How Youth Sports Warp Common Sense

A spat of embarrassing incidents raise the question: in youth sports, why do the parents so often act like kids?

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We’ve lived in the New York City galaxy for more than a few years now, but we still, as people from Massachusetts or any place other than New York do, consider ourselves to be from “back home.” This is signified by everything from a preference for creamy clam chowder to whom we root for. That part’s pretty easy—Sox, C’s, Pats, Bruins—and has been made easier in recent years by championships on a regular basis. But we also root for other New Englandy things: college teams (our own and others), a good maple sugar harvest, a good ski season, the latest Kennedys (our 14-year-old daughter likes Taylor Swift, and laments the recent split). My wife and kids don’t pay such close attention, but I even find myself rooting for Massachusetts youth sports teams. (I noticed that this year’s QB at my high school alma mater in Chelmsford is named Bobby Sullivan, so you can imagine). In recent days, however, three youth-sports stories have made their way down Route 84 to our cognizance, and whatever rooting I’m doing is conflicted. Conflicted in the extreme.

You may have heard about the Pop Warner football game with five concussions? The New Hampshire high school team with eight? You probably haven’t heard about the champion high school swim team that was required to return its titles and trophies? Well, for me, these stories hit home, and in all the considerable commentary that has followed in the triple wakes, I haven’t yet seen any sane, or even measured, answers.

(MORE: Why Kids Under 14 Should Not Play Tackle Football)

An attempt at quick summary: There was an absolute, Custeresque slaughter of a football game involving children 10 to 12 years old and a final score of 52-0 in which, it was determined after the fact, several of the boys who had been, from the very first play, getting their bells rung all day long had, in fact, suffered concussions (some of the youngsters, astonishingly, had been sent back into the fray after having been flattened). The coaches for the two teams were suspended for the rest of this season, other parents in attendance were banned for not having intervened and the refs were barred from further assignments. Some of these “adult” individuals claimed, remarkably, that the punishments were unfair, or that they should only have applied to the other guy.

Meantime up in New Hampshire, a retired medical doctor in a small town created a huge furor at a sparsely attended school board meeting by suggesting, during the Matters of Interest segment, that the high school, which had seen eight players suffer concussions last season, would do itself a favor by dropping football from its interscholastic agenda. Neither Romney nor Obama could have offered an opinion on anything else in that swing state that would have gotten folks hotter. Back down in Massachusetts in this same news cycle, a girls high school swim team that had enjoyed remarkable and constant success in state tournaments in recent years was stripped by a governing board of its titles because, it was alleged, the team was a de facto adjunct to a local year-round club team, with which it shared not only a coach but all but one of its swimmers, plus large chunks of its weekly practice schedule.

Hmmm, I said to myself, having digested all of (or much of) this news, plus a bit of the attending (you can’t possibly imagine!) commentary.

Our 12-year-old son Jack started middle school tackle football at Seven Bridges this year. He and his older sister, Caroline, are both members of the year-round swim team hereabouts, the Marlins. Caroline additionally has just completed her second season swimming for Greeley, the local high school team.

Luci, my wife and the kids’ mom, and I have agreed to let Jack play football. Why? We have no good answer to that one. I played in high school, but so did that retired doctor in New Hampshire. We know more now. I remembered when I was playing at Chelmsford—believe me, I wasn’t a patch on the current Bobby Sullivan—I dropped back on a kickoff, set up the kid from Andover I was supposed to block, hit him, and in memory I see both of us falling backwards, flat like planks. It’s a scene from one of those Chuck Jones cartoons: Roadrunner hitting the anvil.

I woke up on the bench with six or seven of those ammonia capsules cracked and spent by the side of my head. Later, as we were taking off our cleats on the bench outside the lockerroom, my dad asked me if I was okay, offering in his quiet way, “Lucky your mom wasn’t here to see that.” I assured him, “I’m ph-phine,” then fell off the bench, unconscious a second time.  The next week, our trainer prescribed aspirin. I practiced every afternoon, the headaches spiraling into a walking hell. When I told the trainer about this, he said, “Oh, that means you have a concussion. Shouldn’t have been taking aspirin.”

We know more now—about concussions and about a lot of things.

I and Luci should probably . . .

But Jack’s middle school team, despite a few injuries this season, seems to be coached by reasonable men who are intent on keeping the sport fun for the kids, and as safe as possible. I realize that’s justification—anything can and usually will eventually happen in football; I’ve told Luci: “He will get hurt. If not this season, then eventually.”—but, so far, Luci and I haven’t told Jack that he can’t play. I wonder if we’re wrong.

(MORE: The 2012 Boston Red Sox – Reflections On An Epic Fail)

I do not wonder if the parents or refs up in Massachusetts were wrong. I thought to myself: Wasn’t there a mercy rule? Then I learned that indeed there was one, and it had been ignored not only by the on-field officials but all of the parents at the game, with one side later blaming the other that it was the job of the parents of the kids who were getting killed to call things off, those parents saying their kids wanted to keep playing and they didn’t want to deprive them the opportunity. I can say only to such arguments: Yikes. Since when is a ten-year-old allowed to decide what’s best for him or her?

Jack was on a travel baseball team this fall, along with the football and swimming. The ball team had a rough go, routinely “mercied” when trailing by ten or more runs in the fifth inning or later. There was never any debate about continuing any of these games. Maybe the kids would have voted to play on, but a rule was a rule, and the game was called when the contest was officially out of hand. And we’re talking baseball here. The boys were only going to get more tired by playing the full seven innings; no one was going to be concussed unless he fell asleep while at bat. It was an easy call in Massachusetts, wasn’t it: Halt the game. Or it should have been an easy call.

Was there an easy call to be made up in New Hampshire? Well, obviously I can’t take the high ground or the low on that one, since I’m gazing across the mud room right now at Jack’s pads and helmet, which we allow him to don. Should the retired surgeon, who used to play the game himself as a boy, be listened to instead of being shouted down? Absolutely.

And what if anything does all of this have to do with that swim team?

A little bit, I think. Here, too, adults were making decisions, adults were making the call. Caroline and Jack’s coaches over at the Marlins know the drill and play by the rules, and Caroline’s coach at Greeley is similarly smart. Any parent of youth swimmers could tell you: It’s easy to tell a high school and a club team apart, just as easy as discriminating a zebra from a horse. If there are rules about practicing as a “high school team,” a high school team can easily abide by them. High school teams do fun cheers before the meets and slap the water and root on their divers (“We love our divers, oh yes we dooooo!”) and watch the scoreboard for the team tally. Club teams don’t do these things. Club swimmers moan about how they added time and then won’t talk to their parents on the ride home, even if pizza is promised. A zebra and a horse. If things had become sufficiently muddled in Massachusetts that a high school team seemed to be a club team in disguise, well, it must have been like that old Three Stooges episode where the lads were in the horse costume. It wasn’t a real horse, you see.

Here, too, as with the Pop Warner game and the New Hampshire high school team: Adults were making decisions and telling the kids what to do. I can’t criticize all of these adults, I don’t know them and, besides, Luci and I are allowing Jack to play football. But I can say: It’s a lot easier to frame the question first—What might be right for the kid? What might smell like fair play? What might be the most fun?—and then attempt an answer. The question should not be “Are you tough enough?” as it apparently was on the victorious Pop Warner team’s website. Or: Can we win a state title if we tap into this club team and call it the high school team? Or: Why is this doctor butting in during Matters of Interest time, when no one asked him? Ask the right questions, you have a better shot at the right answer. And for goodness sake: Think of the kids and make the answer on their behalf. Not your own. I remember that high school concussion like it happened yesterday (well, actually, I don’t, but you get the point), and I can assure you: We’re not letting Jack play because I played.

In Jack’s last baseball game of the season, just before the hurricane rolled in, the team actually won, 6-5. A mercy after all those mercies. And Caroline’s high school team finished the dual-meet season 8-and-0. At the end of each contest, the ballplayers and swimmers gave a cheer for the other team. It was nice to hear.

(MORE: Want Your Kids To Be Swimmers? Watch Out)