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Youth Sports Politics: Adults Feud, Children Suffer

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An article in the Boston Globe, last year,  titled  "Taking the ‘little' out of Little League" reminds us not only about what is wrong in today's youth sports, but how needed reform can occur. 

I wrote this blog in 2010 but the issue continues to come up, questions are asked and think this may help. 

According to the Globe article, the 31-member board of the 14-team Parkway Little League in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, many of whom had been on the board for years and years, had used its power over virtually everything the league did to effectively create a "farm system" that allowed managers in the so-called "majors" to hold some players back in the "minors", to be called up when needed, and permitted certain favored coaches to monopolize talented players.  Not surprisingly, some parents eventually cried foul, claiming the system unfairly penalized some players by holding them out of league-wide tryouts and preventing them from advancing to other major league teams.  A number of long-serving board members had then, the story reported, "hijacked the board and blocked efforts to change the system."

What the article described sounded like the kind of politics and favoritism that a mom described in an e-mail I received several years ago.  She was irate over how grown men could turn what should have been a wonderful Little League baseball season into a joke. Apparently, the player selection system in the town where she lived provided for players to be selected by the coaches in rotating fashion based on a points system. Players in the pool were each assigned a score from the tryouts. Once selected, a player's points were added to that team's total and the team could not select another player until its point total was the lowest.

The system was supposed to ensure competitive balance.  But some coaches apparently figured out a way to beat the system. Because the sons of the head coach and all of his assistant coaches got to play on the same team (let's call the team the "Giants"), and because they just so happened to be fathers of the four "best" players, they could, simply by agreeing to coach together, ensure that they would have far and away the best team. Even though the four players' high point total meant that the Giants had to wait for quite a while to draft other players to fill out the roster - players with much lower point scores than the four stars - it was clear from the get-go that the Giants would steamroll through the regular season undefeated and the playoffs to a championship.  Not surprisingly, that's exactly what happened! They might as well have handed the trophy to the Giants before the season even started. The other coaches, and many parents of players on other teams, quietly grumbled, but nothing was done to change the system.

The Parkway saga escalated to the point that lawyers and Little League  headquarters in Williamsport, PA were called in.  But even the presence of a Little League representative at league meetings and a stern warning letter threatening to revoke the league's charter didn't help.  Only after two months of trench warfare, with both sides refusing to give an inch and the kids caught in the middle, was the logjam broken when the league cut the size of the board in half, showing the door to some of the staunchest defenders of the status quo (and presumably ushering in some much needed changes).

What the battle illustrates is how an entrenched group of adults can take the youth out of youth sports and turn a game for kids into a stage on which to play out adult power games, one where young players are exposed to the risk of permanent injury by ignoring pitch limits and  tryouts, drafts and player placement are manipulated to favor certain coaches, all in the name of winning (and it goes without saying that winning is what this approach allowed Parkway to do; no wonder it won the state championship in 2008 and advanced to the Little League regionals in Bristol, Connecticut). 

Fortunately, what the feud also demonstrates is how a courageous group of parents can successfully challenge the status quo to put the word "youth" back in youth sports, and how it is usually only at the grass roots, community level, that reform takes place.

So what are the lessons of Parkway for sports parents?  Here's just five:

  1. Listen to what children want: Studies repeatedly show that the vast majority of boys and girls, when asked what they would like to see changed about youth sports, say they would like to see less emphasis on winning. We need to start listening to what are children tell us.  All too often, youth sports are adult- not child-centered.
  2. Have the courage to speak up. I believe that a vast silent majority of parents in this country want a youth sports system that serves the interests of children but worry - and not without basis -  that their kids will be ostracized if they challenge the status quo. Those who demand more games, more wins, more trophies, more travel and more of everything tend to have the loudest voices and sound the most convincing. It's up to parents who believe in a child-centered sports system to have the courage to be just as passionate on the side of balance.
  3. Require accountability and transparency by youth sports organizations. Most youth sports organization are run like small- and, in some cases, not-so-small - businesses with virtually no oversight beyond their volunteer board of directors. Push for formation of a Parent Advisory Group representing parents with children currently playing in the program to provide the Board of Directors with feedback. 
  4. Establish term limits. As the Parkway saga shows, directors, administrators and coaches who become entrenched in a program tend to defend the status quo. New blood can keep a program fresh and strong.
  5. Use the power of the permit. In most communities, youth sports organizations need permits from the town or municipality's parks and recreation department to use taxpayer-funded fields, diamonds, tracks, and pools. That makes them subject to public oversight. Priority for permits should be given to programs that serve the interests of children, not overcompetitive adults bent on gratifying their own egos.

These are just some of the ways to reform youth sports.  For more, click here.

 Questions/Comments? Send them to delench@momsteam.com