What Happened From The Last Generation of Sports Parents to Today?

I spent some time reflecting on how today’s generation of sports parents are so much different in their approach to their kids in sports than parents were 20-25 years ago. And I think I’ve pinpointed some of the more compelling forces:

1. Today’s pro athletes make mega-fortunes. A generation ago, pro athletes were wealthy, but today’s athletes are more like corporate entities with the millions they rake in. As such, parents today feel that it’s very much worth the time and expense to push their kids ahead in sports since the payoff is potentially worth millions.

2. And besides, even if the kid doesn’t go pro, he/she should at least get a college scholarship for sports. Parents today see that as almost a birth-right for their kids. What they don’t know is that most athletic scholarships are worth only a few thousand dollars, as most college sports programs don’t generate any revenue.

3. Parents today also assume that if their kid is the team MVP or makes All-League  in HS, that will give them a major step-up in terms of being recruited for a top college. Again, that’s a myth. The college coaches recruit only those kids who have major, major athletic credentials – and being HS MVP or All-League is no longer viewed as a major accomplishment by the recruiters.

4. Travel teams – which of course didn’t exist 30 years ago – are seen as giving a kid a major advantage over their peers. But here again, there’s no guarantee that your son/daughter will even be good enough to make a travel team (making them into a “has been” at an early age). And even if they make a travel squad, then there’s always the squabbles about playing time and playing the right position. Again, these issues didn’t exist a generation ago. Plus, very few travel team kids will tell you they play for fun – that’s not a top priority.

So, what does all this mean? Hard to say, except that it does seem that when we were kids, playing sports in the backyard, or on the sandlot, was a lot more enjoyable, less pressured, and overall a better experience. The real question, then, is how come we don’t want the same kind of experience in sports for our kids?

HS swimmer loses athletic scholarship: sues her guidance counselor

In one of the strangest cases I’ve read about in some time, a champion HS swimmer from Missouri was offered an athletic scholarship to Colorado State University – -only to find that it was rescinded when the college admissions office read the less-than-flattering report from the girl’s HS guidance counselor.

In short, Shannon McKoy, who had won all sorts of awards as a swimmer and who carried a 3.0 GPA, was thrilled to receive the scholarship. But the college took it back when it read the recommendation letter from her HS guidance counselor. The counselor rated the girl as being “below average” in several key areas including integrity and leadership.

Outraged, the girl and her parents sued the guidance counselor and the HS. Colorado State, sensing bad publicity, reversed its position and gave the girl her scholarship back. But the lawsuit against the school and counselor continue. Among other claims is that the counselor didn’t even know the swimmer.

In any event, the case has gone national, and the parents are demanding $75,000 to take care of the psychological damages incurred by Shannon, their daughter.

In truth, there are lots of missing pieces in this case. Did the guidance counselor really know the girl? Why didn’t Colorado State simply call the school when it got the report and ask, in confidence, whether there was a problem with this kid’s make-up? And why did the parents make this into a lawsuit – that is, why embarass your kid even more?

All in all, a most bizarre case. But like the case last week where parents sued the hockey league because their kids got cut, this is just another example of sports parents going nuts.

“If you cut my kid from the team, I’ll sue you!”

Holy smokes! A couple of teenager hockey players get cut after trying out for a travel team in Toronto, and their parents filed a lawsuit against the league, coaches, and evaluators for “causing emotional distress” to the kids. The parents want $25,000 on behalf of their kids.

Now, I happen to see this lawsuit as nothing more as a legal way of annoying the league. These hockey parents must realize they have very little chance of winning this case, but their “reward”  is by forcing the league to hire lawyers, go to court, and deal with embarrassing publicity.

But – on the off chance that this case does move forward – can you imagine the precedent this would set? Coaches everywhere would demand to be covered with insurance that protects from these kinds of lawsuits. League administrators would insist that all kids (and their parents) sign waivers before they try out, in which they give up their right to sue in case things don’t work out for the youngster.

Even worse, kids who get cut from a team would no longer use adversity to bounce back from not making the team. Rather, they would simply ask Mom or Dad to hire a lawyer for them. And of course, what happens if the kids do win their case? Are they reinstated on the team? How does a coach handle a situation like that? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this can just spiral out of control in a hurry.

All in all, this case is now in the Canadian legal system. While I am sympathetic with the kids getting cut from the team, I sure hope this doesn’t become the standard way of dealing with adversity. It slashes at the very heart of sports.

The Growing Battle for Fields

Law professor Doug Abrams covered several important topics on my show last week – including cyberpace issues and the safety concerns of having pee-wee hockey players start body-checking – but he also touched on the problem of local towns and communities and school districts dealing with the lack of enough playing fields to serve all the youth league teams.

We all acknowledge that there are usually too many kids but too few fields. But what Doug suggested is that schools and parks and rec personnel get together and truly map out which teams get the fields and at what times. Invariably, says Doug, the elite travel teams barge in and demand more practice and game times than the other regular teams, which is not only unfair but only leads to increased friction.

Too many towns and villages allow this practice to continue. As a result, only the top athletes in a town get the choice fields and hours to practice, and the other kids are given the leftovers. It seems to me that if your town is trying to keep ALL of its kids in shape and you want to build ALL your teams to become highly successful at the HS varsity level, then it’s essential that ALL the kids (not just travel players) are allowed to use the fields in a equal and democratic fashion.

Every town is different, of course. But this planning process does take time and effort, and real cooperation from all parties involved. You really need to keep all the athletes accommodated, regardless of their level of athletic ability. Yes, it does involve compromise. The other alternative is, of course, to simply build more fields.

Why do kids today have more injuries?

Dr. James Andrew, the noted orthopedic surgeon, is spearheading a blue-ribbon list of coaches and doctors to head up a nationwide push to let sports parents that there’s an epidemic of kids getting injured at younger and younger ages. Never before, for example, have so many youngsters needed Tommy John surgery to repair their pitching arms.

As noted on my show, this campaign couldn’t be more timely. We in the US have fallen into the trap of pushing our kids into specializing in one sport at terribly young ages, meaning that the kids run a major risk of burnout as well as becoming hurt from repetitive use.

That being, I do wonder why when we were kids growing up (and we were admitteldy more active than our kids of today), we never had to go through surgery. I can’t ever recall a kid having arm surgery. Yes, some pitchers would occasionally have a tired or “dead” arm, but after a week or two of rest, they bounced back.

In any event, I do want to once more push the idea that there should be a Presidential Commission on Amateur Sports in the US, and the sooner the better. We would all benefit from that kind of Commission.

Finally, one suggestion to Dr. Andrews: since you are so well respected and because you consult with LL Baseball, PLEASE tell them to ban all kids from throwing curveballs immediately. There is clearly no reason for kids to jeopardize arm injuries by throwing curves and sliders, especially at the tender age of 12 or 13.

More so, putting a ban like this into place is pretty simple. Just empower the home plate umpire to give the pitcher a warning whenever a curve is thrown, and if the kid throws another one, then simply remove him from the mound and place him in the outfield or infield. Seems like a pretty simple, and  healthy, decision.

Are we doing travel teams the right way?

There was a long feature piece in the NY Times Magazine section two weeks ago by sportswriter Michael Sokolove in which he focused on the Ajax soccer club in The Netherlands. Basically, the piece zeroed in on how the Dutch go about finding very young talented soccer players (as young as age 5) and how they develop their skills.

The takeaway was interesting in that the Dutch only have the kids practice at Ajax three days a week, and then play only one game on the weekend. That’s it, until they’re 14 or 15. Here, of course, we start our kids on travel teams as early as possible, but unlike the Dutch, we have our kids play pretty much all week and then play in two-three games ove the weekend. In the US, the emphasis is on winning – even at a young age. The Dutch and other European models are all about skill development. Winning, they insist, comes at a later age.

So the question is — are we missing the boat when it comes to developing our young athletes? Maybe we should be emphasizing not only skill development – but just as importantly, not being so eager to cut kids at ages 8 or 10 or 12. It’s essential to recognize that kids often develop as “late bloomers” in their teenage years, but of course, if they’ve been cut from their travel team, there’s really no incentive for them to continue on. And that’s a shame.

Consider the case of Danny Nava. Here’s a kid who was a good, but not great, baseball player in HS. He tried out as a walk-on at the Univ. of Santa Clara, only to be cut. He left Santa Clara, and enrolled at a local junior college where he did well. He ultimately came back to Santa Clara, and played well his senior year. Unfortunately, he wasn’t drafted by any pro team, so he tried out and made a local independent team in Chico, CA. In 2007, Nava had a great year and was named MVP of the Golden Baseball League. The Red Sox noticed, and signed him as a free agent. And then, last weekend, he got called up to the big leagues, and in his first at-bat — on the very first pitch he saw in the majors – he hit a grand slam home run!

In short, another case of a kid pursuing his dream against all odds. And that’s the beauty of sports.

Do kids really love those youth league trophies?

I was cleaning out some boxes in the basement last week, and I came across a box filled with youth league trophies — cheap, inexpensive plastic trophies that my kids got when they played youth sports.

You know what I’m talking about. Every kid who signs up for a team gets a trophy at the season-ending team party – regardless if they played well, played hard, or for that matter, even showed up to play at all. So when I asked on the radio show on Sunday whether or not these trophies had somehow lost their impact, I wasn’t surprised by the response: for the most part, the callers felt that while the kids expected to get a trophy, the truth is, by the time they got home with their trophy, it was immediately put on a shelf and forgotten about. In short, it had no meaning to the youngster because they had done nothing to earn it.

Several callers pointed out that only those trophies or plaques that mean anything to a kid are those in which the youngster has truly earned the honor. Only then it really means something to the young athlete, and it becomes a memento of pride. But when everybody gets a trophy, it just doesn’t mean  much.

Am I suggesting that perhaps the time has come to do away with youth league trophies? Well, maybe. It seems to me there has to be a better way to salute a kid’s efforts and performance – -and to do it in a way that has real significance to the athlete. What do you think?

Throw at An Opposing Batter?….On the Coach’s order?

Here’s one for the books. A veteran HS baseball coach is suspended because he told his pitcher to deliberately throw at an opposing batter.

This took place a couple of weeks ago in upstate NY, and the coach, when he was investigated by his school, actually admitted to doing this. The reasons as to why he told the pitcher to plunk the batter are still unclear, but at least the pitcher – to his credit – refused to follow orders and stalked off the mound in the middle of the game.

Telling a HS athlete to deliberately try and hurt an opponent is, of course, way over the line. There’s just no way to try and even rationalize the coach’s actions who, by the way, also serves as the varsity football coach (you wonder if he ever instructed one of his football players to deliberately injure an opponent).

In any event, all that remains now is that what happens to this coach. The school hasn’t announced its decision yet, but from my vantage point, he should be fired from coaching baseball, and if he’s allowed to coach football again, I’d sure keep him under the microscope and watch him very, very carefully. (By the way, if you want to hear my WFAN show in its entirety, you can go to WFAN.com, click my name on the Personalities link, and you’ll find all my shows archived there).

Doing the right thing: HS pole vaulter disqualified for sporting string bracelet

The case of Robin Laird from South Pasadena HS (CA) was both heartbreaking as well as provocative. As we discussed on the show, the girl thought she had won the track and field league championship for HS team when she won the pole vault event – only to see the opposing coach from Monrovia HS protest her participation because Robin was wearing a small string bracelet on her wrist that supported the World Wildlife Fund.

But the protest was upheld – the California Interscholastic Federation (and many other states) have strict anti-jewelry rules, and sure enough, Robin was disqualified, her pole vault didn’t count, and the championship went to Monrovia.

Lots and lots of calls on this case, e.g. the rules are very clear…her coach should have warned her before she competed…the girl herself should have known the rule, and so on. But no matter how one sliced and diced this case, the one item that bothered me the most was that the opposing coach waited for Robin to compete BEFORE he said he lodged a protest.

That is, shouldn’t he have said something to the girl before she vaulted? As Sports Edge contributor Doug Abrams wrote to me in an email, that would have been the right thing to do. And along those lines, if the CIF knew the coach had deliberately waited to say something AFTER she jumped, then he should have lost the right to file a protest.

To me, it’s a very hollow win for Monrovia HS. Sometimes, coach, you just gotta do the right thing.