The new issue of TIME, on newsstands July 12, dives headfirst into the culture of youth sports, with the story of the 2013 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) second national basketball tournament, held in late June in Memphis. The professionalization, and specialization, of youth sports is a familiar story. But this young? There’s really a national championship for second graders? “When you think about it, it is ludicrous,” says Dante Jackson, operations director for Washington Evolution, a Tacoma-based AAU program that sent a team to the second grade tournament. “But a lot of parents are into it. It is our mission to compete on the national level every year.”
If your son isn’t playing AAU by the start of middle school, says New York Gauchos coach William Francis, he’s missing out. “Yeah, he’s definitely behind,” says Francis. “But he can definitely catch up.”
The story features small kids with big-time skills, volatile parents and coaches who raise the volume at the kids, refs, and other parents, and the benefits of such a competition — exercise, team bonding, trips to cultural institutions during free time. And you know you’re at a second grade tournament when post-game hotspots include Putt Putt Golf & Games and Incredible Pizza, players beg for one more game of tag before curfew, and coaches wrestle with a key strategic decision: whether or not to let the players cannonball in the hotel pool. Does the chlorine drain their legs for the game? Or perhaps a swim helps them settle down and go to sleep earlier, thus increasing game-time energy? Discuss.