Author Archive

PARENTS V. COACHES: Meddling Parents at the College Level

How Troublesome Parents Can Hurt Their Player’s Chances in College Sports

Early last month, I had an interesting telephone conversation with the men’s soccer coach at a small western university.  He told me that before he recruits a high school player and communicates with the admissions office, he tries to size up the young man’s parents by meeting and talking with them.

Nothing unusual so far, but then the conversation continued.  The coach said that if the parents appear troublesome, his enthusiasm for the player may diminish.  In an extreme case, the coach might even strike the player from the list to avoid future hassles with the parents.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times did a story on Pete Carroll, then the head football coach of the University of Southern California Trojans, one of the nation’s most prominent college programs.  The story described the phone calls and emails he routinely received from USC players’ parents about various issues, including injuries the player sustained or academic choices the player might be wrestling with. But, according to Carroll, the parents “basically call me about playing time.”

Individual Accountability

Last month’s phone conversation with the soccer coach was an eye opener because, as a youth hockey association president for 11 years, I always urged the board of directors to distinguish between parent and player when it considered disciplining a parent for misconduct.  It seemed unfair to make an innocent player assume the consequences for what his or her parents did.

Should a similar approach, grounded in individual accountability, apply when the college coach weighs a recruiting (and thus, an academic) decision that will likely affect the future course of the player’s life? Coaches must answer that question for themselves, but I can understand why some might tread carefully when their antennae tell them that signing a player might bring four years of meddlesome parenting similar to what many youth league and high school coaches face these days.  The player may have been a star on the high school or club team but, unless the player is something special, the coach’s list might include other players with similar talent.  Taking a chance with helicopter parents just might seem like a prospect worth avoiding.

Whether or not an athletic scholarship is at stake, college recruiting sometimes compels coaches to draw fine lines, make close calls, and heed their instincts. On the one hand, the coach should expect parents to remain engaged by asking penetrating questions. Coaches should welcome this engagement because parents do not stop being parents simply because their player commits to a college. Choosing the right college is serious business.  With the student away from home for a sustained period perhaps for the first time, parents rightfully expect the coach to take safety, academics and socialization seriously because the college’s obligations extend to student-athletes.

But the player has almost always reached the age of majority by the time the time he or she matriculates. Parents accustomed to micromanaging relationships with youth league or club coaches since elementary school should demonstrate willingness to ease up on the reins. Pete Carroll told the Los Angeles Times that he understood the delicate balance: “I talk to [parents] just like we’re sharing this responsibility to help this work out for the kids.”

Warning Signs

Parents do their player a disservice when they take chances that might dim the coach’s interest during the recruiting process. Conversations with the family might raise warning signs, particularly where the parents appear overbearing or try to monopolize the give-and-take before the player can ever get a word in edgewise. Perhaps the coach can dismiss domineering as healthy enthusiasm from parents who simply want the best for their player, and perhaps not.

The recruiter’s conversations with the player’s high school or club coach can sometimes tell much about the parents. Private conversations can turn quite candid when the coach, thinking toward the future, wants to maintain credibility with the college counterpart.

Nowadays the college coach might also find clues on the Internet and the social media.  If the parent’s name has reached the local newspapers with violence or other misbehavior during youth league games or practices, the coach can retrieve the article with a keyboard and a name search. Parents also sometimes vent on the social media. Some college admissions offices reportedly watch the Internet and social media for telltale signs, and we should expect similar due diligence from coaches who are charged with assembling a talented, harmonious team.

Rick Wolff has talked on the air about how today’s technology can preserve a permanent, indelible record of public misconduct. Players must watch with their words and deeds, but so must their parents. The bottom line is that parents who cross the line in high school or club sports may hurt their players, not only in the short run, but also in the long run.

[Source: Gary Klein, The Xs and Os of Dealing With Parents, L.A. Times, Oct. 22, 2008, p. D1]

ABUSIVE COACHES: Would You Pass the Coach’s “Dog Test?”

The Coach’s “Dog Test”

Tino Martinez, the popular former Yankee, resigned Sunday afternoon as the Florida Marlins’ first-year hitting coach following allegations that he verbally and physically abused players since spring training.  Martinez acknowledged that he grabbed a rookie second baseman by the front of the jersey in May, but he denied reports that he had grabbed the player by the neck.  One player told the Miami Herald that Martinez “uses intimidation. It’s been a problem since Day One.”

Martinez is the latest high-profile coach to hit the headlines for failing what I call the “Dog Test.” The test says that if a coach would not do or say something to the family dog, he or she should not do or say it to a player either. More on that below, but first some other recent stories of abuses by coaches.

In early April, Rutgers University terminated men’s head basketball coach Mike Rice after ESPN aired a video that, quite frankly, was difficult to watch. As described by the network, the video showed “numerous clips of Rice at practice firing basketballs at players, hitting them in the back, legs, feet and shoulders. Rice was also seen pushing players in the chest and grabbing them by their jerseys and yanking them around the court. Rice could be heard yelling obscenities at players and using gay slurs.” A former Rutgers basketball student manager told a Philadelphia radio station that assaults like these were standard fare at “every practice.” (4:57).

Rice’s termination led to the resignation of the Rutgers athletic director, who was replaced on May 15 by Louisville senior athletics administrator Julie Hermann. Within two weeks, charges emerged that Hermann had verbally abused the women’s volleyball players she coached at Tennessee in the 1990s. On May 26, the Newark Star-Ledger published a letter signed in 1996 by the players of that year’s team. “The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable,” wrote the players, who explained that they had “been lied to, publicly humiliated, and ripped apart as both players and people” by coach Hermann, who would call them “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.”

In June, suburban Detroit’s Oakland University terminated its successful women’s basketball coach Beckie Francis for “[i]ndications of conduct and behavior. . . that if true could be malfeasance.”  Several players charged that chronic mental abuse marked her coaching, and that she obsessed about their weight and pressured them to embrace her religion. ”It was just head games,” one former player told the Detroit Free Press, “just constant head games.” “I tried to avoid as much conversation with her as possible,” said another player, “I got stressed out just thinking about talking to her or going to practice or having something to do with basketball. . . . To have someone make you feel so insecure about yourself, or for someone to have that kind of power over you, is . . . just insane.”

 “Leaders Lead and Bosses Drive”

The charges against Tino Martinez, Mike Rice and the others go to the core of the coach-player relationship in any sport, and at any level of play, including the youth leagues.  The coach’s authority as a leader stems from respect willingly conferred by the players.  A player might obey when forced to choose between enduring or quitting, but respect must be earned.

“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss,” said President Theodore Roosevelt, “The leader leads, and the boss drives.” British writer G.K. Chesterton distinguished obedience from respect this way: “If a rhinoceros were to enter this restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here. But I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever.”

Coaches are teachers, psychologists, mentors and role models. Books have been written about how to motivate players from kindergarten to the pros, but I suggest here the “Dog Test” as the bare minimum, a start for coaches who aspire to lead.  The test means that coaches should not treat their players worse than they would treat the family dog.  If the coach would not do or say something to the dog, the coach should not do or say it to a player either.

After practice sessions and games, Mike Rice would return home. If a cocker spaniel awaited, I doubt that he would fire basketballs at the animal, yell obscenities or slurs, or yank the animal by the scruff of the neck around the living room. His players deserved at least as much consideration as a dog.

“A Sacred Trust”

In my experience, most youth league and high school coaches take their instructive and mentoring roles seriously. Torrents of verbal abuse are rare, and outright physical abuse is even rarer. But I also think that if we shook the youth sports tree, particularly at the more competitive select levels, some coaches lacking basic self-control and respect for their players would fall out. Candidly taking the Dog Test would prove uncomfortable for them.

These coaches could learn plenty from UCLA’s legendary men’s basketball coach John Wooden, whose ten NCAA national championships confer an aura of wisdom for his approach. “We who coach have a great influence on the lives of all the young men who come under our supervision,” Wooden began, “It is essential that we regard this as a sacred trust.”

“[A]pproval is a great motivator,” he explained. “I try to follow any criticism, whenever possible, with a pat on the back, realizing that I cannot antagonize and influence at the same time. . . . I seldom punish players at practice or in front of others. . . . I want the boys to come out to practice, and I want them to get a certain amount of pleasure out of basketball.  It’s a game.  It should be fun.”

Former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, with 11 NBA championships under his belt, says that “[m]anaging anger is every coach’s most difficult task. It requires a great deal of patience and finesse because the line between the aggressive intensity needed to win games and destructive anger is often razor thin.”

Oklahoma’s three-time national champion football coach Bud Wilkinson similarly advised that “you can motivate players better with kind words than you can with a whip.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former Army football player who knew a thing or two about military and civilian command, offered this distinction between motivation and intimidation: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.”

Different Approaches

Coaches can be demanding, and many of the best ones are. Demanding the best from players, however, is different from humiliating them. The best coaches can tell the difference between positive reinforcement and intimidation, and so can their players. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was right that “[e]ven a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.”

[Source: Cindy Boren, Tino Martinez Resigns After Abuse Allegations, Washington Post, July 29, 2013; Rutgers Fires Coach Mike Rice, (Apr. 3, 2013); Players Say Ex-Oakland Women’s Basketball Coach Beckie Francis Fixated on Weights, Pushed Christianity, Used Intimidation, Detroit Free Press, July 21, 2013; John Wooden, The Call Me Coach, pp. 99, 109, 115 (1972)] Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, 268 (2013).

COACHING TIPS: How to Keep Practices Fun During a Long Season

Broccoli and Dessert:

How Practice Sessions Can Maintain Youth Leaguers’ Enthusiasm During a Long Season

In recent years, youth sports seasons have grown longer and longer.  In the not too distant past, the four sports seasons tended to last about three months each.  Athletes could usually move from one season to the next with some rest and minimal overlap.

Not so these days. In my own sport of hockey, for example, the “winter” season sometimes opens for youth leaguers with practices or games in late August or early September, even before National Hockey League teams open training camp.  The season sometimes lasts until playoffs or tournaments in April.

This “schedule creep” imposes challenges on youth leaguers and their families, but I leave discussion of these challenges for another day. This column concerns the challenges that coaches face as they strive to maintain their players’ enthusiasm and attention spans during a season that may consume half the year or more.

I have watched perceptive coaches “keep the fires burning” by skillfully motivating their teams with a medley of reason and psychology.  But I have also watched coaches who could not understand why absenteeism and other signs of mental fatigue sometimes increased late in the season. These signs often seemed most apparent on teams with losing records, but they also plagued teams with winning records. Late-season mental fatigue can doom a team that is locked in a close race for first place, or that plays in a league whose playoffs mean more than the regular season standings.

Throughout a long season, coaches need to conduct practice sessions marked by a healthy diet of both “broccoli” (preparation that hones fundamentals, skills and strategy) and “dessert” (preparation that accents fun and permits a measure of mental unwinding).  Here are five ways to do it.

1)  “Front loadingand pacing.  In the last two weeks, my columns have discussed why coaches should develop the season’s lesson plans before the first practice session.  Coaches teach most of these lessons before the opening game, and then adapt to the team’s circumstances throughout the season by adding new lessons and reinforcing old ones.

When the coaching staff knows that the season will last six months or more, mental fatigue is predictable for at least some players. Coaches should plan for this fatigue by “front loading” – by teaching most essential lessons before the first game. As the coaches reinforce these lessons throughout the season, they can also pace the team by easing up on instruction in the last weeks or months unless the players show signs of lapsing into bad habits.

Pacing the team does not mean designing practice sessions that abandon fundamentals, skills and strategy in favor of uninterrupted fun.  Pacing does mean achieving a healthy balance that maintains not only the players’ physical edge but also their mental edge.

As a youth hockey coach who sought balance, I recognized that players need repetition of fundamentals, skills and strategy because kids sometimes forget what they previously learned and may lapse into bad habits unless practice sessions provide positive reinforcement.  But I also recognized that 50 minutes of skating drills during every one-hour practice session would leave many players mentally flat.  I remembered what my coach Dave Snyder said before each game at Wesleyan University: “Hockey is half physical; the other half is mental.”  Top performance in games demands 100% effort, so most teams do not win consistently with practice sessions that emphasize the first half to the virtual exclusion of the second.

2)  Do not tell the players that you are managing their “diet” of broccoli and dessert; just do it.  Players need and deserve plenty of practice drills that stress fundamentals, skills and strategy because they joined the team to learn the game. Coaches disserve the learning process when they entice players to endure these drills before being rewarded with fun near the end of the session. (“Let’s get through with the work, and then we can have some fun.”) 

Characterizing fundamentals, skills and strategy as work to be endured does no one any good.  Psychology is the coaches’ province, and the team is much better off when the coaches skillfully inject fun into the practice without explaining themselves to the players. 

3)  Some kids do like broccoli if it is prepared right.  In 1990, President George H.W. Bush made headlines (and raised the hackles of some farmers) when he publicly banned broccoli on Air Force One, the Presidential jet.  “I do not like broccoli,” he said, “I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”

But steaming, cheese sauces, casseroles, and spices can make this important vegetable downright tasty, even for kids.  With some imagination and forethought, coaches can similarly inject spice and taste into some practice drills designed to develop fundamentals, skills and strategy. Sometimes a coach can take a standard drill and add an element of challenge, such as a competition among team members who each keep score.  Sometimes the coach can provide instruction and fun at the same time, as I did when my squirt and high school hockey teams often played soccer on the ice to develop their footwork, skating and balance.  The players dribbling the ball and kicking it toward the net thought that they were just having fun, and I did not tell them anything about the skills component.

4)  Most practice sessions need some dessert, even early in the season.  I recall a scene from “Hoosiers,” the classic 1986 movie that starred Gene Hackman as the new basketball coach of a small Indiana high school.  As he drilled the team hard during an early-season practice, a player called out, “When do we scrimmage?” “We don’t scrimmage,” Hackman answered, “and no shooting either.” “That ain’t no fun,” responded the player. “My practices are not designed for your enjoyment,” Hackman shot back. “You are in the Army. You’re in my Army. Every day between three and five.”

What works in Hollywood may not work well in real life. Early-season practice sessions set the tone for the next few months, so before too long these sessions would end with a few minutes of “free” intrasquad scrimmaging. (In a “free” scrimmage, the teams play without interruption, except for faceoffs and line changes; in a “controlled” scrimmage, the coach stops play intermittently to make corrections and offer instruction as the play progresses).  Depending on the players’ moods and the team’s performance, I might increase free scrimmage time later in the season.

Especially late in the long season, if a practice session followed only a day or two after a tough game, we sometimes scrimmaged the entire practice if the coaches felt that the players needed the break. In the last few weeks of the season, I would begin to stress the playoffs if we qualified or might qualify, but I would also include some free scrimmage time if I sensed mental fatigue because I wanted the team to remain sharp to the very end. Wins and losses near the end of the season count as much in the standings as wins and losses at the beginning.

I also remained wary of over-scrimmaging.  Intrasquad scrimmaging may help maintain the players’ mental edge by re-charging their batteries, but scrimmaging can also reinforce bad habits and leave some important players (such as the goalie in hockey) standing around too much without the physical conditioning that constant action in well-designed drills can provide.  Unlike well-designed drills, intrasquad scrimmages may not keep all players active at once. Some teams that over-scrimmage in practice suffer in games because scrimmages can resemble free play more than they resemble actual game conditions.

5)  Listen to what your players do not say.  When coaches love the sport and remain committed to doing a good job, they can easily overlook tell-tale signs of some players’ mental fatigue.  The players’ world view can be much different from the coaches’.

Watch the players carefully.  As the season nears the homestretch, are rates of absenteeism from practice increasing?  Do players still enjoy the chatter and camaraderie of the locker room or the bench before and after practices? Do players maintain spring in their step and smiles on their faces as they arrive for practice, participate in practice, and leave afterwards? Or do they look like they are “walking the last mile”?

Players have several ways to tell their coaches or parents when mental fatigue begins to set in.  Some players say it in words.  Consciously or unconsciously, other players convey the message silently through their body language, demeanor, and other non-verbal communication.  Coaches (and parents) help the team’s performance when they remain alert for these indicators.              




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

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

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

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

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

“Storming” and “Dogpiling”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adults’ Responsibilities to Youth Leaguers

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

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

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

A Wise Investment of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Celebrating Diversity in Youth Sports

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

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

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

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

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

Participating in Mainstream American Culture

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

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

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

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

The Value of Inclusion

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

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

Assessing the “Adultification” of Youth Sports

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

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

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

Different times.  Different foreign language.  Same story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the Discussion About Youth Sports

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

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

* * *

A Sample Letter

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

“To the editor:

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

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

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

Douglas E. Abrams


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

Crucial Coaching Conversations

By Doug Abrams

Normally I do not use this column to reinforce what Rick Wolff discusses on Sunday mornings because his thoughtful commentary about youth sports needs no reinforcement from me.  I make an exception here, however, because last Sunday’s show – about what Rick calls “Crucial Coaching Conversations” – recalls a story that has stayed with me ever since I played Babe Ruth League baseball as a teenager nearly fifty years ago.  It is a particularly positive story, one worth telling here for its useful message.

Words That Last a Lifetime

“Lots of us in our 40s, 50s or 60s,” Rick said at the top of Sunday’s show, “can still vividly recall what a coach said to us back when we were playing in high school or junior high school, even at the Little League level. All these years later, we still recall those words and how they cut to the quick because . . . we had somehow made a mistake or disappointed the coach.”  The words “probably meant nothing to the coach at the time — but for us, the recipients, those words stung big-time, and they lasted a lifetime.”

A coach’s words can indeed hurt but, as Rick also said on Sunday, words can  reassure if the coach remains compassionate in the face of adversity by delivering support that helps “make sure that the kid . . . bounces back to play even harder next time.”  The key is knowing “what the kid needs to hear,” particularly when something has just gone wrong. 

In the spring of 1966, I was a 15-year-old freshman at Clarke High School in Westbury, Long Island, and my parents signed me up to play in the Babe Ruth program sponsored by the Central Nassau Little League.  My team was the “Pan Am Jets,” and the manager was Nick Economopoulos, a star catcher on Clarke’s varsity baseball team who had just finished his junior year. After years of playing for talented adult managers, now I played for a talented manager who was almost a peer.

On Sunday morning’s show, Rick’s second hypothetical situation concerned a Little League shortstop who booted a routine ground ball in the last inning as the winning run scored.  The hypothetical hit home because my Little League story is almost a carbon copy.  Late in the season 46 years ago, the Jets lost in the last inning when I, playing first base, let a slow roller dribble through my legs as the winning run scampered across the plate.

A few minutes later, I needed a ride home, and Nick offered.  He had never showed anger at the team before, but I was feeling mighty guilty and wondered whether he was angry at me for costing the team the game.  It turned out that our conversation in his car was thoroughly pleasant, with no hint at all about our loss or my part in it.  He was already talking about our next game, when he said I would still be playing first base.  

On the way home, the car radio played a new hit song, “Summer In the City,” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. (One of the 1960s best tunes!).  For the next 46 years, I have thought of Nick whenever I hear that oldie because the ride home that day – our “crucial coaching conversation” — was such a pleasant experience after my last-inning error.  Even as a teenage coach, he knew what to say and how to say it.

When Nick and I reconnected for the first time in decades about four years ago, I had great fun telling him that story.  By that time, he sat on the Wallingford (Conn.) Town Council after retiring from a successful career as a teacher and girls’ varsity basketball coach with more than 600 wins and five state championships.  Much indeed had happened since the Pan Am Jets, the first team he ever coached.

Nick probably did not remember our conversation in his car on the ride home that day in 1966 – but I remember.

The Serious Business of Youth Coaching

What is the message of this story about my late-inning error?  Rick is right that the coach’s individual praise and harsh criticism each carries lasting force.  Kids are perceptive and sensitive, and they want to please their coaches because sports is such a big part of a young athlete’s life.  


Coaches may initially be unaccustomed to having other people’s children hang on their every word, but coaches hold both the power to praise and the power to devastate.  That awesome power comes with the territory, and the best coaches exercise it prudently because they understand that influencing children is serious business.


Youth coaches are on stage whenever they are within earshot of any of their audience, the players.  Coaches risk losing the players’ affection and respect whenever they forget that, as stage and screen actress Shirley Booth said soon after winning an Academy Award in 1952, “the audience is 50 percent of the performance.”


And to paraphrase Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby, “Kids remember the darndest things” years later.  Even music on the car radio.

The “Inescapable Problem”: Remaining Active in Sports After the Last Game

By Doug Abrams

Sooner or later, all youth league, high school, and collegiate athletes confront what writer James A. Michener called “the inescapable problem” – the need to readjust when their playing career ends.  The end comes sooner for some athletes than for others, but it comes — about 70% of youth leaguers quit playing by their early teen years, only a few high school players reach the top college ranks, and even fewer collegians ever reach the pros.   

The athlete may get cut from a higher-level team, suffer a serious injury, or graduate from school.  Other extracurricular pursuits may replace time spent playing, or family responsibilities may beckon as career obligations consume time once spent on play.  For players who continue in less formal community leagues into their twenties or thirties, physical skills diminish.

I often talk with my former youth hockey players about the “inescapable problem.”  Sometimes the conversations come years after the players graduated from high school, when they are in their thirties or forties and they tell me how much they still miss playing.  Many have not laced up their skates for years.

My former players’ ears sometimes perk up when I tell them that they can return to competitive hockey immediately if they really want to.  Without tryouts or windsprints, without having to shed the few extra pounds, and without seeking pointers from The Twilight Zone or Back to the Future.   I tell them that they can stay active by working with today’s kids as a youth league coach or official.

Time and Change

An old proverb advises that “all good things must come to an end.”  For most people who love playing in youth leagues or in high school or college, sports is a “good thing.”  When the cheering stops, some players move to new pursuits without looking backward. But other players find it difficult to let go because sports has become such a big part of who they are.

In his perceptive book, Sports in America (1976), Michener emphasized a person’s needs for continued physical exercise throughout adulthood, often in carryover sports such as swimming, jogging, aerobics, racquet sports, or in “over-40” or “over-50” leagues in a variety of games.  I too tell my players about the value of a healthy lifestyle rich in physical activity, but I also tell them something more.    

I tell them that if an athlete does not want to leave the sport, the last game does not necessarily have to be the “end.”  Indeed the athlete can view the last game as a new beginning in the sport, as I did when I turned to youth league coaching after my last collegiate contest.  The transition to coaching or officiating usually means enlisting in a local youth league, recreational or high school program, which adults can do regardless of whether their child participates.  Most adults devote some time to volunteer community service, and coaching or officiating for the younger generation is ideal for an athlete whose background and experience can help make a difference.  Officiating was never my cup of tea, but I coached youth hockey coach at all age levels for nearly 35 years after I played my last collegiate game, and I never felt that hockey had ended for me.

The transition from player to youth coach or official takes planning because time — a person’s most valuable commodity — is limited for most adults who also have obligations to family and employment.  Despite their best intentions, many adults simply cannot make the considerable time commitment needed to be a head coach or full-time official in youth leagues, particularly if their own child does not play on the team.  But many of these same adults can enlist as assistant coaches or part-time officials.  Leagues and teams can appreciate the services of a man or woman who candidly promises less-than-total availability, and then delivers.

Assistant coaches normally do not shoulder the heavy burdens of planning practices, arranging road trips, and maintaining direct relations with parents.  Depending on their background in the sport, a former player can sometimes volunteer as a specialty coach, such as a pitching coach in baseball or a goalie coach in hockey.  In some leagues, qualified officials are in such short supply that a limited schedule can also find a warm welcome. 

When an adult turns to youth coaching or officiating, the players come first.  As writer Thomas Wolfe said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”  Coaches agree to teach from background and experience, not to try in vain to relive the “good ol’ days” vicariously through the kids.  The coaches had their day; today belongs to today’s kids.

 Conclusion:  “Can This Really Be the End?”

“Oh, momma, can this really be the end?”  

Bob Dylan asked this question in his hit song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”  I tell my former players that when an athlete plays the last game and faces the “inescapable problem” of what to do next in sports, the answer to the question is really up to the athlete.  By sharing their background and experience in the game while setting the right example, youth coaches and officials can postpone the end of their sports careers for as long as they wish.

Come to think of it, the decision whether to begin coaching or officiating also reminds me of inspirational lines from “Forever Young,” another song by Dylan (who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Obama earlier this week):

“May your hands always be busy/ May your feet always be swift/ May you have a strong foundation/ When the winds of change shift/. . . .  May you stay forever young.”


[Source: James A. Michener, Sports in America, ch. 9 (1976)]

The Power of “Thank You” (Part II)

By Doug Abrams

Three weeks ago (before spending two weeks with the Southhampton field hockey appeal), I had mixed feelings about discussing the topic of “thank you’s” in youth sports. I wondered whether most parents really needed a pep talk about why they should be sure to thank the men and women who coach their children.  But then I remembered my decade as president of a youth hockey program, when I had seen too many devoted coaches go unthanked by good parents who I knew were appreciative.  On balance, a gentle reminder seemed to be in order.      

Go figure.  I had mixed feelings, but of all the columns I have written on Rick Wolff’s blog in the past year or so, the “thank you” column drew the greatest response from my friends and former players, and even from people I have never met.  Reactions to the column reaffirm that writers cannot always predict what will strike a chord. 

The mother of a player I coached in the early 1970s emailed me within a day to say that “Thank-you’s are like smiles — you can never give too many!”
A player I coached at a summer hockey camp in the 1980s agreed that “you cannot say thank you too many times!”  Rick Wolff cut to the essence of the issue: “Too few parents ever understand that the vast majority of coaches are volunteers — and would love to get a pat on the back.”  

Perhaps the column made an impression because, amid the coarseness that marks so much of youth sports these days, many parents do want a more respectful sports environment for their children and their families.  And because expressions of gratitude still do work magic in and out of sports.

Products of Our Past

My parents taught that magic early, and my first professional mentor reinforced the lesson shortly after I graduated from law school 35 years ago.  My siblings and I learned to say thank-you when someone did us a good turn; in our house, thank-you’s soon became a race as we kids would remind our parents that we had beaten them to the punch by already saying it.    

In 1976, I began my legal career as law clerk to Judge Hugh R. Jones, whom the New York Times later called the “intellectual leader” of the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Soon after Judge Jones died in 2001, I wrote a remembrance in the Albany Law Review.  When I read the remembrance again last month after ten years, I saw that I really wrote about the “power of thank you.”

I recalled Judge Jones’ uncommon courtesy, not only during my two-year clerkship, but also during the 25 years that I knew him.  “Above everything else,” I wrote, “a Hugh R. Jones clerkship taught that to be a good lawyer, one must first be a good person. Whenever someone walked into the Judge’s office while we clerks in the outer chambers were attending to other matters, his greeting gave no hint whether the visitor was the Chief Judge or the janitor who emptied the wastebaskets; Judge Jones gave everyone the same warm welcome. . . .  Even his most ordinary requests were punctuated with ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

Judge Jones’ most enduring lessons,” I concluded, “were unrelated to doctrine.  He taught us how to perceive law and its place in human experience. He taught us how to think and reason. Most important, he taught us how to live.”


* * * *

Judge Jones lettered in basketball and tennis at Hamilton College in the early 1930s.  He loved sports and understood teamwork in his personal and professional life, and his timeless lessons resonate in today’s youth sports.   I repeat what my column three weeks ago suggested to sports parents about recognizing their children’s coaches:  “Shaking hands and saying thank you takes very little effort, but recognizes a job well done.”   I won’t write about thank-you’s again, but reactions to Part I of this column show that the point was worth making.

Why Civil Rights Were at Stake in the Pilaro Field Hockey Case

By Doug Abrams

Fourteen-year-old Keeling Pilaro will play field hockey for Long Island’s Southhampton High School again next season after all.  On Tuesday morning, his continued participation was approved by a close vote of an appeals panel of Section 11, which supervises Suffolk County’s high school sports.  The ultimate issue was whether Title IX would permit him to play on the girls’ field hockey team because his high school does not field a boys’ team in that sport.  “Title IX,” of course, is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the landmark congressional statute that prohibits gender discrimination in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The Pilaro case attracted national, and indeed international, attention as a so-called “reverse discrimination” case, which saw a boy assert rights under a mandate that Congress designed to produce gender equity by overcoming barriers historically imposed against girls and women.  Gender-discrimination challenges by boys and men are actually quite common in American law, but these challenges raise eyebrows, even when (as often happens) the male challenger wins in the Supreme Court or the lower courts. 

In the Pilaro case, plenty of eyebrows were raised among both supporters and opponents of Keeling and his parents.  In Newsday and other interactive newspaper websites, opponents argued, among other things, that (1) the Pilaros should not have hired a lawyer, (2) the Pilaros should not have said that they would challenge an adverse Section 11 ruling in court, and (3) Keeling should choose a “boys’ sport” rather than “girls’ sport.”  According to two of the more than 200 readers who have weighed in on Newsday’s website alone, “It’s pathetic that he is not playing lacrosse instead of field hockey,” and “[H]ere is what it comes down to these days, ‘if my kid doesn’t get his way, we’ll just sue sue sue.’”   

Vindicating Civil Rights

Each of these three arguments misses the point. Title IX is a civil rights statute, enacted by Congress to eradicate gender discrimination in elementary, secondary and higher education.  Indeed, Congress expressly patterned Title IX after Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination for race, color, or national origin in “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

The United States was built on challenges asserted by persons who believed that official action violated civil rights granted to them by statute or the Constitution.  And yes, lawyers typically represent these challengers as they seek vindication before administrative agencies and courts.  Sometimes challengers win and sometimes they lose, but seeking to vindicate one’s civil rights under law is as American as apple pie. 

Field hockey is only a game, of course, and one youngster’s participation or non-participation at one Long Island high school may seem like no big deal in the grand scheme of things.  Surely the Pilaro case did not concern world peace, nuclear disarmament, or any of the other momentous public issues that concern us these days.  But to a 13-year-old, playing a chosen sport is a big deal.  The Pilaro case’s outcome was a big deal because Congress and the U.S. Department of Education have rightfully made civil rights challenges under Title IX — by individual women and men alike — a big deal for the past four decades.

One person’s solitary effort to secure a civil rights law’s protection may seem like small potatoes, but potatoes tend to appear larger when they are your potatoes.  I recall Wisconsin v. Yoder, a 1972 case brought by a group of Amish parents who believed that application of the state’s compulsory education act to their older teens violated their First Amendment rights to free exercise of their religion.  The state act required parents to send their children to public school until the age of 16 (unless they attended private school or were home schooled), but the Amish parents asserted that their religious beliefs compelled an end to formal schooling at 14.  The parents took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and they won.  

What was at stake in the Yoder case?  The Supreme Court victory overturned the fine that state authorities had imposed on each parent for violating the compulsory education act.  The fines amounted to five dollars each.

Choose Another Sport?

It is no answer to say that Keeling Pilaro could choose another sport.  Of course he could, but imposing that choice does not answer the question whether Title IX’s civil rights mandate entitles him to play field hockey.  A person denied civil rights can usually find a less palatable alternative, but resolution of civil rights guarantees must come first.

When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, for example, she had alternatives.  She could have walked to work, driven to work, asked a friend to drive her, or taken a taxi.  Or she could have stayed home altogether.  But with the help of lawyers, she challenged discrimination and asserted her civil rights as she saw them.  We know the rest of the story as the Civil Rights Movement moved into high gear.

Nor is it an answer to dismiss field hockey a “girls sport.”  In most of the rest of the world (including Ireland, where Keeling spent his early years and learned to play), field hockey is a sport for males and females alike in local, regional and high level national competition.  Indeed, men’s field hockey worldwide is considerably older than women’s field hockey.  

Field hockey evolved as a female sport in the United States partly because of the sort of gender discrimination that Title IX seeks to combat.  When I was in high school in the late 1960s, field hockey was one of the few socially acceptable sports for the relatively few girls who chose to play interscholastic sports at all.  Without artificial turf that came only later, field hockey was a rather slow game, played on grass that was often too long and usually had the rough surfaces that characterize natural lawns.  Players did not get too dirty, and the players typically wore skirts that made them look like — well — girls.


In fact, girls in the United States often participate on boys athletic teams and (less frequently) boys participate on girls teams in sports not classified as contact or collision sports.  I found the Readers’ Comments to Newsday’s coverage of the Pilaro case to be tough reading because many missed points such as this, but also because so many comments descended into the snide innuendo that passes for public discussion whenever a newspaper covers a controversial matter these days and invites readers’ responses from the anonymity of the keyboard.  I can only imagine the content of the comments that did not pass’s Terms of Service.

As I wrote in last week’s column , Title IX has changed America for the better by helping to bring girls and women closer to the mainstream of our national life.  I am glad that the Pilaros stood up for their son in this case, however, and equally glad that they won before the Section 11 appeals panel.  I felt that fairness was on the Pilaros’ side, and that they stood an excellent chance on court review of an adverse decision.  As I said last week, Keeling “plays clean; fits in well with his coaches and teammates; holds the support of his school’s administration; and poses no safety risk to girls because, at 4’8” and 86 pounds, he is smaller than many of them.” 

Unless the safety factor changes in future years, Keeling Pilaro now gets to play his sport as girls strive to develop their own skills to meet the competition. This equation is why the United States has civil rights laws, and why — win or lose — these laws deserve robust enforcement.