New Ways to Elect a Youth Sports Association’s Board of Directors
By Doug Abrams
A few years ago, a nearby youth hockey program held tryouts for its winter teams. Thirty-two players tried out for the two 13-14-year-old bantam teams, so the coaches pinned a number on the back of each player’s jersey for identification. When the last session ended, players wearing numbers 1 to 16 made the top team, and players wearing numbers 17 to 32 made the second team. All this happened in plain sight of the board of directors.
A mathematician told me that the odds against the two teams randomly shaking out this way were more than 600 million to 1. Even Powerball players face better odds than that, but board members with bantam sons went home satisfied because their sons made the top team, and so did their close friends’ sons.
After playing and coaching for nearly 40 years, I thought I knew a thing or two about evaluating hockey talent. I also knew the abilities of some of the kids who tried out because my teams had played against them. I thought that the coaches shortchanged some of the kids, and I could not blame parents for suspecting that the coaches had chosen the teams before anyone hit the ice. The outcome simply defied the odds and could not have been a coincidence.
Families angered by the evident favoritism held their tongues rather than approach the board of directors. Why complain to the powers-that-be whose appointed coaches created the inequity in the first place, particularly when their children might suffer retaliation?
When we catalog the troubles that beset youth sports today, the spotlight often shines brightest on violence committed by parents and coaches. Acts of violence usually happen in plain view, and they can attract media coverage and local attention, particularly if someone is arrested or injured. The adults may later trade accusations about who-started-what, but it is difficult to deny that an outburst occurred after onlookers witnessed it.
Adult outbursts, however, are the symptom and not the disease. Perhaps the most troublesome problem with some community youth sports programs today – favoritism and systemic unfairness – usually produces no public confrontation, witnesses, or headlines. In too many sports programs, winning a position on the board of directors is a key to landing a son or daughter on the right team, and then to assuring that the team that gets choice hours for games and practices. The board appoints not only coaches who will seek reappointment the following year, but also schedulers who might want something special for their own children’s teams. It does not take much ingenuity for appointees to figure out which side of the bread their butter is on.
I have rarely served on a youth hockey board that was comprised entirely of members who remained genuinely committed to the best interests of every boy and girl. In all fairness, many board members – probably most, in the typical association – do care about children and teams other than their own. But I have also found that one or more members, sometimes a solid bloc, want no part of equity. They know that their short-term involvement will end when their children’s playing days end, and they may see board service as a way to position their own children and their own teams favorably, even at the expense of other children.
Favoritism in youth sports often has a root cause. On the air over the years, Rick Wolff has discussed what he calls “entitlement,” the notion held by some board members that it is perfectly appropriate to expect preferential treatment for their children in return for their service.
This expectation runs counter to much of the volunteer spirit that thrives in America. When adults volunteer to serve in the local hospital or public school, for example, they generally seek only the personal satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference. They do not expect volunteer service to win their families better emergency medical care or extra classroom instruction. But Rick is right that some youth sports board members convince themselves that “my child is entitled to something extra because I serve and other parents do not.”
Feelings of entitlement should have no place in youth sports. Many parents have perfectly good reasons for enrolling their child without volunteering to run for the board, and the child should suffer no adverse consequences. These reasons may relate to the parents’ prior commitments to family, employment, or other volunteer activities in the community. We all do what we can, and we all have constraints on our time.
Not only that, but volunteerism is a two-way street. I always viewed my hockey board memberships (and my coaching) as my chosen community service, and I did not begrudge other people for choosing not to serve. After all, I always enjoyed open-air concerts, park services, and other community amenities provided by volunteers who did not expect my service in return. I gave to others, and I received from others. That’s the way life works.
In a television interview a few years ago, National Football League Hall of Famer Howie Long pointed in the right direction when he discussed favoritism and other adult challenges in youth sports. “We have to get youth sports out of the hands of parents,” he said, “and . . . put it in the control of people who are unbiased.” Ending parental control is not a realistic option today, however, and it is probably not even a good idea because energetic parents with solid values have plenty to offer in sports, both to their own children and to others.
At the same time, community sports programs might help control the bias that Long addressed if they ended the monopoly that parents tend to hold on boards of directors. In a 2011 column, I proposed a modest, but nonetheless easily accomplished, experiment that might produce greater equity. “[Y]outh sports leagues and associations,” I wrote, “should reserve at least one voting board position for a high-school-age player” because “having a teen board member might help muzzle an adult member who is bent on favoritism.” I explained that “having a teen sitting at the table might lead a selfish member to think twice. With a teen listening, word might get around among the other youngsters. Favoritism is sometimes best secured behind closed doors or in discussions among adults, and a healthy dose of embarrassment among the kids might just go a long way.”
A More Profound Change
Why stop with placing a teen on the board of directors? Here I suggest a more profound experiment — every position on a youth sports association’s board should be open not only to current players’ parents, but also to any other adult in the community whom the parents wish to elect. The other adult may be a former player’s parent, or may be someone who has never had a child in the association. The adult may be nominated by a parent, or the adult may approach the association of his or her own accord.
When questions arise or scarce resources must be allocated, a non-parent board member’s family would not “have a dog in the fight.” The member would be freer to advocate for, and then to vote for, the result that best serves the interests of all players. (Opening the board to non-parent board members can also bring new ideas and expertise. In a prior column, for example, I wrote about why boards should include a local pediatrician to advise about issues relating to health, safety and cognitive development.)
Many communities have plenty of adults who already serve in public and private non-athletic youth programs (hospitals and schools, for example) without expecting special privileges in return. Youth sports associations should be no different. Some of these adults might not grasp the finer points of the game, but neither do many of the parents who now serve on sports programs’ boards.
Rules invite good faith application, but they also invite evasion. The influence of non-parent board members provides no sure guarantee against unchecked favoritism because incumbent board members or other parent groups could simply stack the ballot with non-parent candidates who they know would continue the old ways. But I have also served on civic boards whose nominating committees regularly made good faith efforts to identify solid members of the community, and then presented them to the membership. An incumbent youth sports board would tell much about its commitment to equal opportunity by its willingness (or unwillingness) to take this sort of identification and presentation seriously.
This commitment might just improve the odds for many youngsters.
[Sources: Douglas E. Abrams, Youth Sports Programs Need Unbiased Adults, Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 15, 2003, p. 11; Doug Abrams, Why a Teen Should Serve on the Youth League’s Board of Directors, http://126.96.36.199/askcoachwolff/2011/06/30/why-a-teen-should-serve-on-the-youth-leagues-board-of-directors/; Doug Abrams, “Why Youth Sports Programs Should Seek Input from Pediatricians, and How They Can Do It” — http://188.8.131.52/askcoachwolff/2012/03/08/why-youth-sports-programs-should-seek-input-from-pediatricians-and-how-programs-can-do-it/]