Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Archive for January 7th, 2009

Little League, big finances

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The NBA has laid off employees. So has the NFL. And now comes word from the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., about budget cuts at probably the best-known brand name in youth sports: Little League.

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SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT – Little League International has weathered the global economic downturn without the layoffs that have affected some pro sports organizations, but says it is watching expenses closely.

Its budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 shows operating revenue of $19.9 million, a decrease of $1.7 million over last year’s spending plan. Operating expenses are projected to increase $82,302, to $18.9 million.

By the way, $4.7 million — or about one-quarter of that budget — comes from right fees paid by ESPN to show the Little League World Series and the regional finals. Just in case you wondered where the economic incentive was to put 11- and 12-year-old baseball players on television.

To me the most interesting numbers come at the end of the story:

Membership in Little League Baseball (11- and 12-year-olds) decreased by 158 leagues and 356 teams in 2008. That’s the group that ends up in the World Series every August.

Last year, 36,582 leagues and 173,027 teams were chartered in all levels of baseball and softball. That is a drop of 943 leagues and 2,931 teams compared to 2007.

Since the team charter fee is $16, the downward trend has not affected the budget, Houseknecht said.

The past 10 years, the general trend for all youth team sports, not just Little League, has been down, Van Auken said. This trend is the reason a league development department was created, he said.

So why would these numbers be going down? Here’s my best guess:

1. Membership organizations, sports or otherwise, are having trouble retaining people and getting new ones to join, unless people see them as a way to fight a threat, like joining the NRA under a Democratic administration or the ACLU under a Republican one.

2. There are plenty of other sanctioning bodies one could join. My local teams are in the Pony league organization, for example.

3. The rise of travel ball is making Little League, with its local teams playing local teams, irrelevant to many elite-level players. And there are plenty of entrepreneurs starting travel leagues if a locality doesn’t have one already.

4. Related to point No. 1, people like the idea of their money staying local. For example, my children’s elementary school recently changed its PTA (part of the money is sent to support a national organization) to a PTO (all money stays home). A sanctioning fee is $16 is nothing, but it’s the principle that your kid is supporting some pencil-pusher in South Williamsport, Pa.

If any of this means that Little League is in danger of losing its ESPN cash cow in 2010, when its contract is up, I don’t see it. A brand name still means something. After all, Notre Dame football has sucked for years and NBC keeps paying more and more money to broadcast it.

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The virtues of Virtus

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Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

If you are coaching a team at a Catholic school, or working with children there in any capacity, more than likely you have to go through something called VIRTUS training. Or as I call it, How Not to Molest Children.

I went through VIRTUS two years ago before coaching my son’s fourth-grade basketball team, and which my wife went through this year to teach first-grade CCD (stands for Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine — I had to look that up). I haven’t coached in a Catholic environment since then — the end of that year, we transferred our kids from Catholic to public school — but I still get emails updating me to online training, which I have to keep up with in case I ever do. The latest one came today, which I why I’m writing about VIRTUS now.

The major unvirtuous, if that’s a word, cloud over VIRTUS training is that it was designed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group — the ones who provide the church insurance to cover costs associated with those pesky priest-molestation lawsuits. Like any corporate lawsuit prevention training, it focuses as much on how not to get in trouble as it does helping the actual, you know, children. It talks about ways to prevent yourself from being falsely accused. And when you go for your two-hour training, one of your first thoughts — well, it certainly was mine — was, why are we here? As I recall, it was clergy that was the problem, not the fourth-grade basketball coaches.

After two hours in the auditorium-like, tiled basement of St. Bede the Venerable in Chicago’s Scottsdale neighborhood, my feelings changed from cynicism to sadness. As easy as it is to joke about diddling priests, it was heartbreaking to the depths to which people have beens shaken by the scandal.

I don’t mean that they are questioning themselves as being Catholics, or that they are even sympathetic to the criticisms lobbied at the church. Predictably, some groused the media was making too big a deal out of it. Particularly in Chicago, and particularly on the south side of it, Catholicism is deeply ingrained culture, not merely a place to go on Sundays and worship without ever taking off your coat. Being told not to be alone around a parish child, not to give anyone a ride home who isn’t your own kid, not to leave a kid with a priest until the parents arrived — whatever the sound, ass-covering reasons, for these hardcore, lifelong Catholics, this was like being told that we are not friends anymore. The best (and sometimes worst) thing about life inside a Catholic parish is its intense sense of community, and the message of VIRTUS training was that you no longer could trust anyone.

As you might have gathered, I am not a lifelong southside Chicago Catholic. I was baptized Catholic so my then-nonreligious parents could get me into a Catholic school, and I was later confirmed as an Episcopalian. Before I got married to my wife — a lifelong southside Chicago Catholic — I had priests in two different archdioceses trying to figure out what I was. When I gave the priest my baptismal certificate, he saw that I was four years old when I was baptized and asked me, “This is REAL certificate?” I had no idea passing fake baptismal IDs was such a problem.

Still, I was sympathetic toward people who whole worldview was being rocked good and hard during VIRTUS training. Here we all were, wanting to do good by coaching or teaching kids, and we were being treated as potential molesters first, eyes and ears to potential molestation by others second, and maybe good-hearted people third. The pastor of St. Bede knew the vibe. He had been installed there, not long after word broke that the Chicago Archdiocese had reached settlements for molestation by priests, including one who had served at St. Bede. Meanwhile, another former St. Bede priest was already in jail. The new priest, who seemed to me a genuinely nice guy, said a few parishioners greeted him by asking, to his face, if he was a child molester, too.

Guarding against child predators isn’t only a Catholic problem or concern, of course. Everywhere I’ve coached, I’ve had to fill out a form for a police background check. There are too many memories of kid-friendly coaches who turned out to be not so friendly. Heck, just run a quick Google News search and you’ll see it still happens, despite all the precautions. That’s why VIRTUS training exists. Yes, it tries to prevent child predators from entering the system or if they do, from getting out of hand. But it also exists to say to parents, don’t sue us — we tried.

Written by rkcookjr

January 7, 2009 at 12:09 pm