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The planned expansion of big sports media into the world of youth sports is a situation that definitely calls for some grown-up monitoring. Here’s the problem: Grown-ups are the ones who regularly screw up youth sports.
As a parent of two children both heavily involved in sports, I regularly feel like Pinto from “Animal House,” with an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Good Dad always remembers to ask my kids whether they had fun after a game, no matter whether their team won or lost or how well they played. Good Dad knows that coaches and referees are volunteers and keeps his mouth shut on the sidelines. And Good Dad recalls the sage words of Wayne Gretzky and others who urge against specialization and over-instruction at a young age and in favor of unorganized pick-up games and more fun.
Then, there’s Bad Dad. Bad Dad thinks he knows better than the Great One on how to turn his kids into great athletes. Bad Dad has been known to break out the whiteboard after games. Bad Dad finds himself surfing the Web late at night in search of better sports camps, specialty clinics and tryout dates for select travel programs. And Bad Dad looks out on the playing surface, sees athletic talent in his kids that he never had at their ages, and foolishly allows visions of college scholarships to dance in his head.
Is there anyone who thinks that injecting more media, more attention and more money into youth sports will do anything but encourage the Bad Dad in all of us? Who’s going to be the responsible grown-up in the room as the industry develops this emerging market? The athletes we are talking about here are children, and for that reason alone, there needs to be a serious ethical discussion about the limits of what we are talking about and the standards that need to be employed.
Anyone who is involved in youth sports today knows that commercialization is well under way. Sports camps have been around for a while now, and it’s clear that their numbers are growing. But there’s something else I see as a parent, and it’s the professionalization of youth sports programs themselves. Where there used to be mainly community-based leagues and teams, there is now a proliferation of independent club teams and travel leagues. These teams generally pay their coaches, employ fitness and conditioning coaches, tout the former players who have been drafted or gone on to college, and have their players travel significant distances for games. Of course, they cost significantly more than a community program that depends on parents and volunteers. It’s akin to choosing private over public school.
This wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t demand, and based on conversations held around many rinks and soccer sidelines, that demand is being driven by the incredible competition for admission to top colleges and exorbitant college tuition rates, now a small fortune for most middle-class families. Parents are fearful that their child-athlete won’t be ready or able to play big-time high school or prep sports if they aren’t exposed to the right training and top competition early. And everyone knows that getting in the right high school program is the key to getting a grab at the gold ring: a four-year, full ride to a Division I school. Right? Never mind that NCAA statistics cited in a 2008 New York Times article show that of the roughly 6 million high school students playing sports, only 2 percent will get athletic scholarships. Those are some pretty long odds. Of course, try telling a dutiful sports parent that his or her kid won’t be in that 2 percent.
When it comes to doing right by our kids, the trends in youth sports are heading in the absolute wrong direction. There is more emphasis on winning and losing than on development and the joy of playing. Experts warn that specialization and relentless practice schedules are harmful for young people’s bodies and minds. And unrealistic expectations and undue pressures only cause more and more kids to burn out before they ever get to college and quit sports entirely.
We, as parents, have no one to blame but ourselves, but how is completing the transition of youth sports from an activity into an industry going to turn these trends around? Kids at these ages are not prepared to deal with the pressure that comes with TV and wider media attention. Young athletes are not mini-pros and should not be treated that way. Is our sports media, as we know it, capable of making that distinction?
It would be nice if all this investment and expected revenue helps broaden participation and opportunities for more kids to play sports, especially those in cities and other places where quality local programs aren’t available. More troubling would be if the result is just a new level of sports to follow — with results and standings, rankings, who’s up, who’s down, who’s going to what prep school, who’s being scouted, who’s got “projectable” talent, and who’s going to get drafted in eight years. That scenario is pretty worrisome when you think of the ages of the “players” we’re talking about.
I don’t know what the exact answer is. Maybe it’s some form of governing body. Companies involved should engage high-profile advisory boards made up of educators, child psychologists and former athletes to create sets of standards and mission statements that stress fun and development and emphasize the best interests of the child above all else. And then executives involved have to hold themselves to those standards.
In short, there has to be some real ethical soul-searching. The chances for exploitation and harm are just too great. It’s time we listen to the Good Dads and Good Moms in all of us. Our children are depending on us.
Steve Bilafer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founding editor of SportsBusiness Daily.