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Reforming Youth Sports: Community, Grass-Roots Parent Activism Needed

Require accountability and transparency by youth sports organizations. There is an appalling lack of accountability in youth sports. While the worst offenders seem to be the unregulated so-called "travel" ball programs (which, one commentator recently analogized to the Wild West, with "relatively no laws and no sheriffs"), even local youth sports organizations affiliated with national organizations such as Little League Baseball or U.S. Youth Soccer are not as accountable to the parents and children they supposedly serve as they should be.

As Paolo David writes in his book, Human Rights in Sports: A Critical Review of Children's Rights in Competitive Sports, "Sports organizations have an obligation to protect the rights of young athletes, especially when one of their employees acts unlawfully. They cannot escape their responsibilities by failing to prevent violations or refusing to act upon them. But in practice, due to the tradition of self-policing, paternalism, a fierce resistance to independent criticism and a refusal to accept that sport is not always ‘pure' and free from society's problems, the principles of accountability and scrutiny are still inadequately respected by the sporting world, or at best looked upon with suspicion."

So, how can youth sports organizations be more accountable to their "customers" (you and your children)? Here are some suggestions:

  • Identify decision makers. in order to hold those who run the show accountable for the "product" they produce, challenge the way they do business, and identify problem organizations, begin by finding out about the structure of the organization, says Barbara Jones, a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery who specializes in business and corporate law. Does the group operate as a profit or not-for-profit business? Does it have a governing body? Who is accountable or responsible for the decisions made or actions taken? Is it a corporation or a partnership? By going to the website of your state's Secretary of State you can obtain annual reports of profit and not-for-profit corporations, both those incorporated in your state and "foreign" corporations (those registered to do business in your state but incorporated elsewhere) as well as the names of officers and directors. Not-for-profits are also required to register with the state's Attorney General, typically in a division relating to charities, and to file annual reports on their finances and fundraising activities.
  • Parent input. At the local level most youth sports organizations are run like small - and, in some cases, not-so-small - businesses, with officers, boards of directors, bylaws and annual meetings. Yet most operate with virtually no oversight beyond their volunteer boards of directors. Push for the formation of a Parent Advisory Group (PAC) consisting of representative parents with children currently playing in the program to provide the Board of Directors with feedback (both negative and positive) from other parents; the input helps to insure that its decisions are reflective of, and responsive to, a broad cross-section of the youth sports community. Run for a seat on the board. Attend meetings.
  • Open meetings. Ask that the mission statement of a youth sports program, its bylaws and the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of board members and other officers be publicly available, and that the time and place of board meetings be advertised and open to any parent or concerned individual to attend (even if only to observe). All coaches, including the middle school and high school coaches in that sport, should be encouraged to attend at least one meeting a year.
  • Term limits. Like our political leaders, directors, administrators and coaches who become entrenched in a program for years on end tend to put the "blinders" on and may become too comfortable with the status quo. New blood can keep a program fresh and strong. Longtime board members can be given "emeritus" or "ex officio" status.
  • Financial accountability. A recent investigation by the Toronto Star into complaints by parents wanting to know where millions of dollars in player fees were going forced minor hockey clubs to implement public financial disclosure measures. Public financial disclosure is one way to avoid embezzlment of funds in youth sports organizations.
  • Benchmarking. The first step in implementing a public health approach to violence and abuse prevention in youth sports is surveillance: creating a consistent, comparable, and accurate data system that can track the performance of youth sports organizations, their progress in eliminating abuse and towards full inclusion and how they compare against each other. A particularly effective benchmarking tool is the Just Play Behavior Management Program designed by Elaine Raakman, a single Canadian mother of two sports-active children. Game officials are asked to complete a report card after every game rating the overall behavior of the coaches, players and spectators of each team on a 5-point scale (1=very good to 5=very poor) and the official's own personal satisfaction level within the context of the game. The report cards help identify and quantify the variables that contribute to problem behavior within the team sport environment and determine other common elements that might contribute to problem behavior.

Ask for more training of coaches and mandatory evaluation. The United States is the only country in the major sporting world that does not have a national coaching education program. Of the 4.1 million coaches in the United States only 74,000 have received any formal training. Less than 1/3 of the interscholastic coaches in the United States have received any type of coaching education. More than 50% of those coaching interscholastic sports do not have a teaching certificate and have no affiliation with the school system. 49 states allow non-faculty coaches to teach school sports. Twenty-three states do not require any type of certification for interscholastic coaches. Only one state - New Jersey - requires coaches, in order to gain immunity from lawsuits, to attend a safety orientation and training skills program.

With all the money being poured into youth sports, it is simply astounding that the least investment is in coaches, even though they usually have the most impact on kids and keeping them safe. Seven out of ten residents surveyed in Scarsdale felt that there should be mandatory training of coaches, and that "coaches need to know what are age appropriate activities and expectations and how to gently deal with less skilled players, as well as how to foster friendship and team spirit." National and local youth sports organizations need to make coaching education a top priority.

More than eight out of ten Scarsdale residents said it was extremely or very important to have an adequate coaching evaluation system. Nearly nine in ten felt it very important to discipline coaches who fail to adhere to a code of conduct for coaches and parents involving "not only matters such as playing time but abuse of game officials, swearing, inappropriate comments and other forms of unacceptable behavior."

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