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DANGERS OF HAZING: What Needs to Be Done to Prevent Such Attacks

Official Responses to Hazing

 By Doug Abrams

The Ooltewah (Tenn.) High School boys’ varsity basketball season is over. The school superintendent canceled the remainder of the schedule on January 6, after three older players were arrested for allegedly raping a 15-year-old freshman teammate in a cabin during the team’s overnight stay at a tournament in nearby Gatlinburg on December 22. The attack smacked of hazing, an abuse frequently discussed on askcoachwolff.com and in other youth sports circles.

One of the three Ooltewah perpetrators allegedly stuck a pool cue up the victim’s rectum, causing severe lacerations that required a week’s hospitalization after emergency surgery to repair the colon and bladder. The other two perpetrators allegedly pinned the victim on a bed and, according to the victim, filmed the assault on a cell phone. According to WRCB-TV, the three alleged assailants (who are unnamed in the media so far because they are minors) face charges of aggravated rape and aggravated assault, both felonies.

The school superintendent said that he canceled the season to allow law enforcement’s investigation to proceed without disruption. But allegations quickly surfaced that Ooltewah’s basketball program has tolerated a culture of hazing and bullying marked by a pattern of assaults unremedied by coaches or other school authorities.

Absent from the Ooltewah news accounts are statements from other players’ parents complaining that canceling the team’s season unfairly stigmatizes their sons for the misconduct of a few. Such statements sometimes arise when hazing results in sanctioning an entire team, but the Ooltewah assault’s utter savagery may have turned the tables here. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports say that the superintendent acted following mounting community anger directed at school authorities for inaction.

Prevention and Response

Rick Wolff has treated hazing issues several times on “The Sports Edge” and on askcoachwolff.com. I share his disgust with the practice and his calls for meaningful prevention efforts, including written anti-hazing policies backed by removal from the team or other stern punishment for violation. Brooke de Lench, executive director of the MomsTEAM Institute, also places obligations for prevention where they belong — on parents, and on coaches and other league officials.

In any field of endeavor, however, no prevention effort can prevent 100% of the targeted conduct. Just last month, Reuters wrote about a new research paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers found that “hazing is still common in U.S. youth and collegiate sports,” including teams whose institutions presumably maintain written anti-hazing and anti-bullying policies.

Written policies and other prevention efforts have teeth only when authorities vigorously enforce them. Regardless of how events play out in Ooltewah, the remainder of this column provides some general thoughts about how parents, coaches, school authorities, and youth sports associations’ boards of directors should respond when hazing occurs.

When Hazing Happens

Without canceling the season, authorities may discipline the perpetrators while allowing the rest of the team to resume playing. Each case must be judged on its own merits. Are school or team authorities confident that they have correctly identified the perpetrators? Did the perpetrators comprise a sizeable percentage, or a majority, of the team? Was the rest of the team really innocent? Did other players try to cover up the hazing afterwards? Do the other players refuse to identify the perpetrators? What did one or more of the coaches or other authorities know?

Some hazing is so serious that canceling the season is the soundest response. (If the facts are as alleged, the Ooltewah incident would qualify.) Where one or more players ignore a written anti-hazing or anti-bullying policy, prevention efforts have obviously failed. A known culture of hazing and bullying, sustained over time, also demonstrates failure.

To stem existing patterns of abuse and to prevent future abuse, more dramatic official response may be necessary. Cancelling the season, publicized in the school or the media, may send players and their families a message more forcefully than suspending individual players from school or the team, or both, and letting the game schedule proceed.

If authorities cancel the season (or otherwise discipline the entire team) for the misconduct of a few, such collective discipline is consistent with the nature of team sports. Collective punishment may be advisable if the guilty players cannot be identified, or if (as discussed above) a dramatic sanction may seem in order.

One way or another, punishing the entire team is supportable because teams rise or fall as a unit. (Remember the old saying, that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”) If three members of a varsity basketball team combine for a last-second buzzer beater that wins the game, every player – including ones on the bench – share in the victory. If three members commit acts of hazing, every player may share in adverse consequences imposed after authorities do fact finding and consider various options.

Authorities should tread carefully, however, before sanctioning the entire team for the misconduct of a few unnamed perpetrators. For example, imposing team-wide consequences might tar the future reputations of innocent team members, who might remain subject to speculation from employers, colleges, and others about whether they participated in the wrongdoing.

In most states today, however, if the perpetrators are adjudicated in juvenile court for serious crimes such as aggravated rape or aggravated assault, their identities will become part of the public record. If perpetrators of a violent hazing are tried in adult court, their individual identities will also become publicly known.

Much or most hazing probably never reaches law enforcement or the media. In the absence of criminal or juvenile charges, the perpetrators may not remain anonymous for long because kids talk, even when the perpetrators do not film their assaults.

 

Sources:  Tenn. Code Annotated, sec. 39-13-502 (2015) (aggravated rape), sec. 39-13-102 (2015) (aggravated assault); Stephen Hargis and Kendi Anderson, Ooltewah Students Charged With Rape, Assault After Teammate Injured With Pool Cue, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dec. 29, 2015; David Carroll, Supt. Smith Cancels Ooltewah Basketball Season http://www.wrcbtv.com/story/30892245/sources-student-took-video-of-ooltewah-basketball-rape-incident (Jan. 6, 2016); Ooltewah High School Basketball Season Canceled: School Officials Under Gag Order, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Jan. 7, 2016; Brooke de Lench, Bullying: An Ongoing Problem In Youth Sports, http://momsteam.com/health-safety/bullying-ongoing-problem-in-youth-sports (May 12, 2009, and 2013 update); Reuters, Hazing Still Common in Collegiate, Youth Sports (Dec. 24, 2015). (reporting on Alex B. Diamond et al., Qualitative Review of Hazing in Collegiate and School Sports: Consequences From a Lack of Culture, Knowledge and Responsiveness, British Journal of Sports Medicine (Dec. 2015)).

 

 

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TRENDS: More on the Next Generation of Sports Parents

I had no idea that last Sunday’s “Sports Edge” show on what the Next Generation of Sports Parents would generate the response that it did.

In sum, we had by far and away more phone calls on WFAN and more hits on Askcoachwolff.com to this topic that any other topic that I’ve covered in the 18 years I’ve hosted the weekly radio show.

Think about that. More of a response than for shows about concussions…aluminum baseball bats…..kids suffering Tommy John injuries….shows about Title IX issues….countless shows about friction between sports parents and their kids’ coaches. In short, it was astounding.

So I decided to revisit the topic this past Sunday on the show, and once again, received an onslaught of calls. Apparently, parents are concerned about what kind of legacy we are leaving for our kids who play competitive sports, and how they will raise their kids (our grandkids) when they become parents.

Again, the reaction was mixed. Among the calls that came in on the topic included these observations:

— That our kids today definitely have a sense of entitlement when it comes to competing in sports and in life. That our athletes don’t seem to react as strongly to losing and to adversity as we did when we were kids. That is, if a youngster gets cut from a team, or doesn’t get much playing time, then that’s okay with the kid. They accept it and merely move on.

Oh, as one caller observed, they may be disappointed, but they don’t make a personal campaign to improve their game.

Or, another said, that they expect Mom and Dad to step in and rectify the situation with the coach…in other words, kids feel entitled to success.

— One of the major themes is that our athletes don’t seem to have as much fun, or draw as much enjoyment, from playing sports as we did. Too many kids today look upon sports more as simply  a means to get ahead, perhaps into a better college, or to put something more on their resume.

— One Dad chimed in and said that he had raised and coached his son all the way to age 18 in sports, and now that the Dad was a grandfather with a 4-year-old son, he wasn’t sure he was psychologically prepared to go through the same process again. Too much work, too much time, too much effort.

Needless to say, these callers were not too optimistic about these kids becoming sports parents down the road.

ON THE POSITIVE SIDE…

— On the other hand, other callers said that today’s athletes are much more aware of fair play when it comes to sports than we were….that our athletes today are better trained when it comes to a sense of sportsmanship.

— Then others felt that kids today will have their kids shy away from playing competitive sports because they don’t want their children to have to suffer all the stress and anxiety of trying out for travel teams. Let’s face it – we expose our kids to a grueling sense of competition at early ages.

— Then there were some people emailed and said that tomorrow’s sports parents are going to be more competitive than we were, and will start to plan out in advance how their kids are going to be raised playing sports.

Like last week, it was noteworthy as to how insightful the calls were, but also noteworthy that they ranged all over the topic. There was one universal theme, though, and that was it was felt that our kids really don’t go out on their own (as we did) and play pick-up games just because they enjoy the experience – that it’s fun. It’s well accepted that kids today don’t go out and play. They almost need to have a formal practice or a formal game in ordr to participate. Very odd, but that is indeed a large part of the legacy we are leaving for them.

But one happy note. The very last caller said he had enjoyed watching his son play sports from the time the boy was very young, all the way through his HS and college career, and that the son still enjoyed playing sports. The Dad reported that he was absolutely delighted when, out of the blue, his son went to his Dad and thanked him sincerely for introducing him to his sport (soccer) and how much fun he, the son, had had from playing the sport.

It was the perfect way to end my show.

SPORTSMANSHIP: What – If Anything – Should Be Done About Lopsided Scores?

Mismatches, Blow-outs, and Mercy Rules

By Doug Abrams

During the inter-semester break, yet another youth league blowout hit the headlines. The Fresno Bee reported that on December 26, Fresno’s Clovis West High School overwhelmed Rivera High-Los Angeles, 114-9, in a girls preseason basketball tournament in Huntington Beach, California. Clovis West led 42-3 after the first quarter and 74-3 at halftime. Eight Golden Eagles players each ended the game with more individual points than the entire Rivera team.

The Bee article’s web version reported that Clovis West “destroy[ed]” Rivera with “the biggest blowout in Central Section history.” After evident criticism directed at Clovis West, a follow-up Bee article by Marek Warszawski assumed a more restrained tone a few days later.

Warszawski said that the Golden Eagles showed restraint by ending their full-court press during the first quarter, by putting every player into the lineup without overplaying the starters, and by playing a looser defense in the second half. Clovis West’s coach told the Bee afterwards that “we never have nor will be ever intentionally rub someone’s nose in it,” but that the game “could have been a 200-point win – had we wanted that.” Warszawski reported that Rivera’s coach did not request invocation of the league’s “mercy rule,” which would have begun a running clock late in the game.

Controversy

The Clovis West-Rivera game highlights the controversy about how youth coaches, players, and parents should prevent and manage games whose scores spiral out of control. Recent headlines from coast to coast have concerned lopsided games not only in basketball, but also in football, baseball, softball, and other sports.

In many state high school athletic associations and youth leagues, mercy rules seek to hasten the end of especially one-sided games. Once a game reaches the prescribed score differential, the general approaches are either to run the clock in sports such as football and basketball that depend on time, or to call the game prematurely in sports such as softball and baseball. Sometimes the losing team holds the option whether to invoke the rule.

Proponents tend to defend mercy rules as safety measures because blowouts often stem from mismatched size and talent that invite injury, particularly in contact and collision sports. They also argue that mismatches inflict undue public embarrassment to the team on the short end. Proponents say that running up the score demonstrates lack of sportsmanship.

Opponents of mercy rules tend to argue that teams should not be shielded from even lopsided defeats because winning and losing are each part of the youth sports learning process. A solid defeat, opponents say, might even spur the losing team’s players to strive to improve their game. Opponents also argue that invoking a mercy rule can embarrass the underdogs even more than a lopsided final score can. Coaches of strong teams tend to argue that when “mercy” is not forced on them by rule, they can teach players self-control by adjusting their lineups and game plans.

Prevention

Sometimes the soundest – but often, the most ignored – first step is prevention. In interscholastic sports and youth sports leagues alike, mismatches normally do not happen by surprise. Unless one roster is suddenly depleted by illness or injury, mismatches are often predictable from imbalance that surfaces during the preseason period or early in the schedule.

Weaker teams can sometimes prevent mismatches by scheduling games carefully with teams of similar ability, but sometimes teams cannot determine their own schedule or placement.  A high school, for example, might have to play in a particular division for such factors as geography, the size of the school’s enrollment, or lack of sufficient divisions to permit truly competitive placement.

If a team cannot influence the schedule, it may be able to join a division in which it will likely be competitive. But I have seen youth teams that chronically lose by lopsided scores because parents and coaches, acting for their own egos, set up the team for failure by committing to, say, the A Division rather than the B Division.

In some youth leagues, teams are encouraged or required to play preseason “declaration games,” exhibition games that enable league officials and coaches themselves to determine each team’s most appropriate placement. Despite the games’ worthy prevention efforts, I have seen coaches scheme to maneuver their team into a weaker division by underplaying their “big guns.”

Teams sometimes enter tournaments or play open “club” schedules without candidly assessing their own ability level compared to those of likely opponents. If a team fills a schedule by taking on all comers, some of the “comers” may be quite strong.

Tough Calls

When prevention fails for one reason or another in interscholastic and youth league sports leagues, mercy rules depend on tough calls. I know responsible people who support these rules, and I know responsible people who oppose them. I do not question either group’s motives or intent. At the end of the day:

I favor mercy rules when leagues find them advisable to help promote player safety in contact and collision sports. When one football team trounces another by 75 points, for example, significant size and weight disparities likely helped explain the outcome. These disparities can also increase risk of injury to the members of the outclassed team. In 2013, an Arizona high school football player died from a traumatic brain injury suffered in the fourth quarter of a first-round playoff game that his team lost, 60-6.

I do not support mercy rules as measures to help spare the underdogs’ sensibilities. I believe that with proper support and guidance from their parents and coaches, kids can absorb one-sided defeats. I also think that unless the underdog seeks to invoke the mercy rule, ending games prematurely can be as embarrassing as a lopsided score itself. In the big picture of things, players on the losing end will be fortunate if the mismatch turns out to be their only major disappointment on the road to adulthood. Besides, it does not hurt kids to learn that some teams are simply more skilled than others, and that hard work toward improvement remains a worthwhile goal. Most successful athletes learn how to win by learning how to lose.

In the absence of safety concerns, I would prefer to trust both teams’ coaches to manage one-sided games and use them as learning opportunities. Lopsided losses test a coach’s capacity to teach the players resilience and optimism in the face of adversity. Because adulthood brings frequent adversity, the lesson is worth teaching in sports, when the stakes are relatively low. With the parents’ support, talented youth coaches can deliver the right message if they are given the chance.

Coaching through one-sided wins can be as challenging as coaching through one-sided losses (and I have been on both sides of the fence). At least in my experience, most coaches of strong teams do not betray the trust to maintain the losers’ dignity in a mismatch. Most coaches know that without losers, there can be no winners. Most coaches do not seek to humiliate an adolescent opponent, and they feel a sense of embarrassment when the score begins to get out of hand.  Perceptive coaches also recognize that winning big can sometimes lead their own players to arrive at the next game overconfident, mentally unprepared, and primed for an unpleasant shock when the tables turn.

The stronger team’s coach can take reasonable measures to help control a lopsided score by fielding second- and third-stringers, who normally do not get much playing time (and who lose playing time altogether when a mercy rule short-circuits the game). The stronger team’s coach can also adjust the game plan. When my youth hockey teams found themselves on the top end of a lopsided score, for example, I usually asked our players at the bench whether they wanted to continue running up the score, or whether they wanted to slow things down without appearing to embarrass the opposition. They usually chose the latter approach, and their choice created a greater learning experience than a predetermined mercy rule would.

Our defensive players would then play forward, and our forwards would play defense, another learning experience because versatility strengthens any hockey team whose roster might be short some day from illness, injury or family commitments. I would encourage three or four passes in the offensive zone before a shot, useful because youth hockey players can always use more practice with their passing, especially in game situations. Sometimes we worked on new plays and patterns that we had not had much chance to try in games.

Fair Chances and Foregone Conclusions

In any league, one team will finish at the top and another at the bottom, but games challenge players most when both teams sense that they have a fair chance. In my 42 years coaching youth hockey, my teams occasionally won big and occasionally lost big, but the most invigorating games were ones whose outcomes were not foregone conclusions.

 

Sources: Clovis West Wins By 105 Points, Fresno Bee, Dec. 27, 2015; Marek Warszawski, Clovis West Girls Have No Reason To Apologize For 105-Point Win, Fresno Bee, Dec. 31, 2015.

TRENDS: What Will The Next Generation of Sports Parents Be Like?

Have you ever wondered what kinds of sports parents our children will become when they reach their 20’s and 30’s? In effect, what the next Generation of Sports Parents will be like?

Will they become even more super-competitive than we are? Will they try to start their kids (our grandchildren) on an elite athlete pathway at even younger ages? Will they become even more super-competitive, even to the point where they plan and plot the birthdays of their own offspring so that their children end up as the older kids, born right after the cutoff date for travel teams?

Or will these parents go in a totally different direction, and not get involved in in their kids’ sports at all? Just let them do whatever they want to do?

 

I asked this question on WFAN Radio this AM, and had a number of intriguing responses (be sure to find the complete podcast at WFAN.com).

Here’s the problem. In my knowledge and ongoing research, there are no long-range psychological studies as to what we will happen to our kids as they become the Next Generation of Sports Parents.

In other words, in our culture presently, where being the top or premier athlete is seemingly all that counts, have we reached a point where we are pushing too hard on our kids? Are they playing for the dream to turn pro….or just to please us and our egos?

Furthermore, has the fun really been bleached out of the equation? Think about that. From the 1920s to the 1980s, when sports were mostly pick-up games organized by kids and there was minimal parental involvement, we played for fun. But ask yourself: do our kids play for fun? Will our grandchildren play for fun?

I don’t know about where you live, but in my community, I rarely see any kids these days playing pick-up basketball, or touch football, or even soccer matches. Baseball or softball? Not a chance. Ironically, the athletic facilities have never been more plentiful or in better shape. But let’s face it: unless kids play in organized leagues or games sanctioned by parents, you just don’t see kids playing games with their friends It’s pretty much gone from the American landscape. And that doesn’t bode well for the next generation of athletes.

THE CLASSIC STATISTIC

You have all heard this statistic before from the Institute of Youth Sports at Michigan State: that 74% of all kids quit playing sports when they’re 13. …But my theory is this is not all due to burn out. Rather, it’s because kids by that age realize that they’re not going to be a star, so why make the effort? Why bother continuing to play sports through HS and go through all the work and effort that entails if they don’t think that’s going to add to the resume.

What about having fun playing ball for your school team? Doesn’t that count for something? Sorry. Apparently, not any more. A generation ago, making the HS varsity was not only a big deal in one’s town, but it also meant a great deal of fun playing with one’s buddies and friends on the school team. Kids weren’t driven about getting a college scholarship; they were more focused on having a successful season and beating their cross-town rival.

But these days, we’re made our kids mindful of their individual stats, and generating video tape that might capture the eye of a college coach. Would it be nice to have a winning year and beat the school rival? Sure, that’s fine, but too many parents have their kids looking beyond HS to college sports programs.

What gets squeezed out? Having fun. Generating memories. In short, being a kid. Those all get pushed to the side.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Sadly, the majority of the callers today felt that things are only going to get worse as our kids become sports parents. We’ve done TOO good a job in teaching them how to find that extra advantage, that extra edge to make them superior to their peers in sports. And when they have kids of their own, the consensus was that the lessons we taught our kids about how to get ahead in sports will not be forgotten.

As for fun? Well, that’s not a top priority these days, and most likely won’t be for the next generation either.

What a shame.

 

 

LEGAL CONCERNS: Are We Witnessing the End of Pop Warner Football?

Pop Warner Football has been an American tradition since at least the early 1950’s. Literally millions of kids and several generations of young athletes have learned how to play and enjoy tackle football from playing Pop Warner ball.

But as the scene shifts these days in sports, we may see the end of Pop Warner football soon. Let me explain why.

In 2011, a 13-year-old Pop Warner football player attempted to make a tackle, and he tried to do so by leading with his helmet. Sadly, the boy broke his neck on the play, and he’s now a quadriplegic.  A major lawsuit ensued, brought by the injured boy’s family against Pop Warner. As you might imagine, his medical bills for the rest of his life are going to be astronomical.

The thrust of the lawsuit is that the Pop Warner youth coaches really weren’t trained as to how to teach proper tackling techniques to younger kids. Or as was revealed in this case, the youth coaches hadn’t been paying attention to the coaching videotapes that Pop Warner provides. And that, of course, is most discouraging, to say the least.

Remember that most Pop Warner coaches do something entirely else for a living than coach kids in sports. That being said, it’s fully expected that the coaches will view the training tapes and other coaching materials so that the coaches can teach kids the basics and fundamentals of how to play the game. In this case, it was admitted that the coaches had not done their homework.

HOW MANY LAWSUITS?

Even worse, it turns out that the Pop Warner organization only carries $ 2 million in insurance liability coverage. The boy’s medical bills are going to start around $10 million and will go up. That’s not good news for Pop Warner and its insurance carrier. Yes, they may settle out of court with this young man, but this kind of financial stress is not going to bode well for the long-time football organization. Pop Warner also is looking at a lawsuit from the family of a deceased 25-year-old who killed himself. His family is claiming that the boy became seriously depressed from suffering too many concussions when he played Pop Warner ball. An autopsy revealed a good deal of CTE in the man’s brain.

In addition, as enrollment in youth football has declined suddenly in recent years, it turns out that Pop Warner as an organization has been losing money.  That’s not good news either.

What will happen to Pop Warner? It’s still too early to say. But bear in mind that this an outfit that has simply tried to bring fun into the lives of millions of young football players, and of course, the organization is not about generating profit. Yes, of course, these individuals who have brought suit against Pop Warner have every right to do so.

But as our society continues to be increasingly litigious, it’s just a matter of time before more and more lawsuits are filed against other youth sports organizations. And that could spell the end of these “for fun” operations.

 

 

 

 

SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: New Jersey Divides Public HS Football from Non-Public Programs

The issue of whether public high schools should compete against non-public high schools (meaning private or parochial schools) has been a hot button issue for a long time, and in a lot of different states.

But in New Jersey, this has been a point of contention for several years now, especially in the area of HS football. Over the last decade or so, some of the northern non-public HS football programs have become real powerhouses. I’m talking specifically about schools like Bergen Catholic, St. Joe’s, and Don Bosco. And there are others as well.

Please note that there’s nothing wrong about this. Nor is it illegal. These schools have long recognized that, unlike public HS football teams which are restricted to just those students who live within that school’s district, the non-public schools can and do open their doors to kids from all over. Not just nearby, but some of these student-athletes commute a long distance on a daily basis. Others even come in from neighboring states.

What’s the attraction? Well, for starters, these powerhouse programs have developed into a great showcase for top college coaches, who are eager to scout these top athletes. And of course, as these programs grow in stature and in financial ways, they are able to schedule and compete against other top non-public schools from around the country. I covered the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, a few weeks ago in this space, and IMG is one of the premier HS football teams in the country. And they play against schools like St. Joe’s and Bergen Catholic.

Meanwhile, as for the public HS programs, they keep chugging along, and doing their best against these powerhouse programs, as they often appear on their schedule. You can just imagine if you were a top player for a public school, and when your team gets trounced by a top non-public school, that coach might suggest you ought to consider your talents to a better program….like his.

Now, for public HS coaches, for the most part they have been fed up by this growing disparity. I mean, every athlete and coach wants to compete on a level playing field. But clearly when one team is stacked with great talent from all over, the other team is quickly overwhelmed and demoralized.

NEW JERSEY RULES IN FAVOR OF COMMON SENSE

Two weeks ago, the athletic directors of NJ made history. They passed a strong resolution to separate the non-public football teams from playing the public teams. The measure still has to be affirmed by the Commissioner of Education in NJ, but for me, as an outsider, this just seems like a common sense move.

Let the powerhouse programs play each other. Let the public schools play against the other public schools. There’s no need to try and make a case that this is unfair or wrong. And yes, I recognize that, every so often, a public school football team will upset a powerhouse private school.

But for the most part, as one public HS coach said, “Look, those schools are apples. My school is orange.”

And that’s correct. Over the long haul, there’s no way that growing non-public football programs are ever going to be equal with the local public schools. In this day and age of increased competition and elite programs, kids will have to decide whether they want to enroll in a powerhouse program and run the risk of being a third or fourth stringer and rarely playing. Or would they have more fun playing at the local public HS where they can be a starter and maybe even a star.

Again, this is HS football. Not college ball. To me, it’s a no-brainer. The fun still resides in playing in the games. Play for your local HS team. And remember, if you really do become a star, you can always go on and play in college.

Meanwhile, as one caller asked, “If this is being done in football, why not continue the concept with other sports in NJ, like basketball and baseball?”

Good question. And yes, it’s also a good idea.

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Why It’s Becoming Increasingly Difficult to Recruit More Referees

How Adults’ “Referee Rage” Imperils Youth Leaguers’ Safety

By Doug Abrams

Under the headline, “Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect,” the New York Times ran an article late last month about the acute shortage of experienced youth sports officials in many communities. The Associated Press reported that “[b]y all accounts, finding and retaining referees is becoming more and more difficult” because of “growing animosity and poor behavior among fans and coaches.”

The article is the latest one about veteran officials who are driven to quit, unwilling (as the Times and the Associated Press put it) to be “yelled at, threatened or insulted” game after game. Newspapers regularly run similar articles about “referee rage,” the verbal and sometimes physical abuse that parents and coaches inflict on game officials. This summer, for example, the Minneapolis Star Tribune rans a similar story, “Help Wanted: High School Officials.” A few years ago on this blog, I wrote about a Deseret (Utah) Morning News article which explained that “[b]rand-new officials often suffer through their first season of abuse before deciding that refereeing just isn’t worth it.”

Some results of the nationwide shortage of experienced referees are readily apparent to anyone who pays even glancing attention. Games might have to be postponed, rescheduled, or even canceled. Seasons may have to be shortened so that league schedules do not outpace the roster of available officials.

This column concerns a more serious result that can escape notice as leagues scurry to recruit and train replacement officials. Many of the replacements are less experienced, and they are unprepared to maintain control of fast-paced games. Particularly in contact and collision sports at the older age levels, inexperienced officiating can increase the risk of injury to players, including ones who play clean.

Enforcing the Rules

“To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” The American Academy of Pediatrics reports agreement among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

Particularly in contact or collision sports at older age levels, essential enforcement of the rules and control of the game can suffer when so many veteran officials hang up their whistles each year. But for the veteran officials’ premature departure, many of their less experienced replacements would not yet be on the field.

“They Can’t Figure Out Why”

In suburban Chicago in late 1999, rabid parents and coaches had overwhelmed the outmanned referees throughout an entire junior varsity hockey game, whose final score meant nothing in the big picture of things. At the final buzzer or a second or two afterwards, a player skated full speed across the ice, blind-sided a 14-year-old opponent who had scored a three-goal hat trick, and body-checked him head-first into the boards. “That’s what you get for messing,” the player glared at his victim who lay prone on the ice, permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

The victim could have been any parent’s child. No news account suggested that the victim played dirty. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the target of impulsive violence at the end of a game that was out of control from the opening faceoff. If the referees, parents, and coaches had maintained control as both teams tried their best to win within the rules, the victim would likely have walked out of the rink because players supervised by responsible adults do not race several yards to drive opponents’ faces into the ground at the end of a game.

A year after the ill-fated JV hockey game, a veteran referee told the Chicago Daily Herald that “nothing” had changed in Chicago-area high school hockey. “It’s just as bad as it ever was,” the referee said. “There’s kids being carried off the ice every night.  “You have parents acting like animals in the stands, coaches acting like animals on the bench . . . “[b]ut when their kid gets hurt, they can’t figure out why.”

For the sake of their own children, parents and coaches need to “figure out why” by identifying a relationship between adults “referee rage” and players’ safety. Then, the adults need to maintain self-control, even during heated games. Connect the dots.

 

Sources:  Assoc. Press, Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect, N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2015; David La Vaque, Help Wanted: High School Officials, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 31, 2015;  Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News Apr. 26, 2005; Chris G. Koutures & Andrew J. M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, Pediatrics, vol. 125, p. 410 (2010); Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, Clinical J. of Sport Medicine, vol. 19, p. 451 (2009); Barry Rozner, One Year After a Hockey Tragedy, What Has Changed?, Chi. Daily Herald, Nov, 3, 2000, at 1. Tony Gordon, Plea Deal Ends Emotional Hockey Case, Chi. Daily Herald, Aug. 8, 2000, at 1; Dirk Johnson, Hockey Player, 15, Is Charged After Seriously Injuring a Rival, N.Y. Times, Dec. 9, 1999, at A21.

SPORT SAFETY: Getting an Insight on Kids’ Vision

Dr. Don Teig is a Florida-based eye doctor who has dedicated his career to not only providing top-flight eye care to professional athletes in a variety of sports, but has also tried to be on the leading edge of technological advancements with sports and eyesight.

In his new book, HIGH PERFORMANCE VISION: How to Improve Your Visual Acuity, Hone Your Motor Skills, and Up Your Game, Dr. Teig presents a number of easy-to-implement vision drills, all designed to help any athlete’s ability with their eyes. Among the various drills we discussed on the radio show this AM, Dr. Teig talked about one exercise for baseball and softball players which will help them develop a quicker reaction time to pitches. In effect, each pitched ball should have a distinct letter painted on it, and the batter is instructed to not only see the pitch but of course, to try and read the letter on the ball.

This kind of focus helps the batter not only see the pitch better, but also trains one’s eyes to see the pitch even longer to the plate. We all know that a typical hitter has less than half a second to determine whether or not to swing at a pitch. This kind of drill allows the batter to really improve their focus and quick reaction time to seeing the ball.

THE EYES HAVE IT

Dr. Teig also talked about dominant eye theory. And again, using baseball or softball as an illustration, he explained how too many batters may be right eye dominant, but when they get into the batter’s box as a right-handed batter, they often don’t turn their head enough to see the pitcher face on. As a result, their right eye is actually shaded by one’s nose, and that means that not only is the batter looking at the incoming pitch with their weaker eye, but they’re not even seeing the pitch in a three-dimension, stereoscopic manner.

I noted that a lot of young hitters focus so much on their legs and hands and arms that they often don’t realize that they have to face the pitcher with both eyes, not just one. (If you don’t believe me, the next time you watch a major league game, note how all the hitters view the pitcher fully with both eyes).

In short, learning how to approach every pitch with both eyes on the ball will greatly enhance your hitting.

Other tidbits from Dr. Teig: are there certain foods that are good for eyes? Kale and spinach, and yes, carrots. Carrots have beta-carotene, which is good for your retina.

Women tend to have better eyesight than men do.

Performance enhancing drugs may improve eye sight, but there are no studies that prove that either way.

One topic that I didn’t have enough to get to was his thoughts about how athletic trainers can detect concussions in athletes. I will try and get that information and post it.

All in all, the topic of eye sight in sports continues to explode in terms of advances. Dr. Teig referred listeners to his website, Highperformancevision associates.com, if you would like more information. And his book is definitely worth ordering from Amazon.

COLLEGE RECRUITING: What’s the Perspective on Recruiting from the College Coach?

Wayne Mazzoni has dual careers: one, he’s the long-time pitching coach at Sacred Heart University (Bridgeport, CT) which is a very successful D-1 program, and two, he’s a nationally-recognized expert on college recruiting (check out his website at CoachWayneMazzoni.com).

Over the years, I have had Wayne on my show to talk about college recruiting tips from the view point of the HS athlete and his or her parents. College recruiting is always a hot topic.

But on this morning’s program, I turned it around a bit. I asked Wayne about how the college coaches themselves viewed the recruiting process, and Wayne’s thoughts were fascinating.

For starters, he emphasized that too many kids (and parents) fail to realize that with the exception of D-I football and basketball, most colleges are very limited by their budget for athletic scholarships, and as a result, it’s the rare athlete who gets anywhere close to a full ride, again, with the exception of football and basketball. As such, Wayne made it clear that many HS athletes, who have excellent grades, can often qualify for an academic scholarship which, along with a partial athletic scholarship, will help pay their tuition.

“If there’s one piece of advice kids need to know is that they really ought to pay attention to their HS grades,” said Mazzoni. “Because if the recruiting college coach can tell the admissions office that your grades are good, that’s going to help a lot in terms of paying bills. Remember, college these days is expensive, and it’s foolish not to get all the scholarship money that you can, regardless of whether it’s for academics or athletics.”

COLLEGE LIFE WITHOUT SPORTS?

In addition, Wayne cited a statistic that most aspiring athletes don’t realize: that about 50% of the kids who start college playing a sport will end up leaving that sport as they continue in college. There could be any number of reasons for this, e.g. injury, lack of playing time, too much practice time, etc. But very few students seem to know this when they look at colleges. Maybe that’s to be expected — after all, they anticipate being a key member of their college team.

But sadly, this doesn’t always happen. And kids can become depressed and lonely when they stop playing their sport in college.

“This is why I tell kids over and over again that you must find a college where you will be happy for four years even if you aren’t playing a sport there,” Mazzoni says. Remember, for most athletes, their career ends at the end of high school. Playing sports in college is extra dessert.

It’s a good point. The attrition rate for kids leaving a college sport is very high. And don’t forget, with each incoming freshman class, there are more recruiting athletes coming into the mix.

ARE SHOWCASES THE ANSWER?

Whether one likes it or not, if your son or daughter wants to be seen by a college coach, getting seen at a reputable showcase is a big, big help. As Wayne says, “I receive hundreds of videotape highlight reels each year, all of them polished, and all accompanied by glowing recommendations from their HS coach. But in truth, I really need to see the youngster play and perform in person. Tapes really don’t help that much.”

He also made it clear that the NCAA has very strict rules and regulations about the recruiting process, and that parents need to understand that the NCAA regs have to be adhered to by the college coach. That being said, any good college program is recruiting for new players 365 days a year, and they are looking for top prospects two years ahead.

One last important point. Wayne made it clear that, sometimes, it seems that kids and their parents are so focused on living their athletic career in the future that they don’t really enjoy the ride during HS. “That’s a shame,” notes Wayne. “You should focus on and enjoy your HS career. Do well there and the future will take care of itself.”

TRAVEL TEAMS: Why Cutting Kids at a Young Age is Counter-Productive

Travel teams, for better or for worse, are everywhere, and there’s no indication that they are going away soon.

And in truth, there are a number of travel programs that are run well and definitely benefit the kids on their team.

But there are just as many, if not more, which are run by people who are not especially well-qualified to work with or to coach young kids. Even worse, these travel coaches often set up teams in which kids as young as 8, 9, and 10 try out, and don’t make the team.

What’s backward and wrong about this is that: a) it’s impossible for any coach, especially an inexperienced travel coach, to determine which kids at age 10 have more potential than the other 10-year-olds, and b) nobody can predict how much a 10-year-old is going to grow and improve during their teenage years.

There is one reality, though, which is universal. When a kid is cut at age 10, it’s very, very rare for that youngster to stay with that sport. Invariably, while they may not understand why they were deemed not good enough, they do comprehend that some of their friends have “progressed” to the travel team, and they are being left behind. That’s devastating for a kid.

HOW DO WE KEEP ALL KIDS PLAYING?

Bob Bigelow, who is based in the Boston area, and has been a youth sports advocate and a champion for reform for many years, was my guest on my WFAN show this AM, and Bob echoed all of these sentiments.

“How can any coach determine who are the better players at such a young age,” asked Bob. “But the even worse part of that is that by cutting kids at a tender age, you are doing real damage to your local high school program. That’s because once kids are let go, they just don’t come back to that sport. That ruins your high school varsity and junior varsity because there are fewer kids competing.”

This harsh reality led to a discussion of why cut kids at all — even from travel teams?

One caller from NJ said that they had found a way around this issue. In his town, they have travel teams for baseball players from age 6 to 16. They had teams at various age levels, and had A, B, and C teams.

But the key to the program’s success is that no one gets cut. Everybody makes a team. And each spring, they are allowed to try out for any level. That is, a kid who was on the B team last spring can try out for the A team next spring. And the caller confirmed that kids routinely go from the B to the A team.

The reason? “Because kids change as they get into their teenage years,” said the caller. “And as the kids get a bit older, they improve with their game.”

As Bigelow and I agreed: “Well, if the kids had been cut at age 10, they sure wouldn’t be playing at age 12 or 14.”

And that’s the point.

BE SURE TO ASK QUESTIONS

Look, travel teams are not going away. But there’s no reason why your local travel programs can’t include various levels of teams, so long as the kids can try out for a new level each year. That’s important. If they are assigned permanently to one level, that’s discouraging, and kids will quit.

One more important point, especially for first-time sports parents. You absolutely owe it to your kids to ask the tough questions of travel team coaches BEFORE the tryouts: Do the kids get equal playing time? Will my son or daughter be allowed to play their favorite position? What happens if we have family commitments and have to miss some games? How much does the program cost? Is the head coach calm with kids, or a yeller and screamer? Who makes the decision on which kids make the team?

Tough questions, to be sure. But better to ask these up front rather than be caught off-guard a few weeks into the season.