Archive for August, 2014

COACHING TIPS: American Youth Tennis Looking for New Solutions

If you’re a tennis fan, it’s hard to get around the reality that there are fewer and fewer American highly-ranked tennis stars. In the US Open, for example, on the men’s side, John Isner — America’s best shot – was eliminated Saturday night, and on the women’s side, with the exception of the Williams’ sisters, there are not many highly-ranked women.

That’s why I asked Gary Weiner, co-director of Tennis: Europe, to come on the radio show. Tennis: Europe ( is a successful firm that arranges for top American players to tour Europe so that they can compete against their counterparts but along the way, they also see how tennis is conducted overseas. In addition to Gary’s expertise, he just recently attended a major conference in which the major components of tennis in the US were talking about what could be done to improve American tennis.

The conclusions of that conference that Gary reported on are fascinating. In short:

> Make youth tournaments shorter. Instead of having long weekends for tennis tournaments (Friday-Saturday-Sunday) which are both time consuming and expensive, the suggestion was made to follow the European model – that is, cut the tournaments down to no more than 6 hours long, and stage them on Saturday afternoons.

> Make the tournaments focus more on having fun as opposed to life-and-death struggles. Again, the Europeans seemed to have mastered this. For starters, they try to remove the parents from the sidelines of the matches by encouraging that they simply drop their kids off at the tournament so that the coaches can be more involved. The European kids seem to enjoy the freedom away from the ever-present parents at the matches, and it’s presumed the American kids would enjoy that freedom as well.

> There was major discussion about how to stop pressuring kids to specialize in tennis at an early age. That is, in a reversal of policy, it’s now deemed acceptable not to push your kid to play only tennis at a young age. As in other sports, tennis people are seeing more and more cases of repetitive use injuries in younger players, plus more cases of burn-out are occurring at earlier ages (usually between 10-13).

What’s the solution? Allow promising tennis players to play a variety of sports until they’re 13 or 14, and then allow them to decide to focus on tennis. That seems to be good advice for all athletes who are eager to get to the next level.

This last suggestion is a real 180 degree turn. It wasn’t long ago that it was perceived that the only way a player could advance would be to specialize at a very young age, and to push throw. Clearly the tide has turning to a more common sense approach, and that’s good.

Does it work? Well, as you watch the US Open this week, check how many European players have advanced as compared to home-grown American players.



Little League Baseball works very, very hard at selling an image of joyful kids having a ball playing baseball. It’s an image that’s cut from the cloth of a Norman Rockwell painting of a simpler time in America.

But lest you forget…Little League Baseball has become big, big business.

Just how big?

In a recent column written by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, he reveals some of these Little League basics:

ESPN will be paying $76 million to Little League Baseball over the next 8 years for the rights to televise their games. That’s a little less than $10 million a year.

In addition, it’s estimated by Yahoo that Little League takes in another $15 million a year from licensing and merchandising deals. In short, with the TV rights, that comes to about $25 mil a year in revenue.

There’s also another $80 million in assets stashed away in corporate bank accounts.

Little League Baseball is considered a not-for-profit charity, and with that, it’s entitled to a lot of corporate tax breaks. But people often mistake that a not-for-profit charity doesn’t pay its employees anything. And Little League makes it a point to remind fans and viewers that all of the people who help out with the games during the playoffs are volunteers who don’t get paid anything. That really doesn’t seem fair. Maybe some years ago when Little League was still just a grassroots operation, that was okay. But not any more. I wonder if the people handling the concession stands know what kind of salary Steve Keener, the CEO of Little League Baseball, pulls down.

Just a few years ago, Keener was earning $230,00o as a salary. That, according to Passan of Yahoo, was pretty much in keeping with other leaders of non-profits. But in October 2012, Keener’s salary jumped to $430,000. That’s a nice raise.

But here’s the biggest question: the ratings boost that ESPN and Little League received from Mo’Ne Davis and her Philly teammates and also the Chicago team this year was substantial.

As we have seen with the NCAA and the Ed O’Bannon case, the pressing question is now – when do the athletes start to cash in on all of this? When a Little League team advances to Williamsport, they routinely get some new bats and other equipment from Little League Baseball, but no money which, ideally, could be used for college tuition down the road. And how many times this August did we hear that some parents of Little Leaguers had to rely upon the generosity of others to help pay their to watch their kid play in Williamsport?

Keener, to his credit, has said that he’s not opposed to compensating the players – after all, it’s the players who drive the ratings for ESPN. But if Little League Baseball wants to do the right thing, then the time has come for them to put aside some real revenue which can be paid to cover tuition if and when each Williamsport Little Leaguer attends college.

Colleague Steve Kallas notes that here in the US, this is already done for young bowlers. That is, as they compete and win in bowling tournaments, if there are any cash prizes to be handed out, the money does not go to the youngster but rather is put aside and paid directly to the child’s college to cover tuition.

Makes sense to me. And now, it’s up to Little League leadership to do the same thing. And by the way, while you’re at it, for once and for all, please get rid of the aluminum bats and stop allowing the kids to throw curves and sliders.



BOOK REVIEW: CHANGING THE GAME: My Journey Through Life and Sports – George Selleck with Wendy Fayles

BOOK REVIEW: CHANGING THE GAME: My Journey Through Life and Sports

By George Selleck with Wendy Fayles

Dr. George Selleck has led an extraordinary life. And he’s done it with sports as his internal compass.

In this rare and thoughtful memoir, Selleck – one of the all-time great athletes at Stanford University, starring in both basketball and baseball – writes poignantly that sports was not just fun for him as a child, but that they provided him with the emotional pathway to develop his self-esteem and ultimately his self-confidence to become one of the most accomplished and innovative psychologists and counselors of our time.

His resume of accomplishments? In basketball, he was named California Player of the Year in his senior year in high school. At Stanford, he was a star as well, averaging 14 points and six rebounds a game, even though physically he topped out at 5’8”. He was so good that when he graduated from Stanford he had the choice of either signing with the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA or with the Pittsburgh Pirates for baseball. He opted to turn both pro teams down, and instead, chose to attend graduate school, including attaining a master’s degree in educational psychology at Stanford, a master’s in theology at Princeton, and a doctorate in counseling psychology at USC.

Along the way, he even found time to coach Brentwood High School to two Los Angeles City championships. Again, regardless of his educational pursuits, sports were always at the center of Selleck’s universe. At one point during his spectacular college career, he roomed with the legendary Bill Russell at a college all-star game. And as a psychologist, Selleck worked with baseball Hall of Famer, Ty Cobb.

He’s been inducted into the Stanford University Athletic Hall of fame, as well as the Pac-12 Hall of Fame.

When not on the court or on the baseball diamond– and Selleck played basketball well into his 70s – he has been at the forefront of educating and counseling young people on how to develop their own innate but unpolished leadership skills. His most recent leadership program, Leading2Play, is his most exciting program to date, and it’s already catching on in pilot programs in California.

All of this sounds like a wonderful All-American story. But as Selleck details in CHANGING THE GAME, it was anything but easy. George grew up in what he describes as a difficult family: parents with alcohol issues, a sister who had a hard time finding her way in school, and George’s twin brother, Butch, who had troubles from the day he was born due to physical and other assorted ailments. And even as a doting father himself, Selleck was crushed when his daughter Alison, a beloved physician, passed away from brain cancer.

But Selleck, somehow, was able to turn all of these tragic life events and transform them into a positive force that has continuously pushed him in his athletic and educational and counseling career.

Sports coaches and fans often talk about the life-lessons that athletics provide….terms like discipline, dealing with adversity, finding motivation, determination, and so on. For the most part, too many sports fans simply toss around these important terms in generic ways, and then unfortunately these vital lessons are forgotten.

But in George Selleck’s case, he’s one of those rare human beings who have fully embraced all of these key intangible life lessons – lessons that have to come to him through the hard-fought process of athletic competition.

And as a result, his new book, CHANGING THE GAME (published by Coaches Choice and available online and in book stores), is not only refreshing but also a real testament to how a life in sports can be so rewarding in so many ways. In short, Selleck is truly living proof that a life in sports can lead to great accomplishments in so many ways.  — reviewed by Rick Wolff

COACHING TIPS: When the Coach Shifts Your Athlete to a New Position on the Team…

As a dedicated football player, Mike has been working hard all of his life, waiting for his senior year to arrive. And now it finally has.

As an up-and-coming running back, Mike started to earn real acclaim as a junior, including having some big games, and as a rising senior, he’s hoping that more colleges will be sending along more correspondence of their interest in him.

After all, wouldn’t it be great to become a highly recruited Division I football player? Plus that athletic scholarship would really help out at home, since his parents know full well that paying college tuition these days is an absolute bear.

But then, during the summer before his senior year, Mike was called into his coach’s office, and the coach threw him a curve: “Mike, the truth is, although we know of your value as a running back, we really need to fill a serious hole at tight end. And since you’re the best athlete on the team, we’re asking you to learn that position for this coming year.”

Mike is stunned. He asks, “But coach, I’m a running back…and that’s the position I know. And that’s the position I want to play in college…”

The coach simply replies, “Mike, this move is one that is going to benefit the team right now. You know the team always comes first, right?”

Mike nods and then quietly trudges out the door. When he tells his parents later that day, his Dad is outraged.

“What’s wrong with that coach?” barks the father, “Let him teach another player to learn tight end, not you. Not only have you paid your dues in that program, but you’re one of the premier running backs in the league. All the other teams you play will be absolutely thrilled that you’re not carrying the ball.”

Mike says nothing.

The father continues: “Mike, you go back to the coach tomorrow, and tell him if he really wants the team to benefit, then he should keep you at halfback…that will benefit the team a helluva lot more than moving you to the line.”

Confused and perplexed, Mike doesn’t know what to do.

I presented this kind of scenario on the show this AM, and was eager to hear the feedback. A generation ago, this kind of situation was not up for discussion. All athletes did what the coach told them to do, and if the kid balked at the coach’s orders, then he either got booted off the team, or he quit. End of story.

But these days, with kids (and their parents) spending so much time, money, and effort grooming to be a star, this kind of unexpected move by the coach can come as a real jolt. And more often than not, the head coach finds himself having to defend his actions to the kid’s parents.

SUGGESTION: As a coach, you have every right to assign kids to positions on the team. That’s not open for debate.

But if you do make a move like the one described above, it’s always a good idea to have your reasons spelled out clearly in case the kid or his parents come asking for an explanation. You don’t owe them an explanation, but it’s always good to explain why you made the move.

SUGGESTION #2: As a player or player’s parent, before you jump down the coach’s throat, just understand that coaches often are much better are evaluating your son’s abilities than you are. There were several callers this AM who said exactly that — that it was their high school coach who moved the caller from offense to defense, or vice versa. And even though the athlete was originally outraged, after awhile it became clear to them that the coach’s move made all the sense in the world. And the athlete was grateful.

And in the end, it was the athlete who ended up literally thanking their coach for their foresight and wisdom. In other words, give the coach the benefit of the doubt before you go ballistic.


COACHING TIPS: Women Coaching Men? It’s About Time….


 Women as Boys’ Youth League Coaches

By Doug Abrams

 Earlier this month, the champion San Antonio Spurs hired former WNBA point guard Becky Hammon as the National Basketball Association’s first female full-time assistant coach. The announcement led the New York Times to run a thoughtful article about women who have coached some of the world’s greatest male swimmers, including Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Anthony Ervin and Ian Thorpe.

The Times’ Karen Crouse described how Ervin trained with Cal-Berkeley’s women’s swim coach, Teri McKeever. “Could she be a men’s coach?,” Ervin asked, before answering his own question. “I don’t see a reason why not.”

Community youth leagues can learn from Ervin’s Q and A. Men frequently coach girls’ youth league teams, and I see no reason for disfavoring women as potential head coaches or assistant coaches on boys’ teams.  Traditional barriers may be crumbling because the media reports periodically about women who coach boys in youth leagues or sometimes in high schools. The crumbling needs to accelerate, however, because gender barriers can deprive boys and girls alike during their playing days and afterwards.

Avoiding Informal Channeling

Youth league boards of directors all across America will soon begin sifting applications from adults whose experience equips them to serve as head coaches of boys’ teams, girls’ teams, and co-ed teams this autumn and winter. The boards will also consider applicants who seem better suited to be assistant coaches because they lack sufficient background in X’s and O’s, but can help head coaches lead the players.

In their advertisements and other outreach, youth leagues should specify that both men and women may coach any team that suits their qualifications.  Many leagues, however, come up short. In It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports (2009), Michael A. Messner found that traditional expectations often push men and women in different directions, even when a woman’s resume includes years of game experience. “The head coach—nearly always a man—is the leader and the public face of the team; the team parent—nearly always a woman—is working less visibly behind the scenes, doing the ‘housekeeping’ support work; assistant coaches—mostly men, but including the occasional woman—help the coach on the field during practices and games.”

Youth leagues need to reconsider traditional expectations for two reasons, which I discuss below. First, many women bring knowledge of the game that equals or exceeds the knowledge brought by many men. Second, playing for female coaches teaches boys and girls important lessons about appropriate gender roles in our society.

Knowledge of the Game

More than 40 years after Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the nation now has a generation of young and middle-aged women whose experience playing sports rivals the experience of men. Like many men their age, many women have plenty to teach both boys and girls.

A youth league’s board of directors serves players best by naming the most qualified coaches, without artificially restricting the talent pool’s size or composition.  Leagues fail in this basic mission when they exclude or tacitly discourage women, or when they send subtle cues that disparage women who wish to coach.

The effects of artificial restriction, however, do not end with head coaching slots.  On nearly every youth hockey team I have seen in recent years, the coaching staffs included one or more inexperienced or less experienced male assistants, including ones who knew little about the game until their children enrolled. Most of these assistants worked well with the head coach, made positive contributions all season, and enhanced the players’ experiences. Many assistants moved to head coaching after gaining experience, confidence and public exposure for a year or more.

Inexperienced or less experienced assistant coaches can help conduct practice sessions, offer support and leadership on the bench during games, supervise the team on and off the field, advise the head coach, and monitor the pulse of the team’s parents. For the sake of team strength and harmony, female assistant coaches can fit the bill as well as men can.

Gender Roles

Youth leagues teach youngsters not only fundamentals and skills, but also lifelong citizenship lessons, including ones about appropriate gender roles. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette urges youth leagues to “acclimate all kids to women coaches from a young age. . . . Creating a new normal that features a more diverse mix of men and women coaching Little League teams and Pop Warner football squads would help change assumptions that tend to form early. Grades schools and high schools should create incentives that encourage women teachers to take up coaching more broadly. And recreational leagues should . . . [go] after the right coach, not the right gender.”

Athletic competition teaches lessons that extend beyond the playing field, and youth sports programs can influence boys and girls who will spend their adult lives working in gender-neutral settings. Players will be better off if they learn gender equality while they are young, and they are more apt to learn when sports programs appoint (as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette advises) “the right coach, not the right gender.”

[Sources: Karen Crouse, Men Often Mentored by Women at the Pool, N.Y. Times, Aug. 10, 2014; Michael A. Messner, It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports (2009); Matthew J.X. Malady, Why Don’t Any Women Coach Big-Time Men’s Sports? And Why Don’t We Care?, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 7, 2012]


ACCOUNTABILITY WITH ATHLETES: Steubenville HS Football Player Convicted of Rape Does His Time, Returns to Playing Field

That terrible episode that occurred in Steubenville, Ohio a couple of years ago refuses to go away.

Very briefly, in a town where HS football is a big, big deal, two star players were convicted of digitally penetrating a passed-out 16-year-old girl who had drunk too much at an all-night party. Digital penetration (fingers) is still considered rape in that state.

The judge overseeing the case decided to press charges on the boys as juvenile offenders. That’s significant because if they had been tried as adults, they would most likely been sentenced to 10-20 years in jail. But in a juvenile court proceeding, Malik Richmond was given 10 months, and his teammate Trent Mays got 24 months.

Richmond, now 18, did his time and is back in school at Steubenville. He is also back on the football team. In Ohio, it’s up to the school superintendent and HS athletic director to decide whether any athlete can be re-instated on a team. In this instance, the school football coach clearly felt it was okay for Richmond to return because he said, in effect, teenagers make poor decisions all the time, and in this case, Richmond has paid the price. In addition to spending 10 months in a juvenile facility, Richmond is now registered as a sex offender, and will have to be on report to the authorities for the next 20 years. He will also carry a criminal record.

But today’s debate, which featured law professor Doug Abrams from the Univ of Missouri School of Law, focused primarily on whether the punishment fit the crime. I pointed out that the 16-year-old victim was so traumatized by the incident that she had to move out of town and change her identity. Regardless of her predicament, it was acknowledged that neither she or her parents had any say in the punishments that were handed out. That’s state law.

Professor Abrams, who is an expert on juvenile offenders, points out that in Missouri, that state’s program with juvenile offenders is exemplary, and that 90% of the teenagers who commit terrible crimes do go through rehab and become, for the most part, productive members of society. In other words, the kids DO learn from their mistakes, which is the reason why we have juvenile courts in the first place. Obviously, if Richmond and Mays had been sent away as adults, their chances at productive lives would pretty much be over.

But at the end of the day, here’s what we have: Malik Richmond, who was found guilty of rape, did less than a year in juvenile detention, and now is back on the HS football field. The female victim has moved out of town and will be traumatized forever as a rape victim.

As I noted at the end of the show, I personally would have preferred if the football player had been given a longer sentence – perhaps 2-3 years in juvenile detention. And I also would have taken away the privilege of seeing him return to play football. That’s a privilege he should have lost when he was convicted.

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: More States Enacting Safety Precautions

Michigan Announces New Football Practice Session Policies

By Doug Abrams

Last week, the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for interscholastic sports, announced new policies that limit helmet-to-helmet contact in football practice sessions during the preseason and the regular season. Michigan’s new policies (proposed by a Football Task Force comprised of coaches, administrators and MHSAA staff) are the latest initiative in nationwide efforts to reduce concussions and other traumatic brain injuries in football and other sports. This column discusses the major sources of these initiatives.

Sources of Regulation

Four of these sources exercise direct public authority, though distribution of that authority differs somewhat from state to state. In the typical state, youth sports safety measures may be mandated by the state legislature; the state education department; the state high school activities association; and local decision makers such as city councils, school districts, and parks and recreation departments.

Even without direct official action, coaches and parents on individual teams may implement safety measures that maintain the team’s competitiveness and preserve the essential character of the game.

The State Legislature

At the top of the official hierarchy sits the state legislature. Since 2009, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to improve prevention and treatment of concussions in youth sports. Most of these laws govern only interscholastic competition, but some states extend regulation to private youth sports organizations.

Most of the state concussions laws enact three core mandates.  First, leagues and teams must provide parents, coaches, administrators, and players with pre-season information and education about the dangers of concussions, how to recognize their symptoms, and how to help promote healthy recovery.  Second, coaches must immediately remove from a practice session or game a player who is suspected to have suffered a concussion.  Third, the player may not return to action until a physician or other licensed medical professional clears the player and affirms that return is medically appropriate.

State legislatures often act incrementally, addressing one aspect of a problem that seems most pressing, before weighing later amendments in light of experience. Several states have already amended their relatively new youth sports concussions laws to create regulation stricter than the three core mandates. My August 5 column discussed amendments that California enacted last month (“California Limits Full-Contact Football Practice Sessions”).

The State Education Department and the State Activities Association

In the typical state, official statewide regulation of interscholastic sports is not limited to the legislature. Because interscholastic sports are offered in the nation’s schools, the state education department may establish rules and regulations governing athletic competition. So too may the state high school athletic association, which is typically comprised of most or all public and private schools that compete in football and other interscholastic sports.

As last week’s Michigan policymaking demonstrates, the state association (or the state education department) may establish safety regulations binding on member schools. Indeed, several state associations have already announced concussion safety regulations, which apply only to interscholastic sports, and not to competitions conducted by private youth sports organizations.

Local Agencies

Local government agencies hold the so-called “power of the permit,” the legal authority to set terms under which private applicants may use public property, including public athletic facilities (fields, gymnasiums and the like). Most of these facilities are administered by two local agencies, the public school district and the parks and recreation department.

The school district, of course, may establish terms governing use of its facilities for interscholastic play. The power of the permit, however, also reaches use by private youth sports organizations such as Pop Warner and other youth football programs.

Most private youth sports organizations do not own facilities, but rather use public facilities pursuant to renewable agreements with local authorities. The power of the permit means that when a private youth sports organization applies to use a field, gymnasium or other public facility for the first time, the local agency may condition grant or denial on adherence to concussions protocols and other specified safety measures. The local decision maker may then determine future renewal or non-renewal based on the applicant’s prior performance.

The power of the permit hit the headlines on May 10, when the Vineland (N.J.) Daily Journal ran a story under the headline, “Midget Football May Be Banned.”   The Vineland City Council said that the Vineland Midget Football League, which enrolls players between five and fourteen, reported only two of at least eight players who suffered concussions the prior season. The private league also allegedly issued some older players helmets that were designed and recommended for younger, smaller and lighter players.  The city council threatened to close the fields to the midget football league because, according to the council’s vice president, “nobody followed any protocols” about concussions the prior season.

At a city council meeting, the council’s vice president said that unless the league commits itself to greater adherence to safety protocols, “we can suspend the league by telling them they can’t use” public fields.

Coaches and Parents

When the California legislature and the Michigan High School Athletic Association considered tightening concussions protocols, observers predicted that the protocols would likely not generate much controversy because they reflected precautions that most football coaches were already taking anyway.

“There’s really not a big uproar about this,” said a California Interscholastic Federation senior director, “because it really is nothing new for our coaches.” The MHSAA’s executive director said that in his state, “roughly 85 percent of coaches are already doing similar things”; the new policies were “for the 15 percent that weren’t doing it just yet. We wanted to get everyone on the same page.”

A little common sense can go a long way, though official mandates remain useful to offer players universal protection, and to assure that no team suffers a competitive disadvantage for putting its players’ safety and health first.


[Sources: Michigan High School Athletic Association, New Football Practice Policies Promote Safety as 14-15 Sports Year Begins (press release), Aug. 7, 2014,; California Law Restricts Full-Contact Youth Football Practices, (July 21, 2014); Mike Moore, MHSAA Alters Rules for Football Practice With Aim At Player Safety, Advertiser Times (Warren, Mich.), Aug. 6, 2014]


ABUSIVE COACHES: Do Private Coaches Help – or Hurt – the Development of Young Athletes?

There was a fascinating article in USA Today a couple of weeks ago in which top college quarterbacks were featured using private outside coaches to aid them in their development. Of course, these “private coaches” were charging for their services, anywhere from $100 an hour and up. And it was the kid’s parents (not the college football program) who paid the bill.

Some of the college coaches were okay with these outside coaches, but most of them did want to make sure that they were kept apprised of all developments. On the other hand, many other college coaches made it clear that they disapproved of these outside “experts” even though many of the college kids used them.

On this morning’s show, I heard from a number of callers who felt that this cottage industry of outside coaches was an issue that was still unsettled. For example, a couple of callers argued that this practice was parallel to parents hiring tutors for their kids who were having trouble with math or English. “What’s the difference?” the callers asked, “The parents will spend money to help their child do better in school. Nobody complains about that.”

Other callers felt that hiring outside private coaches puts the kid in an awkward spot. Suppose the private coach shows him how to change his pitching mechanics, but his HS varsity coach doesn’t want him to do anything different. Who does the kid listen to?

Another caller noted that some HS coaches try to cash in on the entrepreneurial market by telling their varsity players that if they want to improve their game, then they need to attend the coach’s summer camp. Of course, the coach charges money for the kids to attend this “voluntary” camp. As the caller suggested, this is tantamount to extortion.

Some school districts already have policies in place that prohibits coaches from doing this kind of summer camp or outside coaching activity. But in truth, there are all sorts of ways to get around these restrictions. Besides, sports parents are always looking for that edge to help their youngster get ahead, even if it costs a little more dough.

Amazing….just amazing.

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: New California Law Reflects National Support to Protect Young Athletes


California Limits Full-Contact Football Practice Sessions

By Doug Abrams

 On July 21, California Governor Jerry Brown signed bipartisan concussion-safety legislation limiting the number and length of full-contact football practices that high schools and middle schools may conduct beginning on January 1, 2015.  The bill also strengthens existing law concerning treatment of players who are suspected of suffering a concussion or other head injury.

Both houses of the state legislature overwhelmingly approved last month’s bill, which had drawn support from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Neurology, and the California Psychological Association. Also voicing support was the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), the state’s governing body for interscholastic sports.

The new law (1) prohibits public, private and charter school football teams from conducting more than two full-contact practices each week during the preseason and regular season, (2) limits permitted full-contact portions of practices to no more than 90 minutes in a single day, and (3) prohibits full-contact practices during the off season. The CIF, or a league or school or other body, may adopt rules that enforce stricter standards.

The new California law also provides that where an athlete is suspected of suffering a concussion or head injury, the athlete must be removed from the game or other activity for the rest of the day, and may not resume play without evaluation, and written clearance, by a licensed health care provider. If the provider determines that the athlete has suffered the suspected concussion or head injury, the athlete must complete a graduated return-to-play protocol of no less than seven days under the provider’s supervision.

The new California legislation is a step in the right direction, the latest amendment to youth sports concussions-safety laws that all 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted since 2009. The laws, similar in many key respects, are not limited to football because medical professionals warn that concussions can happen in almost any sport.

State “Laboratories”

The nationwide legislative flurry, completed in just the past five years, holds potential to help make life better for many youth athletes. Lawmakers, however, often take one step at a time, addressing aspects of a problem that seem most acute today, before weighing amendments in the light of experience. Last month’s amendment in California deserves attention from other states.

Justice Louis D. Brandeis once said that in our federal system, states frequently act as “laboratories” by individually confronting a common problem with similar but not identical legislation. Any state assessing its own performance and considering future amendments can learn from other states’ experiences, enacting perceived strengths and avoiding perceived weaknesses. The 50 states and the District of Columbia have each established a laboratory to experiment with remedies that enhance pediatric concussion safety.

The California legislature found that 19 other states have already banned off-season full-contact football practices. Several states have already limited full-contact practices during the preseason and regular season. The media reports that many schools follow similar concussions protocols, even without statewide legislation. Other states and schools should learn from California’s laboratory.

“As Safely As Possible”

In partisan times typically marked by red-state-blue-state divisions, getting all 50 states do almost anything in unison should draw public attention. State concussion legislation demonstrates how seriously Americans take youth sports traumatic brain injuries in football and other games.  “Sports is . . . fundamental to who we are as Americans and our culture,” President Obama told first White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussions Summit on May 29, 2014. “We’re competitive. We’re driven. And sports teach us about teamwork and hard work and what it takes to succeed not just on the field but in life.” “[S]ports are vital to this country,” he said, but the nation needs to assure that children “are able to participate as safely as possible.”

[Sources: Nat’l Conf. of State Legislatures, Traumatic Brain Injury Legislation (list and survey of statutes: Apr. 2014); Calif. Assembly Bill No. 2127, Legislative Counsel’s Digest and Bill Text]





HEROIC ATHLETES/COACHES: Rob Nelson and the Big League Chew Story

Every so often I hear a story that is so remarkable that I feel obliged to share it. And in this case, Rob Nelson – aka “Nellie” – happens to be an old teammate of mine from the college summer leagues.

In short, Nellie was a soft-tossing left-handed pitcher out of Cornell who, despite his distinct lack of velocity, was good enough to go 6-2 in his senior year at Cornell, good enough to be named to the All-Ivy team. But when no pro scouts called that spring, Nellie packed up his curve ball and pinpoint control and started to make the rounds of spring training sites to get signed.

Amazingly, the St. Louis Cardinals took a chance on Nellie and signed him. Unfortunately, when it became clear to the Cardinals that Nellie would have a hard time breaking a pane of glass with his best fastball, he was released. Total time as a pro? About three weeks.

Undaunted, Nellie spread his wings to find other opportunities to pursue baseball. He heard about tryouts for a team in South Africa – who knew that they even  played baseball in South Africa in the late 1970s? But Nellie went to Cape Town and did well (in truth, very few South African baseball players had ever seen a lefty pitcher, much less a lefty with a really good curve ball).

From there, Nellie heard about open tryouts for the Portland Mavericks in the Northwest League. An independent team (e.g. a team with no major league affiliation), the Mavs were the brainchild of Bing Russell, once a well-known TV star, and his son Kurt (now a movie star). The Mavs were a motley crew, a team made up of former pro players who had been released, guys who were talented but never got signed, and so on. Nellie fit right in. And so did Jim Bouton who once won 20 games for the New York Yankees but now, at age 38, was attempting to make a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher.

Nellie and Bouton were sitting in the Portland bullpen one night watching their teammates make a terrible mess by chewing wads of tobacco and then spitting streams of brown juice on the floor. Both Bouton and Nelson thought it was disgusting, and it was Nelson who came up with the idea of shredding bubblegum and putting it into aluminum foil pouches and selling it to kids. Bouton thought it was a brilliant idea and felt he could sell it.

Sure enough, the Wrigley gum company bought the concept, and with that steady income, Nellie returned to more pitching. But now he set his sights on Australia, and indeed he pitched several seasons there. In sum, he spent much of his 20s, 30s, and 40s simply being a globetrotting pitcher while he earned residuals on his invention of Big League Chew.

What an amazing way to live one’s life! All it took was the courage to chase one’s dream, and of course, to be creative. Rob Nelson did both, and in the end, he’s never let his (bubblegum) bubble burst.