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Reforming Youth Sports By Accepting, Accounting for Gender Differences

Not blaming the parents

Mother Consoling SonThere seems to be general agreement that, while sports offers a great opportunity to learn life lessons, the youth sports focus has shifted away from teaching children life lessons to meeting the needs of adults. Like Jon Butler, executive director of Philadelphia-based Pop Warner, the nation's largest youth football and cheerleading organization, who says that "Parental behavior is the number one problem in youth sports today," most seem to lay the blame for the youth sports crisis on parents. They suggest that it is the result of excessive parental involvement, parents living vicariously through their children, and parents chasing dreams of a college scholarship for their sons and daughters.

While most of those pointing the accusing finger at parents are men,  there are some courageous men willing to admit that it is men who are principally responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. One is former pro basketball player, youth sports reform advocate and co-author of Just Let The Kids Play, Bob Bigelow. In his speeches, in interviews, and in conversations with me over the years, he candidly admits that "the number one problem with youth sports is the adult male ego." 

Another is Eli Newberger, M.D., one of the country's most distinguished pediatricians and experts in child development and author of The Men They Will Become. I think Dr. Newberger puts it best when he says that:

It isn't females, predominantly, who have built the elaborately overorganized system of sports for boys [and girls] in the United States, mimicking professional sports with uniforms, leagues, intricate scheduling, commercial sponsors, media coverage, maintenance of performance records, selection of all-stars, seasons leading to playoffs, and enormous emphasis on competitiveness and winning. While both fathers and mothers engage in their sons' [and daughters'] competitions vicariously, it is mostly men who have imposed many of the extrinsic values of their occupations on what should be intrinsically pleasurable children's play, and who bear much of the responsibility for this invasion of childhood 

Not Playing the Blame Game

While I agree with Dr. Newberger, I think that playing the "blame game" or pointing fingers at any particular group is pointless and counterproductive. There certainly is enough blame to go around. Everyone involved in youth sports has played a role in getting us to where we are today.

Instead, I prefer to drill even deeper for answers. It seems to me that we are where we are for two principal, interconnected reasons:

First, I think that the youth sports crisis may be an unintended consequence of the feminist movement. Almost all theories of feminism operate on the assumption that gender roles are socially constructed and that women are victims of a patriarchal society. Women have spent a lot of energy trying to prove that, other than physical strength, they are no different then men, trying to break down what many see as culturally imposed gender stereotypes. When mothers began to enter the work force in greater numbers beginning in the mid-1970's (coincidentally the time that the youth sports landscape changed forever with the passage of Title IX, the law mandating that girls be given as much of an opportunity to play sports as boys), a need developed for more organized after-school activities. Because of what social scientists term the "leisure gap" between men and women - working women are still expected by society to meet the demands assigned to their gender (i.e. childcare and housework) and thus had less time to get actively involved in youth sports than men - fathers were only too happy to fill that need.  They soon began organizing, creating rules, standings, instituting playoffs, and ultimately turning what had been a child's playground supervised by mothers into an organized playground supervised by men.

But I don't blame men for what has happened. It really wasn't their fault. They were simply being men; doing what men have been "hard-wired" by evolution and hormones to do for hundreds of thousands of years. Hard data from literally thousands of studies now proves what we all suspected: that men and women behave the way they do because of the different strategies males and females used to survive in pre-historic times, hormonal differences, and differences in brain structure and utilization lead them to see the world in very different ways.

As Steven Rhoades observes in his book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously: "Researchers whose business it is to consider biological explanations for sex differences believe these differences are large and that social construction cannot explain them." As psychologist Alice Eagly points out, such studies have shattered "not cultural stereotypes, but the scientific consensus forged in the feminist movement of the 1970's" that gender differences are cultural, not biological. 

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