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Opinion: Sportsmanship Stinks
I like sports. I also understand sports. Well, most of them, anyway. I don't follow jai alai or cricket or Australian rules hopscotch. But the major sports, I at least understand the principles and most of the rules.
If I attend a game or match I'm not one of those posers who claim to know the rules, but are simply there to yell for their favorite team. Sure, a person like that can say,
"How could they call that a fumble?" when the ball had been rolling for 50 yards without anyone picking it up.
This past week, I saw a
"fan" standing on the bleachers at a basketball game, arm in the air with thumb pointing downward, protesting the call of the referee. He was yelling too, things too garbled and nonsensical to make out. It seems that he knew the referee had made a terrible mistake and called a foul against a player on his team.
There was a problem. It was rather obvious that the accused player was trying to foul to stop the clock and force a possible change of possession if the shooter would miss the shot. So, in short, the player did as he was supposed to do — commit a foul to stop the clock, but not an intentional foul that would call for two shots. Good job, player! But as for the guy standing on the bleachers with downturned thumb, maybe you should pay attention instead of assuming that all calls against your side are deliberate favoritism.
This type of fan has always been around, but with 98 different sports channels on cable and endless sports events to be seen live, one would think anyone following a game would know the rules. But I guess many things can affect eyesight, including being related or close to one of the players.
I remember when my boys played Little League and younger versions for smaller kids. That was where you got to watch some serious
"fans" in the grandstands. I saw plenty of mothers and fathers who were sure that every pitch Junior threw was a strike and every pitch thrown to them was way outside or too low or whatever.
If you've attended a game live, you've seen them too. Mom or Dad or whoever will yell at the top of their lungs to
"Hit the next pitch down his throat!" Usually while the vocal display is going on, Junior is ignoring the loudmouth parent and looking sheepishly at his teammates or the coach.
Worse yet are the unofficial coaches who urge Junior to do it "the way I told you!' and ignore the coach's instructions. Between raising two boys and living through my own mountain of baseball games, I think I've seen almost everything from the bleachers. I've watched plenty of times as irate parents take their rage out on the coach/manager who wouldn't let Billy play shortstop.
In my playing days, I was glad my parents weren't the type to be obnoxious in the bleachers. It helped that my dad was usually at work during my games. So when I became a sports dad, I tried to remember what some of my teammates used to say when their Dad threw a fit while they tried to hide in the dugout. I'm sure I was better than some parents, but I'm also sure I wasn't perfect. It's hard to be objective when my own offspring is being wronged in my eyes.
Somewhere along the way I matured just a little. Very little, but a little nonetheless. I realized that officials make honest mistakes. And sometimes they make stupid mistakes. One umpire stopped a game to reprimand me for cheating by using a first baseman's mitt in the field. When I looked at him and simply told him,
"Um, I'm playing first base," he realized he was a bit confused and restarted the game allowing me to continue my sinister mitt usage. We all make mistakes.
Understanding that made a huge difference to me. There is no use blowing through blood pressure medication because the guy dressed like a zebra can't tell that the left guard is holding on every play. Realize he or she is trying his or her level best to get it right, and that may not always favor Junior and his team.
It's made my viewing experience more enjoyable, and if my kids were still playing, I'm sure they'd enjoy it more too.
Family of slain ref hopes new laws will deter attacks
The coach screamed at the basketball official, arguing a call. They were face-to-face, the anger rising. Neither one would back down.
Kris Bieniewicz said she stood a few feet away, coaching the other team. She was afraid it was going to happen again. Afraid somebody was going to die.
"I froze," Bieniewicz said. "I saw flashes of this guy taking a swing. It
freaked me out. Something came over me. I yelled and screamed at the top of my
lungs: 'Hey, my husband was the soccer referee who was killed last summer! It's
because of jerks like you who can't control your emotions that he is dead!' "
Her husband, John Bieniewicz, of Westland died July 1, two days after he was punched by a recreational soccer player on a field in Livonia. Bassel Saad, 36, of Dearborn pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter Friday. Saad agreed to a sentence of 8 to 15 years in prison as part of the plea bargain. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 13.
"This man here told you to walk!" Kris Bieniewicz said she screamed at the coach.
"I suggest you walk!"
He walked away and the game resumed.
"I kind of bent over and I was shaking," Bieniewicz said. "I was trembling."
It was Jan. 31, and this scene played out as Bieniewicz was coaching an 10- and 11-year-old boys basketball game at the YMCA in Livonia. She loves to coach because she says it's the one place where she can escape, if only for a few hours, from the grief of losing her husband. Standing on the sideline, thinking about strategy and coaching her players, she gets a momentary release from the stress of raising two boys on a single income, unsure exactly how to help them cope after losing their father.
But now, that sideline doesn't feel safe to her anymore.
And she believes that something has to change.
"I kept thinking that the deal with John was kind of an isolated incident," she says.
"Unless something is done about it, it's going to get worse."
On Feb. 3, Bieniewicz testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Lansing, throwing her support behind two bills that would give extra legal protection to refs. The bills would make assaulting a referee a felony punishable by up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Right now, assaulting a referee is no different than assaulting anyone else. At the lowest level, it is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 93 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.
"My hope is that it would help to deter people from doing something stupid because unfortunately right now it's like a slap on the wrist," Bieniewicz says.
Currently, 23 states have laws aimed at protecting referees from assaults. "Is it going to wipe it out? No," Bieniewicz says.
"Let's be realistic. But if we can at least get them to think twice, that would
'One blow kills a man. One punch.'
John Bieniewicz was 44. He worked at the pediatric dialysis center at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor. He fell in love with soccer while watching the 1994 World Cup in the Silverdome. Refereeing soccer was a way for him to stay close to the sport and make some extra cash.
On June 29, Bieniewicz was refereeing an adult men's recreation soccer game at Livonia's Mies Park. His younger son, Josh, now 9, made a travel hockey team, and Bieniewicz needed to pay for his son's ice time. Witnesses said that Bieniewicz was about to eject Saad from the game. As Bieniewicz pulled out a red card, Saad sucker punched him. He crumpled to the ground and never regained consciousness.
"Here is a situation where one blow kills a man," said Cyril Hall, Saad's attorney.
After the punch, Hall described a chaotic scene, involving both teams. "After the punch, both teams come together," he said.
"Somebody puts my client in a headlock. Vice versa. He struggles with a guy.
They get separated. The parties are jostling a little bit and then he's leaving.
That caused the situation to cool. As he goes to the car, a few guys are
following him. They are yelling at him. Now, we know it's, 'Don't leave. The
police are coming.' "
At a preliminary examination in July, a police officer testified that a picture taken at the scene shows Saad sitting in a vehicle, with his middle finger extended toward the area where Bieniewicz lay. Hall said the gesture was aimed at the other team, not at Bieniewicz.
"That is not directed toward the victim," Hall said. "He can't even see the
Bieniewicz was taken to the hospital. He died two days later and his organs were donated.
Saad drove off and then turned himself in the next day. He has remained in jail ever since.
"He's an individual who is extremely remorseful about what happened," Hall said.
"He is totally destroyed by what has happened. He is a man of spirituality. He
wishes he could erase what happened."
Blunt force trauma to the neck was initially announced as the cause of death.
"The medical examiner basically said that the force of the punch snapped his brain stem and he was dead before he even hit the ground," Kris Bieniewicz said.
Before his plea agreement Friday, Saad was charged with second-degree murder and could have faced up to life in prison.
Saad has three children and has worked for more than 10 years as an auto mechanic. He is originally from Lebanon, according to Hall.
Hall said that Saad has written several prayers for the Bieniewicz family. All in Arabic.
"I get this gut feeling that Saad doesn't care," Bieniewicz said. "I really
don't think he cares about the lives he destroyed."
During plea negotiations, the prosecutor asked Bieniewicz to approve the sentence terms.
"I said this back in an e-mail. 'How does anybody expect me to quantify my husband's life? It's not possible,'
" she said.
She learned of the plea deal and told her younger son Thursday night. "His question to me last night was, 'But wait a minute, Mom. I don't get it. I thought if you kill somebody you go to prison the rest of your life,'
" she said.
Angry words escalate and violence ensues
Go to any game. Any sport. At any level. And there is a strong chance that you will hear people screaming at refs and officials. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Sometimes, it escalates and words turn into frightening actions.
There are no known national statistics about violence against refs, but veteran officials say that it is happening more frequently.
In January, a high school coach allegedly attacked a referee after a hockey game in Taunton, Mass. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and battery and disorderly conduct. Police said the coach went after the ref, punching him and then biting him on the finger.
After Bieniewicz was killed, a group of Michigan referees concerned about the growing aggressiveness approached state Sen. Morris Hood III, D-Detroit, to create legislation to protect them.
"Some of them have been assaulted at games," Hood said. "Some have been followed
out to the parking lot at games. We wanted to do something to protect them. To
make sure that if you go after an authoritative figure, there will be
consequences. To try to deter them from doing it."
Hood sponsored the bills, which remain in the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We need to educate the community that there are consequences to their actions," Hood said.
"I'm going to do everything I can to get this legislation passed. I think we'll
The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan is in favor of the bills, as are many refs. But critics say that the bills won't deter violence because the root of the problem lies in emotion and heat-of-the-moment action.
"Yes, it is a heat-of-the-moment action," Hood said. "But if this legislation
saves one life, it will be worth it."
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined to comment on pending legislation. But in a July statement announcing the charges against Saad, Worthy said:
"The alleged actions of this defendant cannot be tolerated, and there must be
action taken in our Legislature to make sure that there are stronger penalties
when a referee is the victim during organized sport."
Kris Bieniewicz has little experience with politics. She works at night, delivering the Free Press and News on a car route for Michigan.com, a job she had shared with her husband.
"My hope is that it will make people think twice," she said. "Granted, it's
going to be a long road."
Do referees deserve extra protection?
David Leyton, the Genesee County prosecuting attorney, is in favor of the bills. But he comes at this issue from an interesting perspective because he also works as a high school football referee.
"We have seen, across the country, a number of incidents where sports officials have been assaulted, either during the contest or right after the contest," Leyton said.
Critics of the bills say there are laws on the books that protect everybody. But Leyton argued that referees deserve extra protection.
"Sports officials are unique because they are putting themselves in harm's way," he said.
"They are the focal point of individuals who are extremely emotional, extremely
competitive, in the heat of battle and oftentimes that situation can erupt into
an assaultive-type situation. The uniqueness of the sports official makes them a
Leyton has been a football ref for more than 15 years. "It's not so much yelling at the ref that is the issue," he said.
"It's when somebody actually goes to put their hands on a ref. That's the real
Last fall, Leyton was working a high school football playoff game when a fan created an unnerving situation.
"We were leaving the field," Leyton said. "We had to walk across the field
behind the grandstand where our cars were parked. This is well after the game
was over. This one fan was yelling at us. He came down from the top of the
grandstand to the bottom to just scream and yell. As we proceeded to the back of
the grandstand, he ran to the top of the grandstand to shout out at us. We tried
not to respond. One guy in my group got a little hot and yelled back at him. We
got in the car and drove away. That was a little over the top."
'We are hearing these cases every week'
Barry Mano has been advocating for this kind of legislation for at least 15 years. He is the founder and publisher of Referee magazine and the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), which has more than 22,000 members representing every sport.
Mano said that violence against referees is increasing. "We are hearing these types of cases, obviously, not death, but physical assault cases, we are hearing these every single week," he said.
His Wisconsin-based organization advocates for laws that protect refs, but it does not keep national statistics about assaults against refs. Anecdotally, he said, violence is worse in recreation soccer and youth football.
"At the less-organized levels, you have the least-skillful players, being coached by the least-skillful coaches and oftentimes you have the less-skilled sports officials, working those games," Mano said.
"And the fourth part is, there is almost nonexistent security. That can be a
very toxic combination. It's not surprising that at those levels, we see the
preponderance of the trouble. It's not at the high school level, not at the
college level, not at the pro level."
If there is a surprising opponent of the bills, it is Jack Roberts, the executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the governing body for nearly every high school and middle school in the state (more than 1,500) that voluntarily joins the nonprofit organization.
Roberts, who wrote a letter to Hood expressing opposition to the bills, said the legislation sends a
"negative message" about the risks of officiating. The MHSAA registers 12,000 to 13,000 officials every year, turning over 1,500 to 2,000 every year.
Roberts said it is legally unnecessary and there is no proof it will deter violence.
"The worst aspect of the legislation is any publicity it receives," Roberts said.
"That hurts our efforts to recruit and retain officials. It sends the wrong signal to the public about the risks of officiating. The legislation will do nothing to make a hothead think twice before he or she assaults someone. But the publicity might dissuade many more people not to become officials. It makes our job harder in recruiting and retaining officials.
"I think this is symbolic. I don't feel it's substantive."
Ironically, Roberts is a former member of the NASO board.
"Jack Roberts is a very good friend of mine," Mano said. "He's a very thoughtful
guy, a serious thinker. I do respect his position on this. It can be negative.
We are sort of doing this dance. We are advocating legislation; at the same
time, we are not going out and publishing statistics."
Mano acknowledges that the legislation might not stop somebody from hitting a ref.
"It might not be a deterrent," Mano said. "But we have to come out and say, in
this society, this is not acceptable to us. This is a little more serious than
socking a guy, walking down the street. That's the point."
A young ref faces intimidation
The threat against refs is more of a problem in recreation games than at the high school level, where there is more supervision and security.
In 2008, Matthew Riley was a 14-year-old umpire, working a softball game involving 6-year-old girls in Waterford. After calling strike three to end an inning, he was bullied by the first base coach, whom he remembers standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 300 pounds.
"The first base coach was towering over me," Riley said. "He had a wifebeater on
and he was very intimidating to a 14-year-old kid. He yelled at me: 'There is no
way, that ball was up.' "
Riley was scared and changed the call. "I was terrified," he said. "I vividly
remember crying when I got home and quitting the next day. Obviously, it scared
me. I didn't umpire another game for two years."
At the time, he didn't tell anybody. He just quit.
Now, he is 20 and back umpiring baseball games. He also officiates youth football. He supports the bills because he said that it is common to be screamed at by coaches and parents and he worries that it will escalate. He remembers another incident, where a coach flipped him off and his partner rushed out of a parking lot in fear of an altercation.
"It is at a level it shouldn't be," Riley said. "It's unfortunate that this kind
of legislation has to be talked about. But I think it's necessary. In my three
or four years of officiating, it is absolutely necessary."
Riley couldn't attend the judiciary committee hearing, but he wrote an e-mail describing his experience, which was submitted as testimony along with e-mails from two other refs.
One of those refs submitted a statement that he had been confronted and threatened after two basketball games in January. He did not return e-mails from the Free Press.
Another ref submitted testimony that he was assaulted by a football player and confronted in the parking lot by an intoxicated spectator. That ref declined comment to the Free Press, saying he couldn't comment because he is an MHSAA ref.
Training for players, refs and parents
Carlos Folino, the state referee administrator for U.S. Soccer in Michigan, said he has a hard time retaining refs because so many quit due to the verbal abuse:
"Every day, I hear from referees saying, 'I'm done. I can't take it any more.'"
In any given year, there are about 5,000 active soccer refs in Michigan. Folino said that he loses about a third of his referees every year and the biggest reason is the verbal abuse, a problem that he says is growing rapidly.
"Every year, we have a 30% to 35% turnover," he said. "Think about it. That
means, technically, I'm training a whole new crew of referees every three
Folino paints a dire picture of what it is like for the soccer referees at recreation games.
"There are parents screaming at the referees, following them into the parking lot," Folino said.
"Sometimes, they make threats. Sometimes, with the adults, they will run at the
referee and another guy will step in. Being called names. All of those things.
It's in any sport and every sport."
Folino supports the bills in hopes that they will create a deterrent. "Right now, if you do something to a referee, it's a misdemeanor," he said.
"If the guy has a good record and a good lawyer, he can just walk for that and
nothing will happen."
What is the root of the problem?
What has created this environment?
"The biggest thing is there is no respect for the official in any sport," Folino said.
At the same time, there is more pressure in sports. "At the youth levels, parents are putting too much money into the game," Folino said.
"Because of the money, the pressure to win is higher. In soccer, they sometimes think 'My kid is going to get a scholarship' and the referees make a mistake, they are hurting their son's or daughter's chances. It puts a lot of pressure on the referees, a lot of pressure on the parents to win.
"I think it's the culture in society."
There is pressure on the kids to perform. There is pressure on the coaches to win. And parents sit in the stands, freaking out over everything.
Hilary Levey Friedman has studied this culture and wrote the book "Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture" (University of California Press, $24.99).
Friedman said that children mimic behavior of parents and professional athletes. When children see adults screaming at officials, that's what they will end up doing.
"Based on my research I think this has to do with professionalism in youth sports," said Friedman, who has a doctorate in sociology from Princeton University. She grew up in West Bloomfield and now teaches at Brown University.
"Not the kids, who we, in fact, expect to act like mini-professionals and they
then take on some of that misbehavior, but the adults."
So it's up to the parents to keep things in perspective. And it's the parents who often lose it.
"They need to explain that losing a game when you're a kid will not negatively impact the rest of your life -- unless you exhibit impulsive, unsportsmanlike or violent behavior," Friedman said.
Folino is considering several measures to try to address the problem, including training referees how to react with hostile players and parents. He wants to teach refs how to defuse an emotional situation.
"We have been looking at a lot of things to try to curb what is going on, training players, training parents, training refs," he said.
"It takes time, it takes effort. We are looking at different things to get
referees to understand people. For the most part, we train referees to learn the
rules of the game, but sometimes we forget that we need to train them to
understand people. When you call a foul on a player, he or she is going to react
a certain way. Sometimes, a referee doesn't know how to react. Sometimes, we
throw more wood on the fire by things we may do or say."
Utah ref was killed in a similar attack
John Bieniewicz would often ref three games on a Saturday. He was considered a good ref, according to Folino. Not someone who would inflame a situation.
Kris Bieniewicz said that the June incident was the first time that her husband was ever attacked at a soccer match. Occasionally, he would come home and talk about a coach who was yelling, or when he had to pull out a red card, she said.
"But nothing ever escalated where it became confrontational," she said.
The way John Bieniewicz was attacked was eerily similar to a situation that happened in Utah in 2013 when a ref was killed. A 17-year-old punched a soccer referee. The ref went into a coma and died, leaving behind three daughters. The teenager pleaded guilty in juvenile court to a charge of homicide by assault.
"I remember talking to (John) the next day," Kris Bieniewicz said. " 'Hey, did
you hear about this story?' "
"He said, 'Well, it was a non-sanctioned league. Everything I ref is sanctioned.
That was basically a bunch of guys getting together for pickup. There was no
organization. No nothing to it. I would never step foot in a league like that.'
John Bieniewicz regretted that he didn't start reffing until later in life. He encouraged his older son, Kyle, 14, to become a ref.
"(Kyle) has heard flak from coaches and parents as he has been running up and down the sideline, but nothing violent," Kris Bieniewicz said.
After John died, a couple hundred soccer refs attended the visitation. Kyle led the referees into the room, carrying John's black jersey.
"He placed John's black jersey at the casket," Kris Bieniewicz said. "When he
saw some of the referees that he knew, who John had introduced him to, I saw him
smile for the first time."
Kyle has since returned to officiating soccer games. "Never once did he hesitate in stepping back on the field," she said.
Bieniewicz has yet to take her children to visit the grave site, even though it's across the street from the rink where her son Josh plays hockey.
"We haven't made it that far yet," she said. "I don't have a textbook. It's not
like somebody said this is what you have to do. That's what feels right. I don't
want my kids to forget him."
She is still grieving. But she has learned that staying busy makes it easier.
"We haven't built a shrine toward Dad, but we haven't shut Dad out," Bieniewicz said.
"We talk about him all the time. He comes up in conversation all the time."
Kyle is a freshman in high school, and he is playing basketball and joined marching band. Josh plays basketball and hockey.
"There are three of us and there are times when we need to be at four different places," she said.
A few weeks ago, they had four basketball games, two hockey games, a hockey practice and a birthday party in one weekend. They didn't miss any of it.
"That's what Dad would want us to do," Bieniewicz said.
She has found a safety net. Family. Teachers. Friends. And strangers. An online fund-raiser was started for funeral expenses and to pay for the college educations of Kyle and Josh. Over the last seven months, more than 2,400 people have donated more than $175,000 for their education.
"I found out that I have more of a safety net than I thought I did," Bieniewicz said.
"I have gotten a lot of support from a lot of different directions, which has
been helpful. The biggest thing for me is accepting that help. As things have
gotten crazy, occasionally, I have to lean on somebody else. There have been
plenty of people to lean on."
This summer, on the anniversary of her husband's death, she plans to take her boys to Disney World, the place where she went on a honeymoon with her husband.
"So we don't have to be here," she said. "I don't want to relive everything.
Will it be on my mind? Yes. But maybe I can at least find a little bit of a
distraction, at the Happiest Place on Earth."
A wife, a widow, a sad courtroom scene
On Friday morning, Saad agreed to the plea deal before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny.
Kris Bieniewicz sat in the back of the courtroom. As the case wound through the court system, she tried to attend every court appearance, even though it was excruciating for her. Every time, it was the same: Her stomach was in knots and she lost her appetite.
Saad's wife sat in the middle of the courtroom. She declined to give her name, but said they have been married for eight years.
"He is very, very remorseful," she said. "He can't even talk about it."
Saad's wife said her husband did not regularly play soccer because he was always busy working. In some ways, she said, it was just a fluke that he was there that day.
"All he does is pray to God, asking John to forgive him and to help John's family to get through this," she said.
"It's what he is constantly talking about."
Saad entered the courtroom wearing a dress shirt, tie and dress pants. His wife changed seats so she could get a better view of him. Bieniewicz stared straight ahead, looking tired and overwhelmed.
"There were intense negotiations in this case," Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Erika Tusar said.
"We started out with a 10-to-15 offer under manslaughter."
There was a counteroffer. And then, both sides agreed to an 8- to 15-year sentence.
In a series of questions from Kenny, Saad admitted that he punched Bieniewicz.
"Did there come a time, during that soccer match, when you punched or hit Mr. Bieniewicz?" Kenny asked.
"Yes, your honor," Saad said, with no emotion.
"Did you hit him in the neck or throat area?" Kenny asked.
"Yes, your honor," he said.
Bieniewicz continued to stare straight ahead. It was excruciating to listen, hearing the details. Hearing Saad's voice, as he admitted it in open court.
After the hearing ended, Bieniewicz walked out of the room. She waited for an elevator and closed her eyes. The pain and agony covered her face.
One punch. And two families are devastated.
In this day and age when refs are often verbally attacked and can be physically threatened, it could have happened at any game, at any park, on any day of the week.
And that's the really scary part.
State legislation in U.S.
Twenty-three states have enacted laws that give extra protection to refs, coaches and administers. While the laws vary from misdemeanors to felonies, all have been created to protect sports officials by increasing penalties.
The states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.
Detroit Free Press
Are Kids Sports Pricing Themselves Out of the Market?
Thanks to the equality of opportunity provided by sandlots and playgrounds, it used to be axiomatic that an American kid from any neighborhood could rise to the top of any major league sport. No more. For one thing,
there are fewer and fewer sandlots and playgrounds. A more important reason is that fewer and fewer parents can afford the escalating costs of organized sports.
Consider this: If Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Magic Johnson, Jim Brown, or Jackie (Flo Jo) Joyner Kersee were born in this century instead of the last, we'd probably never hear of them -- their parents didn't make enough to pay the costs of their kids' play.
"Free play has disappeared," says entrepreneur Darryl Hill, who grew up on the streets and playgrounds of Washington, D.C., to become, in 1963 at the University of Maryland, the first African American to play football -- or any major sport -- in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"There are no more sandlot sports."
Even school teams are becoming rarer.
An examination of who plays youth sports
from ESPN The Magazine finds that while there may be 21.5 million kids between age six and 17 playing on a team, including teams at schools, the earliest participants come from upper-income families. "We also see starkly what drives the very earliest action: money," wrote Bruce Kelley and Carl Carchia. "The biggest indicator of whether kids start young, [sports researcher Don] Sabo found, is whether their parents have a household income of $100,000 or more." Kids from low-income families are the least likely to be on multiple teams.
"Here's an astounding statistic: 95 percent of Fortune 500 executives played
sports. That speaks to the leadership qualities kids can learn, such as
teamwork, cooperation, how to win and how to lose, and how to play by the
And disturbingly, 3.5 million kids are expected to lose school sports by 2020,
especially in financially strapped states like California and Florida and big
inner cities: "Living in poor corners of cities culls even more kids from
sports. Nationwide, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, only a
quarter of eighth- to 12th-graders enrolled in the poorest schools played school
Cincinnati resident Fran Dicari, host of the website StatsDad.com, talks about the $11,714 he spent on his two children's equipment, fees, and travel expenses in one year. "Looking back on it, you would not think we were sane people, but in the circle we were in, we were normal." One father quoted in several studies mentioned his astonishment at realizing his 14-year-old son, a catcher, was lugging around a bat bag containing $2,500 worth of baseball gear.
Let me offer an anecdote from my nephew Tom Greenya, who has a good job as general manager of Country Inn & Suites North in Green Bay, Wisconsin, as does his wife, Debbie, a mechanical engineer. "We have three boys -- five, eight, and 11 -- and they all play baseball, basketball, and one is now into tackle football,"
he explains. "There are dues associated with all of those sports. I heard
recently that the baseball league is going to stop buying helmets because now
all the kids have their own helmets. Back in the day, the league or the
playground provided the helmets, but these days every kid has to have his own
bat, every kid has to have his own helmet, and not every kid can afford that."
To counter these cost obstacles, Hill recently founded the
Kids Play USA Foundation ("Removing financial barriers to participation in youth sports"). He sees these economic obstacles as harmful both to potential young athletes and to society itself, a view shared by many, but definitely not all, parents.
"Leveling the economic playing field," Hill says, "is not only good for the kids health-wise and character-wise, but also good for society. An idle kid is a problem about to happen." He shows a command of data -- "In the 1970s, more than 20 percent of African American kids had made it to the major leagues in baseball, but now it is eight percent -- and shrinking," or "One of three [U.S.] kids are overweight or clinically obese by the age of 13, primarily due to decreased physical activity" -- to back up his concerns.
Kids Play USA's main mission, according to its founder, is "to make sports affordable and available to all children, and we will realize that goal by pursuing initiatives on two fronts -- increasing public awareness of the problem and chipping down costs. The latter could include having existing groups focus on affordability, helping communities to organize lower-cost sports, bringing in other organizations or corporations to offer direct financial assistance, or even sponsoring
'free' teams to play in expensive youth leagues." Kids Play would also provide free and safe equipment to underserved kids.
Mark Hyman, author of
The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families, calls escalating expenses "the global warming of youth sports." An adjunct professor of sports management at The George Washington University, journalist, and attorney, Hyman's book is the second of a one-two punch. In
Until It Hurts, Hyman wrote about the injures, both physical and psychological, that over-zealous sports parents end up causing their own children.
A poll taken in 2012 shows the impact of rising costs, especially on those least able to pay to play:
Hill told Pacific Standardthat the rationale for his recently
formed non-profit crystallized when he noticed, while at a girls' soccer
tournament in Laurel, Maryland, that not one of the 150 kids was black. Thinking
it might have something to do with economics -- his straight-A's major in
college -- Hill asked a manager and was told the tab for each kid was $175 a month
"just to be on the team. It has nothing to do with the shoes, the bags, the
uniforms, the travel expenses, etc. The total cost including travel could be up
to $5,000 a year. So I said, 'OK I get it. That's purely economic
discrimination. And it's got to stop.'"
For many families, even those making more than the chart's $60,000 threshold, the kicker is the travel expense. Says hotelier Greenya: "With baseball, they play twice a week, but if a kid is good enough -- and his parents can afford it -- there are travel teams and special teams like for weekend tournaments and the different uniforms and the entry fees are all added costs. I'm sure there are kids who would love to do that, but their parents can only scrape up enough money to get into the normal league play." Those special teams Tom spoke about, so-called travel or club teams, travel to other cities and towns to compete against other "select" teams.
In the last several years, financial journalists, especially those who advise families, have written about the problem. Financial writer Sarah Lorge Butler of CBS MoneyWatch
reported in 2011 that one family told her they'd spent $4,000 for their nine-year-old to play on a travel baseball team. And a family with three girls had laid out at least $8,000 a year for club volleyball.
Spurred by Butler's story,
MSN's Karen Datko
wrote: "Girls' softball can cost $150 per child. That doesn't take into account
the bat, glove, hat and cleats that must be purchased. Youth football can run as
much as $400 per child. Soccer, basketball and other sports aren't far off. Club
teams, with the additional hotel and travel costs, are in a league all their
Writing in The New York Times in mid-2012,
Mike Tanier warned parents:
"If you have not outfitted a little slugger lately, prepare for sticker shock.
The youth baseball circular for one major retailer advertises bats in the
$219.99 to $249.99 range. There's a $129.99 glove.... A batting helmet protects
tiny heads for $39.99. A pair of Nike Jordan Black Cat cleats ... at $51.99....
Batting gloves cost $19.99, and there is no need to worry about Junior getting a
hernia from lugging all that precious equipment if you buy a $44.99 wheeled bat
Expenses aren't just in fancy equipment. According to Datko, "Some cash-strapped municipalities have turned to charging or raising fees for use of public fields, which means higher costs for the parents of youth team members." And Tom Geenya reports that "in Wisconsin some cities and schools now charge for the previously-free use of their fields and gymnasiums,"
with the problem of escalating costs existing all across the sports spectrum.
"That's how I see it in baseball, and every sport has it. In basketball you hear
about the AAU-type tournaments, and the kids travel on weekends. I feel it's
almost too much too soon."
Nephew Tom, the 42-year-old father of three sons who have many more years to play various sports sees another problem: the parents. "Some people are trying to relive their own playing days through their kids," he says. Darryl Hill agrees.
"Parents have invaded kids' sports to the point where kids aren't having fun
anymore. Parents have injected themselves so thoroughly that not only has it
become commercial, but it has produced a lot of pressure on the kids. The
parents are teaching them to win at any cost, which circumvents the necessary
"When kids are playing among themselves, they police each other: 'Ah, man, don't
do that! You know that's not right. You out of bounds.'"
According to Hill, the danger in parental over-involvement is that a child might choose not to play and thus lose out on its many potential benefits. "Kids who play youth sports make better citizens in every measurable capacity," he says. "They're more likely to become better students, to graduate and become better, more productive citizens, and less likely to be involved in drugs and violence.
"Here's an astounding statistic: 95 percent of Fortune 500 company executives played school sports," he says.
"Ninety-five percent. That speaks to the leadership qualities kids can learn,
such as teamwork, cooperation, how to win and how to lose, and how to play by
the rules -- especially if the parents stay out of the process."
Hill had originally intended to concentrate his foundation's efforts on the Maryland-Washington-Virginia area, but having seen the extent of the problem he is now seeking the money to go national. A quick scan of academic literature -- from Denmark, Australia, Canada, Sweden, some of them places with subsidized assistance -- suggests he may want to consider going international, too.
Until then, when Hollywood inevitably remakes the classic baseball fantasy Field
of Dreams, the new tagline may be, "If You Build It, They Will Come ... If Their
Parents Can Afford It."
Pacific Standard Magazine
When Will We Stop? the Absurdity of Youth Basketball Rankings
A few miles outside of Washington D.C., Tyisha Bogues sat in the stands watching her 10-year-old son, Sarmartine, compete in a youth basketball tournament. She wore a black long-sleeve shirt with
"FATMAN MOM" and his uniform number (1) stitched across the back in red lettering.
Sarmartine Bogues was given his "Fatman" nickname when he was an overweight toddler. It stuck even as he lost much of his baby fat. Yet, in some basketball circles, Sarmartine Bogues is already a household name.
During most games, he is the smallest kid on the court. But that hasn't stopped him from adopting a style reminiscent of his grandfather, Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player (5'3") in NBA history. Sarmartine, a 4'6", 79-pound lefty point guard, handles the ball with confidence, plays aggressive defense, makes smart decisions and serves as the catalyst for his Baltimore-based AAU team. He's learned valuable lessons from watching Muggsy's old games and working out with his grandfather in Baltimore and at Muggsy's home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And yet, Sarmartine is immersed in a much different basketball environment than the one his grandfather experienced when he was a boy. Sarmartine's schedule, like that of all elite youth players, is inundated with games and practices. He competes in an average of three tournaments per month from September through July, and he plans on playing in Louisiana, Indiana, Nevada, Georgia and Ohio over the next few months.
In October, one website, Middle School Elite, declared Bogues the second-best fourth-grader in the country. The only player ranked above him?
"Bronny" James, LeBron James' son.
We're talking about pre-teens, here.
Despite the questions surrounding the validity of rankings at such a young age, Sarmartine symbolizes the trend toward identifying players as prospects even before they enter junior high school. It is a competitive cottage industry for coaches and recruiting analysts vying for relationships with the next potential Division I and NBA stars.
Tyisha is accustomed to the hype. She said she gets business cards from youth coaches all the time trying to, in effect, recruit her son. Some say he could just play on the few weekends when BMore's Finest (his AAU team) isn't in a tournament, but she declines.
Muggsy has a hard time relating to his grandson's reality. Although Muggsy was part of one of the best programs in the country in the 1980s at Dunbar High School in Baltimore -- on a team that included future NBA players Reggie Lewis, Reggie Williams and David Wingate -- he only played in one AAU tournament and wasn't subjected to much pressure before high school. He's proud of Sarmartine, but he tells him not to pay attention to rankings.
"I don't know where they get that from," Muggsy said. "I don't like that. It's
too early to be saying he's the best."
Few people understand the evolution of youth basketball more than Bob Gibbons. For more than 30 years, the University of North Carolina graduate has run his own recruiting service, evaluating high school players and selling his rankings and scouting reports to more than 100 college programs each year. Name an NBA player from the past five decades, and it's a safe bet Gibbons saw him play in person as a teenager. He'll rattle them off: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jerry Stackhouse, Kenny Anderson, etc.
Gibbons was one of the first people to rank high school players, a practice that was once a small niche catering to college coaches and diehard fans. By the early 2000s -- with the introduction of Rivals.com, Scout.com and other recruiting websites -- it became more mainstream.
In the 1970s, Gibbons said Indiana coach Bob Knight paid him $200 for a report on all of the high schoolers who were 6'9" or taller. Now, that information is much easier to find, and the barriers of entry to the business are low. Anyone with rudimentary Internet skills can create a website at little cost and start ranking players. They can then promote them for free on Facebook, Twitter and other social-media platforms.
Until a few years ago, players weren't typically ranked until they entered their junior and senior years of high school. Analysts were more cautious about projecting kids and presumed the public demand wasn't there. That's no longer the case, as even some elementary school children are now in the spotlight.
The shift concerns Gibbons. Each spring, he runs a tournament for players in grades six through 11. He watches middle schoolers compete, but he declines to rate them.
"Some [rankings] specialize in third-graders, fourth-graders, fifth-graders, sixth-graders," Gibbons said.
"It's sort of absurd. Not sort of. It's totally absurd. You cannot make a
projection on what level of college a kid's going to play at that young age.
There's just too many factors."
Still, that has not stopped others from ranking kids before they enter high school. Clark Francis, who began his recruiting service, The Hoop Scoop, in 1983 after graduating from Indiana University, has ranked players as young as fourth grade for more than a decade. And he's not about to apologize.
In the book Play Their Hearts Out, author and Sports Illustrated senior writer George Dohrmann described the close relationship between Francis and youth coach Joe Keller. Keller promoted his players to Francis and ended up launching a series of national and regional events, including the Jr. Phenom camp that features fourth- through eighth-graders.
Francis vets the people he talks with to make sure they don't have an agenda. He said gathering information on kids at an early age gives him an advantage over his competitors when it comes to ranking players later in high school.
"People can say, 'When is it too early to rank players? What is the time when you should be starting to watch players?'" Francis said.
"I'm like, 'I don't really know.' But it's not my job to be the adult, the
counselor, the teacher, the coach, whoever it is, the street agent, whoever's
guiding that kid and has influence over that kid making the decisions in that
kid's life. …Once you put him out there, he's fair game for me to rank him."
Way Too Subjective
As a parent of a young player, Jerry Love had followed Francis' work and craved the attention. When his son, Jerron, began showing promise against other kids in New York, Jerry devoted his energy to promoting him.
"That day I saw him put the ball through his legs the way he put it through, and I was always keen on business. I saw a lot of money potential," Love said.
"I saw that he could make money."
In January 2008, Jerry uploaded a video of 11-year-old Jerron on YouTube that referred to the boy as the
"11th Wonder." With Kanye West's "Champion" as background music, the video shows Jerron shooting, dribbling and passing. Father and son traveled throughout the country for tournaments and camps, and Jerry passed out DVDs of his son's exploits to anyone interested.
Jerry also had a website, JLoveStudentAthlete.com, made for his son, although it is no longer active because he failed to pay the maintenance and hosting fees. In early 2010, Love started another website called Middle School Elite that covered youth basketball and ranked players. After Jerron played in a tournament that May in Columbus, Ohio, as a seventh-grader, the website wrote that Love
"played like the world was on his shoulders and with heart the size of the
continent of Africa."
Love ranked his son as the best middle school player in the country, even though he was only 5'7". Still, Love did not reveal he was behind the website until The Wall Street Journal outed him in an article published in August 2011 ahead of Love's freshman year of high school. The backlash was immediate and lasting. People questioned Love's motives. To this day, he swears he launched Middle School Elite to promote all players, not just his son.
The early attention has become a burden for Jerron. He is now a senior and at his fourth high school in three states in four years. He played as a freshman at Clovis West in Fresno, California, and spent his sophomore year and half of his junior year at Wheeler in Marietta, Georgia. He left Wheeler and moved back to California last winter, but he did not play basketball. This fall, he enrolled at Abraham Lincoln in Brooklyn, New York, before departing for Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Jerron, who has only grown to 5'10", is the 48th-ranked point guard in his class, according to ESPN, and unranked among Rivals.com's top 150 prospects. He hopes to sign with a college in the spring, although he will likely not be playing for a major program. Jerry Love said his tactics have hurt his son.
"If we had stayed in good terms with everybody, he would've been like top-ranked," he said.
"I just was going against the grain, coming up with this middle school exposure
stuff. …I probably stepped on people's feet. I don't know."
If Love knew what would happen, would he have started Middle School Elite?
"I probably would have done it, but I probably would have been a little bit more discreet with it," Love said.
"I probably wouldn't have done it. Well, I can't say that, but one part says
that I would regret it. The other part says I did it out of just the kindness of
my heart, if that makes sense."
The New Cottage Industry
Despite Love's regrets, he continues to run Middle School Elite, and the hype surrounding players in grade school and middle school has only increased. They have no shortage of opportunities to test themselves against each other, either. During most weekends, children can compete in tournaments across the country. They travel more than some seasoned business executives and salespeople.
On the Saturday and Sunday before Thanksgiving, 84 of the top AAU teams from the East Coast gathered for the A-Game Super Shootout in District Heights, Maryland, less than 10 miles outside of Washington D.C. Third- to eighth-graders faced off in a huge indoor complex in a suburban strip mall that houses 10 basketball courts. The champions in each group played five to six games over the two-day period.
Per NCAA rules, college coaches weren't allowed to attend. In January 2009, the NCAA passed legislation that classified seventh-grade boys' basketball players as prospects. At the time, players weren't legally considered prospects until ninth grade, so college coaches worked middle school camps to develop relationships with them. Now, they can only watch seventh- and eighth-graders play during NCAA-mandated periods in the spring and July.
Still, high school coaches scouted players at the AGame Super Shootout and started building relationships they hope will lead to kids playing for them. They were mostly concerned with the seventh- and eighth-grade matchups.
In the seventh-grade final, Slam City Elite, based in Maryland, defeated Team Takeover from D.C. to continue its undefeated season. That team was the brainchild of Maryland youth coach Bill Francis.
At the AAU national tournament last summer, Francis spoke with players and parents from various clubs in Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia. He wanted to build an all-star team of sorts featuring the best players in the region.
Within a couple of months, he had formed Slam City Elite, which he has nicknamed
"The Terror Squad." Francis, who once worked with Love at Middle School Elite, wasn't shy about his intentions and wasn't popular in some circles. Some of the Slam City Elite players repeated the seventh grade so they could play for the team, a common practice among elite youth programs.
With so many clubs having older players, the AAU recently changed its eligibility rules. Starting in 2015, AAU-sanctioned tournaments will be based on age, not grade. For instance, the new legislation states kids competing in the 13-and-under tournaments can be no older than 13 on Aug. 31, 2015. Based on those rules, Slam City Elite won't be eligible to compete in the AAU nationals because they have too many kids who are older than 13. Still, Francis is proud of his team despite others' objections.
"There are a lot of people who, because they didn't think it could happen, are very envious of the fact that it did happen," Francis said.
"They've let that be known. A lot of times we go into a gym and it's really an
In the eighth-grade final, D.C. Premier from Washington, D.C. defeated Team Rio National from New Jersey, a squad that's sponsored by Miami Heat guard Mario Chalmers. Team Rio played without Scottie Lewis, one of the most high-profile pre-high school players. Lewis, a skinny 6'4" guard, preferred singing, writing and art until he started playing basketball three years ago, although he's already the muse of highlight mixtapes. A week before the tournament, he suffered an injury and had a cast on his left forearm.
At halftime, with Team Rio leading by three points, Lewis grew restless. Standing near the three-point line on the left wing, he picked up a ball and held it between his right elbow and palm. He then ran toward the hoop, protected his left arm and converted a one-handed windmill dunk. That was the extent of his activity, although he was expected to return to the lineup soon.
Lewis receives about as much attention as anyone his age. The first image on his Instagram page, from April 27, is a screen shot of a website, Middle School Hoops, that ranked him No. 1 in the country among seventh-graders.
"I think my rankings are well deserved, but I think they won't matter until I'm at least a sophomore in high school," Lewis said.
"I look at the rankings, but then I don't pay attention to them. It's fun to be
at that spot that I'm at, but then I say, 'Who cares?'"
Let the Kids Be Kids
After playing 14 seasons in the NBA and coaching three NBA teams, John Lucas now works with kids ranging from fourth grade to the pro level and runs camps throughout the United States. To him, ranking kids makes no sense.
"If you're the best fourth-grader in the world, you know what that means?" Lucas said.
"You get to go to the fifth grade. And guess what happens in the fifth or sixth
grade. You may not grow."
Each May, Lucas runs an international middle school event in Houston that includes 100 to 150 of the best seventh- and eighth-graders in the world. Last year, 46 players were 6'6" or taller.
Instead of running an all-star-game type of atmosphere without any structure, Lucas emphasizes skill development in a competitive environment. He and his staff teach how to play according to game situations and work on skills such as beating teams when the shot clock is winding down, running and defending against the pick-and-roll and deciding whether to continue driving to the basket or pass the ball.
"They're very talented skill-wise," Lucas said. "They run and jump better than
each generation that comes up, but their lack of knowledge and understanding of
the evolution of the game is still lacking. Although a kid is 13, he still
doesn't know how to play yet."
Muggsy Bogues agrees with Lucas' assessment and has a similar philosophy. During the summer, Sarmartine Bogues attends his grandfather's camps for kids from six to 15 and stays at Muggsy's home in Charlotte. Together, they watch old clips of Muggsy's NBA games and compete in one-on-one situations and drills. Muggsy emphasizes the importance of playing pressure defense, passing the ball to teammates and having the right attitude.
"We don't put that much pressure on him," Muggsy said. "We let him just have fun
Shavasha Smith, Scottie Lewis' mom, puts even more perspective on things: "If
[Lewis] said to me tomorrow, 'Mommy, I don't want to play basketball anymore,'
I'm perfectly fine with that. Some parents, they're just so hard on their kids.
The kid has to love what they're doing. As long as he enjoys doing it, I'm happy
Youth sports build core values for successful life
Youth sports are microcosms of our communities. Attitudes and actions in youth sports, from coaches and players, are a reflection and reinforcement of societal values. That also means sports can serve as channels between adults and youth, transmitting core values like strength, wisdom, integrity, love and faith. That is a basis for true community.
The skills and character of young athletes are molded by coaches for better or worse. Kids can be taught that the goal is to always win or to always succeed. There is a big difference. Winning in competition is great, but it's typically fleeting and of limited consequence. On the other hand, success shapes lives, and it projects far beyond an individual or team. Sports can provide kids with the opportunity for both. As they learn skills for competition, they are laying the groundwork for the core values of a successful life.
Winning in sports requires "strength" on physical, mental and emotional levels. Competition helps kids develop strength to a greater degree than otherwise possible. That's a major asset for a successful life. Kids learn that they have greater potential than they imagined. They stop asking,
"Can I?" and start saying, "I can." Strength fortified by sports participation empowers youth with positive attitudes.
Positive attitudes are advantageous for developing wisdom. Kids who feel good about themselves are better able to discern what's good for them. In competition, an athlete realizes that there are expectations, and success depends on individual decisions and actions. Sports require kids to make wise choices to set goals and develop skills and abilities. Wisdom also promotes understanding the needs of others and what can be done to make a positive difference.
As young athletes gain strength and wisdom, they begin to learn about integrity. In sports, the choices have consequences that can affect an entire team, whether in competition or on a Saturday night. As former Congressman and University of Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts says,
"Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody is looking." Youths who commit to integrity become adults who understand that we are responsible for our own actions. A successful life incorporates wise choices and the strength to do the right thing even when it's not easy.
Love is another value integral to kids involved with sports. A good coach expresses love for athletes by connecting on a personal level. Kids feel important and respond by becoming receptive to what that adult mentor has to teach them. Young athletes also develop love for teammates as they share the rigors of training and the emotional highs and lows of competition. This is the foundation for great friendships. Love carries over to a life with meaningful relationships and respect for others.
The first four values emphasized by youth sports build faith. Strength increases a person's faith in himself or herself. Wisdom helps kids realize there is more to life than themselves. Integrity is a manifestation of Jesus' teaching,
"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Love, in its many forms, is the basis for strong community. Strong communities bolster the faith of individuals. Ultimately, faith leads young athletes full circle to become dedicated coaches when they grow up.
Instilling core values through youth sports requires coaches to examine their own motivation and values. Am I in it for the win or am I in it for the kids? Do I want to build a great team this season or do I want to lay the groundwork for a better community tomorrow? Joe Ehrmann, youth coach, former NFL player and author of
"InsideOut Coaching: How Sports can Transform Lives," has as a great perspective. When people ask how Ehrmann's season is going, he responds,
"Ask me in 20 years."
"InsideOut Coaching" is required reading for coaches at Glenwood Springs High School. And many people in our community are passionate about making the most of the bonds between coaches and young athletes. It's critical that this trend continue to spread. Sports provide our youth with fantastic opportunities for competition, fun and friendship while fortifying strength, wisdom, integrity, love and faith for life. That's more than a win for kids and communities. It's success.
Two-year playoff ban for forfeit sparks youth sports debate
A prominent high school football team's coach declares at the 11th hour that he cannot in good conscience risk the health of his young athletes for an insignificant game, and forfeits.
The head of the local sports federation, believing that school teams are duty-bound to honor their commitments, responds by severely punishing the program.
Those two stances are at the heart of a mounting controversy. Last week, Central Coast Section commissioner Nancy Lazenby Blaser announced that the powerful Junipero Serra High School football team will be banned from postseason play for the next two seasons after coach Patrick Walsh chose to have his team skip a playoff
"consolation" game last month against Milpitas High over what Walsh said were safety concerns.
But the case goes beyond what would have been a sports contest remembered mostly by the participants, parents and coaches. It raises deeper questions about the spirit and intent of high school sports -- and what lessons kids can learn from them.
"I know both people involved and each is a person of integrity who is trying to do the right thing, and they're just clashing," said Jim Thompson, the founder of the Mountain View (California)-based Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the character-building aspect of youth sports.
"But situations like this are precisely why sports matter so much in our
society. They make us really think about our own personal ethics and what we
Serra, a private school that is the alma mater of many prominent athletic figures including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and the CCS leadership are at odds about what should have happened -- and neither side is backing down.
Walsh steadfastly has insisted that he "only had the best interest of our players' health in mind" in not playing a game he saw as meaningless. And his decision has been backed by the school's administration.
Lazenby Blaser, who had warned teams of the consequences of forfeiture, countered in a statement that she took no pleasure in handing down tough sanctions, but said
"it is the duty of the commissioner to uphold the integrity of interscholastic
The Serra coach's stated concern about the welfare of his players is admirable, said Ann Skeet, the director of leadership ethics at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. She notes the rising awareness about the incidence of concussions -- especially among youth athletes in the often violent game of football.
But Skeet questioned the late timing of Walsh's decision to cancel the game -- it was announced the day of the game -- and wondered what kind of message it sends to the Serra players.
"Sports is a key forum for young people to learn from adults important lessons about how to act in life," Skeet said.
"And while this is a relatively small thing, the coach is essentially telling his team that, yes, there are rules, but they don't apply to us.
"I think there was a missed leadership opportunity here where the coach could
have said: 'We're committed to play, and we're going to play fully.'"
Thompson added that, absent learning more about the injury situation among Walsh's players,
"I wish Serra had played the game."
Thompson said if you are only paying attention to the scoreboard, then you are missing the real significance of youth sports because that is where kids learn about important traits likes teamwork and perseverance.
That helps explain why this story has garnered so much attention.
"People often think these games are simple, but they're really the most complicated phenomenon in our society," Thompson said.
"The coaches are in a fishbowl. The kids are trying to figure out who they are.
The parents often are projecting their own unfulfilled athletic dreams on their
children. All these things are going on at once, and it's why situations like
this really make you think."
While Walsh's forfeit decision has its critics, so too does the CCS board's decision to add consolation games -- contests played by the losing playoff teams after being eliminated from championship contention.
There was immediate criticism when the local high school playoff format changed this past season to include consolation games -- a decision that was approved by the section's board of managers in late October. Some coaches complained that there is no place for consolation games in football.
That prompted Lazenby Blaser to issue a memo to schools alerting them that they would face potential sanctions if they did not fulfill their obligations.
Serra, the defending section champ, lost in the first round to Los Gatos. The following week, the team traveled to Salinas to play Palma in a consolation game that both teams agreed beforehand to treat as a glorified scrimmage, where the teams were not taking the game as seriously. Serra won 28-14 to advance to play Milpitas -- which has been the South Bay's top team all season before being upset by Bellarmine College Prep in the first round.
According to Milpitas athletic director Jeff Lamb, Walsh talked to Milpitas coach Kelly King, asking if a similar arrangement to treat the game as a scrimmage could be reached.
"We said no," Lamb said. "We wanted to play the game straight up."
With no hint of a potential forfeit, Milpitas went about its usual business. The players practiced and had their traditional Thursday dinner. The school decorated its stands, and the concessions operators spent hours shopping for food.
But shortly before noon on the day of the game on Dec. 5, Serra notified Milpitas that it would not be playing that evening and Walsh issued a statement explaining that he just could not justify a single injured Serra or Milpitas player in a consolation game.
Walsh concluded that while he knew there would be questions, "I can only
guarantee one thing -- and this is the only thing I care about -- when my head
hits the pillow this evening, I will know that a healthy kid in another house is
On Friday, Oak Grove coach Jay Braun said he had no remorse for Serra. His team lost a consolation game at Milpitas a week earlier.
"I went to the table with who I had to suit up," Braun said, noting that some of his players chose not to play against Milpitas because of injury or winter sports.
"Were they my best players? No. Were they my studs? Not all of them. But they
met the requirement to play at the varsity level. I had a responsibility as a
coach to meet my obligation."
In addition to the ban, which Serra can appeal, the school will have to pay back more than $6,000 in financial restitution to cover gate receipts, concession revenue and game official costs.