(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.)
This idea that youth sports has become something that fulfills the needs of adults as opposed to children was backed up by a statistic sent to me by Mark Hyman, author of the highly recommended book, Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports. He wrote me, “Approximately half of all reported youth sports injuries are the result of overuse”—caused by kids starting too young in sports, specializing in one sport too early, and training too intensely. “Before the adult-supervised era of kids’ sports, there were no overuse injuries.” (My emphasis.)
Mark wrote another book, also highly recommended, called The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families. This book, for me, is a Rosetta stone for understanding why youth sports have become so unbearable for so many.
Organized sports in this country are now a trillion-dollar business—as one marketer says, “from the womb to the tomb.” This is not an exaggeration. There are companies that make videos with names like Athletic Baby and Baby Goes Pro. There are gymnasiums for newborns with an eye on getting them to the pros. There are personal trainers for babies as young as six months. Poor and working-class families of every ethnicity have long seen sports as a ticket out of poverty. But now the financial crunch is on middle-class families as well. Their goal is less the pros than, in an era of $50,000 tuitions and crushing student loans, a college scholarship. Parents see their children as competing against other boys and girls, from the time their kids are big enough to pick up a ball. But to even get in the scholarship pipeline, unlike in decades past, playing for your school is not enough. You need to be a part of a traveling team. You need to have the right equipment. As the overwhelming majority of families are now headed by two working adults, you need to have parents willing to sacrifice scarce leisure time or work hours to attend games. As Mark Hyman describes, these families are not wealthy. Instead, they’re making an investment that needs to pay off, which creates a powder keg of pressure on very young kids.
I asked John Carlos, the great 1968 Olympian, who has also worked as a guidance counselor in public schools for over two decades, why youth sports are so toxic for so many. He said, “The problem is the system. It’s a system where everyone wants to get over on kids. Yes, the parents make these bad choices, but when you’re in that kind of cesspool, all you can really see is… you know. You know what you see in a cesspool. It’s like a kid can’t just be a kid anymore.”
That last line is the key. Profiteering and childhood, whether we are talking about youth sports or charter schools, are a toxic mix. It’s creepy enough that the representatives of big business are oozing around the playground and judging youth sports as an underdeveloped “opportunity.” It’s time to get their priorities off the playing field and fight for space so kids can be kids. If we can link this to a movement of fighting for price controls on college tuitions, that will be music to many a parents’ ears.
In America’s schools, resistance is growing to high-stakes testing. Read David Kirp’s take.