Recently I chanced to go to a book-signing event by Charles Euchner, author of the book:
Little League, Big Dreams: The Hope, the Hype and the Glory of the Greatest World Series Ever Played.
I write feature articles for a local newspaper, and I thought that youth sports would be an attractive subject to write about. The book describes events at the 2005 Little League World Series games, with glimpses of the competing teams as they prepared for the matches and won regional qualifying competitions. This is an annual event held in Williamsport, PA, which is televised over ESPN and featured in major press and other TV sports coverage.
I expected to hear a few heart warming sports stories, but to my surprise his subject was the crass commercialism to which children twelve years and under were subjected. He laid blame on the media and corporate sponsors -- not that unexpected -- but his talk is elaborated in the book, which I subsequently read and highly recommend.
The family/youth sports culture that he describes is a microcosm of the destructive pressures on families and communities, generated by a society in which it is no longer a given that children will have a better or even equivalent standard of living as their parents. Despite all the lip service to "family values" and individualism, in fact the new rules of the game that Bush et al seek to impose are a dog-eat-dog competitiveness with no protections for the young, the elderly, or the unfortunate.
For the majority of the population, rights that most of us grew up taking for granted ... to eat decently ... to have medical care when we need it and to have a job adequate to support a family ... are being challenged. This is reflected in family life today when parents who want to provide a good life for their children become obsessed by their fears for the future.
Euchner expected to be sympathetic to the family culture he set out to describe -- fathers who gave up their leisure to coach their children's teams; other family members and friends who gave their time to supporting the effort; children who were involved in the challenge and excitement of competitive sports. But as he actually got to know the children and the families and observed what was happening in the games leading up to the five-day World Series (the single elimination round that decides the World Series Champion is 5 days, but it is preceded by a five day Pool Play Round), he saw a different picture. He became concerned that the young players were being abused. He paints a grim picture of how the children were subjected to pressure by adults, parents and coaches determined to push 'their' team to victory at whatever cost.
Part of the problem in Euchner's view is the desire of parents to help their children win the elusive pot-of-gold -- a potential future career in professional baseball and the $ multi-million contracts open to players, or even just an athletic scholarship to a good prep school and a university. Even where money is not an immediate issue, Euchner describes the fixation that parents can develop on their children being winners -- how they develop the kind of tunnel vision that in extreme cases has erupted in parents committing violent crimes during their children's games; but also in only slightly less extreme ones, parents pushing young players to continue in the game after receiving serious injuries.
The young players frequently endure arduous and sometimes grueling training. While players in the major leagues have contracts specifying a certain amount of rest between games etc., young players have no such protection. Driven to a point beyond exhaustion by the demands of coaches -- and even family members who are caught up in the frenzy of the moment -- they often sustain damaging injuries. He cited studies showing the serious long-term consequences to young athletes who have yet to reach puberty. Their bone structure is not yet completely developed and excessive physical stresses on their bodies during this stage of development may thwart their growth and any career potential in athletics that they may have gained from their early success.
He reported on situations in which parents and coaches were so caught up in the challenge of the moment that they were slow to recognize injuries, such as the time a batter was hit in the hand by a fast ball as he swung his bat. Bones were broken, but he was urged to keep in the game by his coach and his own father.
Even when they win a game players may be criticized for not meeting their coaches' standards. Euchner says that for many of these children, winning has become a job rather than fun.
While Euchner concentrated on the Little League teams, he also discussed other national competitions such as those sponsored by Carl Ripken baseball, and travel teams. The situation is no different in other competitive youth sports such as basketball, football and soccer -- even cheer-leading competitions and gymnastics. In the book, he cites an alarming survey conducted by the "National Alliance for Youth Sports" which found that 15% of all children's games involve physical or verbal abuse. While infamous cases like the one where a Massachusetts man beat another father to death during a hockey practice get headlines, according to the NAYS, nearly 30 million children who play in youth sports have experienced some kind of abuse.
He said that these days he believes that children's lives are being over-scripted by parents who are concerned that their children have every chance for success in later life. Affluent parents are prepared to go all-out to help them -- even to providing them with personal trainers. Some parents may spend $10,000 over a year to sponsor their child's sports activities, especially if they participate in travel teams.
These children are being robbed of their youth, he said. In his opinion, this is not a phenomena limited to baseball. In the name of spending "quality time" with their children, parents are becoming over-involved in their lives and micromanaging them. For those interested in pursuing this theme, I would also highly recommend a 2005 book, by Judith Warner, Perfect Madness, Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.
About the Author: Carol White has had a long and varied career, but the salient points are a first career as mathematics teacher--in NYC high schools and then at the City University of New York. After that she morphed into being a science writer and editor. These days her news beat is the local culture scene.
ePluribus Contributors: JeninRI, Susie Dow, AvaHome, Roxy, standingup and Greyhawk
Photo Credit: picture taken by prize-winning photographer Isabel Chenoweth which appeared in the book Little League, Big Dreams. It is one of several taken by her that appear in the book. These pictures and others by her also appear on her website.