(Flickr/Public Affairs Office, Fort Wainwright)
Last weekend, I had the great joy of being a judge at the 2013 DC, Maryland and Virginia Louder than a Bomb teen poetry slam competition. For those who don’t know how Louder than a Bomb works, area high schools organize teams who perform in front of an audience of family, friends, fans and, of course, the other competing poets. It’s raucous, intense, and when the emotional weight of a poem connects with a crowd, the adrenaline can suck the air out of a room.
As I was watching these young people unfurl their intense emotional discourses, the sportswriter in me began to ponder what was truly radical about the proceedings. It wasn’t the content of the poems as much as the content of the event itself. Like any great athletic contest, I was seeing the feel of competition push participants to new heights. I saw teams bonding, playing off one another, and working together like one of those Wade-to-LeBron-to-Wade-to-LeBron fast breaks. But I also witnessed an atmosphere that was genuinely supportive, cooperative, and spoke to the best angels of that oft-abused trope known as “sportsmanship.” As I watched this unfold, I asked myself, “Why can’t youth sports be like this?” Yes, it’s true that some teams are fun, some children have terrific experiences and access to youth sports should be universal. But overall, youth sports, to quote my neighbor’s 11-year-old kid, “straight sucks.” Why do 70 percent of kids quit youth sports by age 13? Why do parents get so unbelievably nasty? Why, and this is the most serious point, can it turn suddenly violent?
The day I was judging poets, a soccer referee in Utah, Ricardo Portillo, died a week after being punched in the face by a 17-year-old player because he didn’t like a call that Portillo made on a corner kick. Ricardo’s daughter Johana Portillo told the Associated Press, “Five years ago, a player upset with a call broke his ribs. A few years before that, a player broke his leg. Other referees have been hurt, too.”
What in the blue hell is going on here? I spoke with Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, pastor and founder of Coach for America. Ehrmann has devoted his life to fighting this societal tide and making youth sports and coaching a positive experience for children. He said to me, “My belief is that while youth sports originated to train, nurture and guide children into adulthood many programs/coaches are using them to meet the needs of adults at the expense of kids. Sports should be a tool to help children become whole and healthy adults who can build relationships and contribute as citizens, but the social contract between adults protecting and providing for the needs of children [instead of their own needs] is broken.” (My emphasis.)