Organized sports: a new but dangerous playground
The sports landscape has changed dramatically over the past thirty five years:
- Organized sports have become our children’s new playground. The sandlots of yesteryear have been replaced by multi-million dollar youth sports complexes and highly organized programs.
- Pick-up games during which the kids themselves divvied up the players in a way designed to leave the outcome in doubt and in which every child played, no matter how unskilled, have been replaced by organized “drafts” where coaches try to outmaneuver each other to stack their teams with the most skilled players; and by select travel programs intentionally designed to pick the “best” and discard the rest.
- Too many of our kids are becoming statistics. Though perhaps as many as nine out of ten of all youth sports accidents and deaths are preventable, the number of our children suffering unnecessary injuries and even death playing youth sports continues to rise. In ever-greater numbers young athletes are suffering physically, psychologically and sexually at the hands of parents, coaches and other players.
- Violence toward officials, trash-talking, deadly hazing rituals, the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and cheating in every form imaginable are steadily increasing.
Youth sports are creating serious social problems: rape by athletes, violence toward other players and non-athletes, coaches bending eligibility rules, adults setting terrible examples by physically and verbally abusing kids, coaches, officials and other adults. Steroid use among high school athletes has grown by 67% since 1971, leaving users with severe and lasting physical and psychological problems. Childhood obesity and Type II diabetes have reached epidemic levels as more and more children abandon the playground or sports field for the comfort of their couches and Play Stations.
Not so long ago stories about attacks on referees by coaches, parents or even young athletes were rare. Now there are half a dozen reports of such incidents each week. While the media continues to blame parents, out-of-control parents are much more a reflection of the deep structural problems in today’s youth sports; a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real problem is much more fundamental: all too often youth sports today is not about kids playing sports, it is about how adults are manipulating the system to serve their own interests: the game within the game.
Sports continue to be a world of tough guys. Tough guys aren't supposed to get hurt or die. Children, like their professional counterparts, are expected to play, no matter what happens to their developing bones, brains and psyches. If they don’t, they risk losing their place on the roster and, too often, deprived of a chance to play at all. Potentially fatal concussions are too often trivialized with comments like, “He just got his bell rung.”
As mothers feel pressured to try to pack more and more activities into the lives of their children even such seemingly straightforward tasks as registering a child for a youth sports program and getting their child to practices and games on time, in uniform, and properly nourished and equipped, is becoming more difficult and adding to the already stressful lives of both parent and child.