing wrong, and how can we do better to win next game?” The answers can hasten individual skills development and improve overall team performance.

Adversity and Resilience

Children win even greater victories, however, when parents and coaches use today’s losses to teach youngsters resilience when things do not go their way.  Youth leaguers need this lesson because, like it or not, frustration and thwarted ambition help define adulthood for nearly everyone.  Youth sports provides early experience with setback, when the stakes are much lower than they sometimes will be later on.

Child psychologists warn that when parents make excuses for defeat or cast blame on the referees or others, they leave their children ill-prepared for the challenges of adulthood. Parents naturally want their children to succeed more often than they fail — to win more often than they lose — but children also learn plenty when adults guide them through tough times.

During the first class session each semester, I tell my law students that the most valuable lesson their parents ever taught them was how to live on their own when parents no longer peer over their shoulders and supervise their lives.   Each year, I watch law students face the inevitable stumbles as they struggle to master their coursework, maintain their grades, and navigate a difficult job market. I sense that the ex-athletes often display better coping skills than their classmates, perhaps because overcoming losses in sports taught them how to get up off the floor and move ahead.

Conclusion: Making Lemons Into Lemonade

Every parent, coach and youth leaguer knows that winning is preferable to losing. Except at the youngest age levels when scores should not matter, sports depends on competitors who want to win every game within the rules. Wanting to win is why athletes compete. An athlete unconcerned about the score disrespects the game and denies opponents the spice that comes from sports.

But toughness in the face of defeat is also central to the learning process because no youth league team wins every game and no athlete in individual sports wins every match or meet.  Learning how to rebound from losses is a lasting dividend of youth sports, and adults do their children no favor when they routinely withhold that dividend by bubble wrapping players in a misguided effort to shield them from temporary disappointment. 

[Sources: Ashley Merryman, Losing Is Good For You, N.Y. Times, Sept. 25, 2013, p. A29; Douglas E. Abrams, The Challenge Facing Parents and Coaches in Youth Sports: Assuring Children Fun and Equal Opportunity, Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 8, pp. 253, 268-69 (2002)]

INNOVATIONS IN SPORTS: How an Inner-City Youth Program Attracts African-American Kids

Like most sports fans, I just assumed that despite the best efforts of Major League Baseball over the years, the sad reality is that the steady decline of African-American athletes playing baseball can not be stopped. The general belief is that black kids today prefer basketball and football as a way to get a college scholarship or perhaps a pro career. Or, from a cultural perspective, black youngsters just don’t see the slow pace of baseball as being a good fit for them.

But my perception of all this totally changed when I read about the inner-city magic that Steve Bandura has been generating for the last two decades with the Anderson Monarchs, a primarily black travel baseball program in South Philadelphia.

In short, back in the 1990s, Bandura, a long-time Recreation Leader in the Rec’s and Parks department in Philly, started to provide some real baseball instruction for inner-city black kids who were 7 or 8. Over the years, the local kids have now flocked to the program (the Anderson Monarchs), and they now have a solid, highly successful travel program in South Philly for aspiring baseball players. Their U-12 travel program is now one of the best.

The program is supported by the parents of the kids, many of them single parents. Or the kids go out and do fund raisers in their neighborhood. But most of all, the parents and kids see the true value of this program, i.e. that the real long-range is not to necessarily to play baseball at the college or pro level, but to go to college.

Indeed, as Bandura detailed on my show this morning, on their outfield fence there’s a growing list of former Monarchs who have gone onto college.

“There’s really no magic involved,” says Bandura, “kids are kids. If you introduce them to baseball at an earlyage  in the city, and provide them with real intructi0n, they will grow and develop in the sport, just like the kids in suburbia. The key is getting them involved, encouraging them, and providing real coaching. That’s what works, and keeps them motivated.”

Here’s a thought…why doesn’t Major League Baseball simply hire Steve Bandura to run their inner-city baseball programs all over? That seems so easy and obvious a solution. So c’mon, Commissioner Selig, please make this happen.

In the meantime, my cap is off in salute to Steve. He’s one of those people who is truly making a difference when it comes to youth sports.


OBNOXIOUS SPORTS PARENTS: New Study Reveals Just Pervasive the Problem Continues to Be


New Survey Confirms Adult Misconduct

During Children’s Games

By Doug Abrams

In a national survey released on September 18, Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports provides yet more disturbing news about adults’ behavior at children’s games. Forty percent of the youth coaches surveyed said that they have experienced parents yelling negatively at other children. Fifty-five percent of the coaches said that they have experienced parents yelling negatively at their own children. Forty-four percent said that they have experienced parents yelling negatively at officials, and 39% said that they have experienced parents yelling at them.

The Liberty Mutual Survey underscores the 2010 poll that Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos jointly conducted in twenty-two nations. The poll 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.

Consistent Earlier Survey Results

The Reuters/Ipsos poll and the new Liberty Mutual survey confirm earlier estimates of adult excesses at children’s games. 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 sports 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; 21% said that they had been pressured to play with an injury; 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 opponents intentionally. 

The National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that about 15% of youth league games see a confrontation between parents or coaches and officials, and a national summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports concluded that youth sports is a “hotbed of chaos, violence and mean-spiritedness.”  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.

The Societal Costs of Bad Adult Behavior

 I cannot help but think that somber numbers such as these help explain why 70% of youngsters quit playing organized sports by the time they turn 13, and why nearly all quit by the time they turn 15.  When researchers ask youngsters why they stopped playing, the reasons given most often are that practice sessions and games stopped being fun because parents and coaches imposed too much pressure to win, yelled at them for making mistakes, and cut or benched less talented players.

Some youngsters drop out of a sport because they enrolled as an experiment and learned that they did not like the sport after all.  Particularly in the early teen years, some youngsters stop playing when they realize they lag behind their peers in skills or strength, even if their parents and other adults urge them to continue playing as their skill level catches up. Other youngsters stop playing when they develop new interests or find part-time employment, but many who cite new interests or part-time employment may have begun looking elsewhere when the adult pressure cooker spoiled their youth sports experience. 

The high national dropout rate means that millions of youth leaguers quit early through no fault of their own, but because adults drove them out.  In a sedentary age marked by unacceptably high rates of childhood and adolescent obesity, adults jeopardize the public health when they churn out bumper crops of athletic dropouts year after year.  Some adults may ratchet up the pressure with visions of college athletic scholarships or pro careers for their children, but the high dropout rate suggests that unreasonable pressure may abort more sports careers than it creates.

The adult-induced dropout rate also means that the nation squanders opportunities to teach millions of children the valuable character lessons that can come from athletic competition.  Athletics, after all, can teach nothing to a child who has quit. 

Too often the damage is permanent because many youth leaguers quit with their self-esteem so tattered that they despise athletics and avoid participating for the rest of their lives, even in such invigorating carryover sports as swimming, bicycling, or jogging.  Emotional scars linger into middle age and beyond, despite the demonstrated health benefits of lifelong physical exercise.

When Kids Giggle at Adults

The negative effects of adult misconduct hit home one Saturday a few years ago when my squirt hockey team, comprised of nine- and ten-year-olds, played a game in St. Louis.  We arrived early and sat in the stands to watch two teams of 14-year-olds.  We also got to watch parent spectators directing a torrent of insults at the referees.  At every insult, the squirts would turn to me, cover their mouths, and giggle.  They knew stupidity when they saw it. 

Children’s laughter at their elders is not a healthy sign for youth sports programs, whose role models should be the adults and not the pre-teens. The steady stream of disturbing survey numbers, however, continues to reaffirm that many adults could learn plenty about respect and vigorous sportsmanlike competition from their own children. 

[Sources: Parents and Coaches Express Conflicting Opinions Regarding Priorities in Youth Sports,; (press release); Douglas E. Abrams, Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy, 39 Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law 1 (2012) (discussing prior survey results)]