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Mark Abboud paves the road to hell

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A Minnesota soccer coach, on his blog, says he was clear from last fall on: if his 12-and-under girls’ soccer somehow pulled off the miracle of looking like it would beat an affiliated, elite 13-and-under team in tournament competition, he would, in his words, “probably find a way for the 13s to go through over our team.”

And, by god, that’s exactly what happened. And now Mark Abboud, a former pro player, is out of a job as technical director of the elite Minnesota Thunder Academy program and is busy working as the latest youth sports morality play.

The academy, which runs recreational and elite programs, tossed out Abboud, fined him $600 (to be paid to charity) and only kept him on as a 12s coach for the rest of the season by the grace of the girls, for an incident May 17.

Abboud slowly and painfully recounts the day in his season blog, giving both the reader and Abboud himself the imagery of seeing a car wreck before it happens, yet not being able to avoid it.

Abboud’s team of 12s, as he recounts, was basically in a state cup tournament for the experience. In past years, Abboud had seen a predecessor team to the Thunder, a team he coached, lose to a younger squad, then get smacked in the state tournament. He didn’t feel it was valuable to younger girls to get clobbered, nor did he believe it was best for the program for that to happen. No one objected when he put that idea forth — after all, what are the odds?

So game day comes when Abboud’s team faces the Thunder’s elite 13-year-olds, and he tells his girls to go out and play hard. He even switches up his offensive and defensive set to improve his girls’ chances. In a tribute to Abboud’s skills, it works — too well. “My thoughts were a-whirl,” Abboud wrote May 18. “The 13s are a better team overall than we were. They would do our club proud at Regionals if they got past either the White team or EP (game was to be played after ours). It would be better for the club and for MN to have them represent the state at the Midwest Region Championships. We were here for the experience. I was silently cheering for the 13s to score a goal.”

The game is tied at 1 at the end of regulation. And at the end of two overtimes. Time for penalty kicks.

And Abboud makes good on his vow. He instructs his girls to kick slowly to the 13s goalie. Apparently the 12s didn’t get the message, because they reportedly were sobbing at the news. (I understand — I worked at a magazine where we were told by the publisher no matter how well we did, the focus always would be on making the sister magazine we spun out thrive, with us left to die. I found a new job not too long after that inspiring pep talk.)

Abboud, in his own words, immediately regretted his presumably well-reasoned, well-thought out decision.

What did I just do? I took the decision out of the girls’ hands and dictated a controllable ending to a match against the spirit of competition and of the game itself. Albeit I still stand behind the rationale used in this case, I’m thinking again it was not the right way to deal with the situation. It would have been helpful to have a club coach or director around to bounce this idea off of prior to acting it out.

The look of disappointment and betrayal that some of them held in their eyes was crushing to me. I was so frustrated with the whole thing that I accidentally said “Some of you are going to be poutty and b-i-t-c-h-y to me because of this, but I hope you understand my thought process.” I’ve never used that language with a youth team before, though I’m sure they’ve heard far worse. The b-word broke the ice, eliciting chuckles from almost every girl, but I still regretted the slip. And regret was already building about other things.

Though many other MTA coaches and directors were supportive later that afternoon to my face, we’ll see what the next days bring. I thought it was the right decision to make at the time (and for the entire last year), I take full responsibility for any repercussions, and through this writing that is always insightful and constructive to me, I’m starting to regret the choice.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune did a story on Abboud’s Sophie’s Choice that didn’t shy away from what Abboud did, but was pretty sympathetic, though the 132 reader comments (as of this writing) are, uh, not.

I’ll say this first: Abboud must be pretty well-liked for his 12s to accept him after being shafted, so much so that they begged the Thunder to let him stay on as coach. But not to pile on to Abboud’s self-flagellation, that was a dumb decision. Especially dumb because he had so much time to think about it. He decided last fall this would happen? Did he run this by his board of directors? Maybe the parents or others didn’t object, because they probably didn’t think anything of it — until it became reality.

It’s funny that while the usual complaints about youth sports is coach’s win-at-all-costs attitude, Abboud gets slammed for losing on purpose. But the idea is to try. If the 13s can’t beat the 12s, that’s their problem. You can’t decide they would do better later, that they’re having an off day, so you have to game the results for them. Abboud was trying to help, but like my wife says when I throw her delicates in the dryer, you’re not helping.

I know, from reading his blog, that Abboud knows all that. However, I would lose my license as a sports pundit if I didn’t same something. (And Coach Abboud, feel free to contact me if you wish to speak further about this.)

By the way, the Thunder isn’t the only one handing out punishment over this. Inside Minnesota Soccer reported June 1 that the Minnesota Youth Soccer Youth Association not only banned Abboud from coaching in state cup competition through 2010, but they handed the same sanction to the 13s coach, Andy Kassa, as well. (Apparently there was evidence Abboud tipped off Kassa to what he was doing.) The 13s also were booted out of state competition — so much for getting the better team ahead.

Abboud wrote in his blog — not updated since May 21 — that he figured some punishment would be coming down. After all, it doesn’t matter if you’re shaving points because you’re in cahoots with gamblers or shaving points because you think you’re helping your club — even in no-score leagues, people don’t take kindly to coaches who tell their players to stop trying.

Sports radio does something other than call for the manager’s firing

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Millsap, Texas, population 350, was looking at possibly having to shake $20 out of every man, woman and child to pay for the $7,000 theft of equipment from Millsap Youth Athletics. That is, until a talk radio station two counties to the east, in Dallas, took up their cause, what with their good heart and so much time on the air being freed up since Terrell Owens left town.

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Um, that’s Millsap, not Milsap.

The folks at ESPN 103.3 raised $3,000 on the air through bids on a sports ticket package until an anonymous listener called in, off the air, to pledge $5,000.

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

[Millsap Youth Athletics secretary Rita] Switzer was profoundly grateful.

“Whoever this anonymous donor is, I love you, I love you, I love you,” she said.

Switzer said smaller donations have come from residents across North Texas, both pledged on the telephone and sent through the mail.

Switzer said the community’s response to the theft is teaching the children about the good in people and how positive things can come out of bad.

“Before every meeting we have, the first thing we do is we pray. We pray for God to watch over the kids and for him to allow us to be the best we can be,” she said. “I feel this is an answer to those prayers.”

 I was just crying the whole time I was listening. They talked that story up like we were big-leaguers.”

Millsap isn’t the only youth sports organization to get a helping hand in a crisis wrought by theft. The Blue Island (Ill.) Little League has shaken a lot of helping hands after it lost $3,000 in food and equipment in a concession stand burglary. One man gave the whole kaboodle. The Chicago White Sox kicked in $500 and free tickets for the players. Other parents and other leagues kicked in some money, as well.

It’s nice to know that in a crisis, you can find friends in unexpected places. Especially if you can get the word out. Seriously leagues — if you suffer a sudden loss, let the world know so someone can help.

Rain, rain, go away…

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WGN’s Tom Skilling, the world’s greatest TV weatherperson, informed us last night that Chicago Midway Airport has had its wettest meteorological spring on record — 11.37 inches since March 1. If you didn’t know meteorological spring started March 1, you probably don’t watch Tommy, and also you probably don’t know what an isobar is. Or you’re my mother-in-law, yelling during the midst of one of Tommy’s 10-minute weather jags, “Get to the forecast!” Anyway, that near-foot of rain is double what Midway normally would have by now.

So what does that have to do with youth sports?

It means we’re not playing them. It means, as a T-ball manager, I’m monitoring radar all day like I’m working in the National Hurricane Center. It means my cell has a button to send a notice to every parent whether we are, or aren’t, parenting. It means Monday I watched my 9-year-old daughter’s softball team get one inning in during a downpour on her opening day before the coaches had to call the game, clearly against their will except that the pitcher couldn’t keep control of even the dry ball the coaches would throw after she slid another one in the dirt.

It means that about mid-May, millions of parents nationwide will be racing from game to game, every day, to make up for the many canceled games. Especially those parents where I live, about eight miles due south of soggy Midway Airport.

Thursday I have a T-ball game to manage (including my 6-year-old) son. My daughter has a game scheduled as well. Tommy’s forecast: 70 and a strong chance of thunderstorms. Sigh.

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And it’s not like last meteorological fall was any picnic either. Taken by my then 10-year-old son in the area around the SAC softball fields in Oak Lawn, Ill., where the fall league softball team I managed didn’t play some games thanks to what you see here.

Written by rkcookjr

April 28, 2009 at 9:43 pm

One of the good ones is taken

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Contrary to public belief, or the feeling you might get reading this blog, not every coach is a nutjob or is under siege from parents. Hugo Bustamante was one of the good ones. Unfortunately, outside his immediate circle, no one knew that until tragedy struck.

Bustamante, 46, and a co-worker died Thursday when they were shot to death by a fellow co-worker at the Long Beach Memorial Hospital pharmacy in California. The attacker then shot and killed himself. Police don’t know his motive, and they think they might never know.

Bustamante was married with a young daughter and son. According to this story from the Orange County Register, Bustamente helped out with his daughter’s softball team but spent most of his coaching time with soccer. He was, to say the least, not a yeller. From the Register:

When he was volunteered to help coach his daughter’s AYSO soccer team, the Cypress Cyclones, the former college soccer player smiled and helped coach them to compete in a Southern California championship game.

At the start of the season, Bustamante’s gentle demeanor had some parents wondering whether he could push the kids hard enough, but he made believers of them, team mom Melissa Tan-Torres said.

“He had that soft, gentle voice, but he could get the kids to do what he wanted,” Tan-Torres said.



“He was exactly everything right about youth sports. He never pushed them,” said Glenn Morikawa, whose daughter played on the Cyclones.

Being right about youth sports also gained Bustamante a measure of fame in the Los Angeles area.

When Bustamante’s U-10-year-old girls qualified for the state finals by default because the team that beat them could not afford the trip, the Cyclones tried to raise the money for their opponents so they could play in the championship game instead of going themselves.

The team only ended up raising $300, but one of the fundraising e-mails was sent to KIIS-FM D.J. Ryan Seacrest, who paid for a charter bus and hotel rooms for the Huntington Park team and gave the kids spending money for the trip, Tan-Torres said.

On the way back, the girls from the Huntington Park and Cypress teams got to be special guests of the Los Angeles Sol and go out on the field at halftime of one of their games.

The team was to be honored at Saturday’s Los Angeles Dodgers game, but decided to cancel after Bustamante’s death.

RIP, coach. And let’s remember there are more of him out there than you’d think.

How do you keep your kids so young, Mr. Li? “Ancient Chinese secret”

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Uncomfortably racist evidence of backroom Chinese chicanery.

News has trickled out of China that in the southern province of Guangdong, about 3,000 out of 15,000 athletes participating in its annual youth games lied about their ages. Unlike the allegations surrounding Chinese gymnasts in during the Beijing Olympics, sports officials found the athletes in Guangdong to be too old for their competition, not too young.

How did these cheatin’ cheaters get caught? They underwent an X-ray bone analysis. By making a radiograph of the left hand and wrist, you can estimate a child’s age based on bone density. The actual medical reason for such a procedure is to check for cases of atypical bone development, either a child growing too slowly or too quickly for his or her age.

According to local authorities, bone analysis showed athletes as much as seven years older than the age group in which they competed. The strength events had the most fakers. About 2,000 athletes are too old for the games and can’t compete next year, while another 1,000 will have to repeat in what is now determined to be their own age group.

I can’t read the original Chinese report, so I can’t tell if anybody who had a bone age disparate from their stated age was busted, or if there was a minimum separation. Particularly before puberty, it’s fairly common for bone age to be a year ahead or behind a child’s actual age. Even being two to four years behind the curve is not uncommon. This overseas adoption site says that because of early malnourishment, it’s common for Chinese adoptees to be underdevelopment, which is why using bone and teeth analysis to determine age isn’t recommended until at least two years after the child’s placement.

So the possibility exists that the provincial officials of Guangdong are being a tad overzealous.

Then again, they have reason to be. The Chinese Basketball Association has been hit with age-shaving. (Former CBA player Yi Jianlin of the New Jersey Nets is widely assumed to be at least two years older than his stated age of 21.) Also, there is a great incentive to cheat because a great performance at the provincial level means being picked to be a part of your province’s team for the National Games, and perhaps being on your way to getting lavish support to train for international competition. I’m sure provincial officials don’t think 20 percent of athletes with bone age older than their stated age was within the norm — especially because it would be more likely to be the opposite, if that adoption site is to be believed.

Lest we in the United States get too smug over all the age cheating going in China, I’ll mention two words: Danny Almonte.

Are you a crazy sports parent?

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Maybe you’ve never attacked a hockey ref or inspired a coach to come into the stands after you. But you might be a crazy sports parent and not even know it.

imageGood job today, son! Just for that, we’ll let you sleep inside tonight!

I am defining “crazy sports parent” as someone who is a little bit too into what his or her child is doing athletically, and is at risk for popping off at a moment’s notice, thus earning worldwide Internet ridicule. I recommend to you sports parents that you take this quiz to see if you might have a problem. This is not a complete run of all the possible disturbing behavior that lies beneath, but this should give you a good start at identifying whether you have a problem. Or whether it’s one of those OTHER parents. Can’t be you. Not at all.

1. How many T-shirts do you own that match your child’s travel team uniform?

A. None.

B. One to three.

C. I have a walk-in closet devoted to them.

2. How many picture buttons of your children are on your jacket?

A. None

B. One for each child.

C. Just my jacket? Not counting the ones in my cubicle, on the bulletin board in the kitchen and pasted to my dashboard? And you don’t mean just for my oldest, right?

3. When your child seems to be losing interest in a sport, you:

A. Support the child’s decision to leave it, and see what else there might be of interest.

B. Have a talk to get the child to give the sport another chance, just to be sure it’s not a temporary feeling

C. Force your child to stay in, what with the cold sweats you’re getting over the possibility of your social life falling apart.

4. You get pumped when:

A. Your child shows enjoyment and improvement.

B. Your child appears to be playing better than others.

C. It’s the Fort Wayne Lees Inn & Suites this weekend!

5. You’re not sure you like your child’s coach. You:

A. Stay quiet. Unless the coach is doing actual harm, no sense getting involved.

B. Make arrangements to talk to the coach, calmly, about your concerns.

C. Start a gossip campaign to get him fired.

6. You don’t like the referee’s calls. You:

A. Stay quiet. It’s just a kid’s game, after all.

B. Grumble to yourself, and remind yourself it’s a kid’s game, after all.

C. Start a gossip campaign to get him fired.

7. Your interaction with other sports parents is:

A. Limited. A hello or occassional remark suffices.

B. Friendly. You chat a little during games.

C. You size up who is “in” and who is “out,” and make sure you set the parameters of all interaction. You start a gossip campaign to get any threats knocked to the “out” column.

8. You have a child who excels at a sport. Your other children are:

A. Special in their unique way, and equally lovable.

B. Not as likely to take care of you financially in your old age.

C. Joining the same sport as that sibling in a desperate bid for your attention.

9. A doctor says your child has an injury that carries a risk of permanent damage should he or she continue playing. You react by:

A. Telling your child, with great understanding for the disappointment that might be involved, that it’s time to stop playing.

B. Getting a second opinion, just to be sure.

C. Dismissing the doctor as a sports-hating quack who probably got wedgies in junior high. Then you give him a wedgie.

10. In taking this quiz, you feel:

A. Like you have a healthy relationship with your child and sports.

B. Smug satisfaction.

C. “Are you trying to imply something? Because I’ll make sure the other parents NEVER talk to you AGAIN!”

You’ll have to pry my kid’s motorcyle out of his cold, dead hands

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Motorcyclists are in a bit of a froth upon discovering that a child toy safety law passed last year by Congress applies to kid-size (ages 12 and under) motorcycles and ATVs. Was the government’s problem that maybe kids shouldn’t ride motorcycles or ATVs in the first place? Nope. The problem was the lead content of the bikes. From Cycle News, with the understated headline, “Stop The Insanity: Updated/The Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act of 2008 Could Be Devastating To All”:

Youth off-highway vehicles are children’s toys, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) reasons. Which means they fall under the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) and, according to section 101(a) of that enacted legislation, all youth products containing lead must have less than 600 parts per million (ppm) by weight. And the CPSC has interpreted the law to apply to various components of youth OHVs – including the engine, brakes, suspension, battery and other mechanical parts. Even though the lead levels in these parts are small, they are still above the minimum threshold.

And therein lies the problem. Effectively, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 has banned the sale of kid’s motorcycles and ATVs – and it all went into effect … February 10. And the ban also includes parts, thereby affecting motorcyclists like Hawkins and the entire motorcycle industry.

The AMA and every other association, manufacturer, race promoter and aftermarket manufacturer with a vested interest in this is calling now for motorcyclists to help – a call for action, so to speak, to try and put a stop to the insanity of the CPSIA.

“The unavailability of youth OHVs will devastate family OHV recreation and cripple amateur competition, creating a domino effect across all aspects of motorized recreation,” said AMA Vice President for Government Relations Ed Moreland in an AMA press release. “All motorcyclists, whether they recreate off-road or not, need to come to the defense of our youngest riders and help ensure the future availability of youth OHVs.”

2619685219_37728084d4Get the lead out, kid! No, really, get the lead out.

Cycle News implores readers to funnel their complaints through Congressman Tom Self of Missouri, whose kids raise motorcycles. Which is all well and good, except Self isn’t a Congressman — he’s a state representative. Still, he’s doing what he can, having outraged cycle fans sign an online petition, and sending a letter to the CPSC.

But what the movement really needs is some great bumper stickers, like the classic “Helmet Laws Suck.” So how about:

– Lead laws suck!

– If kid motorcycles are outlawed, only outlaw kids will have motorcycles.

– If you take my kid’s bike away, you’ll meet my two friends: Harley and Davidson.

And, of course, the above headline.

Written by rkcookjr

February 19, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Purple haze (crotch in my face)

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Do you ever wonder why it seems so difficult to get rid of hazing in youth sports? Do you wonder why it seems acceptable to some people that athletes be put through degradation to “earn” the respect of their teammates?

Adult reaction to hazing might provide a clue. Such as some of the comments on the site of the Berthoud (Colo.) Recorder (your hometown paper for 28 years!) below a story on a high school wrestler charged with four counts of third-degree assault for hazing incidents that were alleged to have occurred in November and December.

Brandyn Wahlert, an 18-year-old senior, a state finalist last year, wasn’t the only wrestler suspended from Berthoud High for the alleged hazing. But he’s the only one who was of age to charge as an adult — and the only one back on the wrestling team with the kids he was alleged to have victimized. Did I mention he was a state finalist last year?

To be fair to Wahlert, no one has said what exactly he did. But the issue is less about him and more about attitudes toward hazing. Bias note: I find hazing to be a stupid, pointless ritual that only allows some people to get their rocks off by abusing other people in the name of “togetherness.” (The available empirical evidence appears to back me up.) I also never joined a fraternity.

My feeling is not shared. Back to the comments under the Berthoud Recorder story on Wahlert being charged. I am leaving out the ones who dislike hazing, which are plentiful. I don’t know that most of the community finds hazing to be just ducky. What I want to reflect are the adults out there who find hazing to be just another part of growing up. As long as they are around, hazing will be, too. After all, Wahlert is hardly alone. A week after he was charged, five wrestlers from Thomas Stone High in Maryland were facing misdemeanor charges in their own hazing incident.

All punctuation and spelling errors are theirs.

I,m a parent of a wrestler at Berthoud and know Brandyn personally he,s a great kid that was messing around as others on the team have done similar things but he,s the only one charged. I feel terrible this has happened. I,m sure he has learned from this and we hope he knows we care about him, good luck Brandyn. Brandyn has taught my son and others more about wrestling then some of the coaches. Everyone has made mistakes. Just remember when you were a kid. Everyone deserves a second chance don,t judge him because if you met him and been around him for years you know he,s a great good who made a mistake. …

It is so unfortunate that the media does not explain the truth about what really happened. It has been sensationalized and all the facts have not been explained. It seems that the law enforcement agencies have decided to make an unwarranted example of Mr. Wahlert at the expense of the truth. He has been singled out and I feel, discriminated against. Have the DA and the police officer forgotten what it was like to be a kid, since they are the only one’s pressing charges. None of the Wrestler’s or their parents are. In fact, they are supporting Brandyn. It seems to me that a whole bunch of time, money and energy could and should be directed towards much more important issues. Shame on You!!!! …

The Berthoud Police Dept and the media should be ashamed of themselves for letting this go as far as it has. Brandyn is a good kid and dosen’t deserve this. He was suspended for 10 days and now the police dept in their infinite wisdom is charging him. Two kids at the same high school Brandyn goes to got in a fight and one of the kids knocked the others teeth loose. The kids involved in the fight got one day in school suspension and the police were not called. Sounds kinda like they are singling him out. Hey Berthoud PD. Why don’t you focus your time and resources on something worth while. At least a little more than harrassing a high school kid. …

AS STATED ABOVE ANYONE WHO HASN,T DONE SOMETHING WRONG,OR STUPID IN THERE LIFES CAST THE FIRST STONE. MY FREINDS IN COLLEGE AND I HAVE ALL GOTTEN ASSUALT CHARGES AND HAZED KIDS. DON,T WORRY YOU,LL BE OK KID.I,M SURE YOU LEARNED YOUR LESSON.

bush_hazing

“I am not a role model”

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Remember when bad-boy Charles Barkley told us he wasn’t paid to be a role model? That parents should be role models? And by the way, parents, you could be great role models if you buy my shoes?

It was a controversial message in 1993 — kids look up to you, Charles, and not just because you’re tall! — but it’s been reinforced in spades these past few weeks.

First, there was Michael Phelps, suckin’ the bong.

Now there are two stories, one huge, and one developing.

The huge one, as you probably guessed, is Alex Rodriguez’s admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs from 2001 to 2003, an admission goosed out of him by an SI.com report that his was one of the 104 samples that tested positive for two anabolic steroids in 2003.

Rodriguez told ESPN’s Peter Gammons that he started taking PEDs after signing a $250 million contract with Texas, that he felt pressure to live up to the contract and being baseball’s greatest player, and that, hey, the other cool kids were doing it. (I’ll let others dissect the connection between Rodriguez easily folding under the pressure of his contract to his easily folding under the pressure of the playoffs.) The surprise here was that Rodriguez had an image of being clean. A self-absorbed asshole, but clean.

My gosh, what do we tell the children?

The developing story is Dwyane Wade’s divorce, which is nasty, nasty, nasty, and undermining his image as a clean-living, religious, family man. Basically, based on the papers being filed in the divorce from his high-school sweetheart and the allegations of a former business associate, that image is Bizarro Wade.

The allegations (all denied by Wade’s people): he gave his wife STD’s; he had pot-and-sex parties (hey, Michael Phelps wants to know when he gets invited); he’s pretty much abandoned his children; he’s a lousy businessman.

What do we tell the children?

Well, first we tell them their charter school isn’t named after him anymore.

The Rodriguez thing seems not to have sent the nation’s youth into a tailspin. The steroid discussion in baseball has gone on so long, and will go on so much longer, the biggest conversation with kids is not to tell them tearfully that their hero is made of clay. It’s to tell them, and their parents, that maybe going all-in on dreams of a baseball career might not be a good idea if even the league’s best player thinks you need performance-enhancing drugs to get by. President Obama said during his news conference last night that the lesson is there are “no shortcuts,” but he’s wrong: there ARE shortcuts, and the question is whether it’s worth it to take them. After all, most young players who try steroids still aren’t going to get near the major-league level.

The Wade thing is a little more personal for me because my kids are more than likely (unless we win the lottery to pay for private school) going to go to his old high school, which happens to have a new basketball court paid for by Wade, er, one of his sponsors. He even got Kanye West, who went to a nearby high school, and Jennifer Hudson to show up for the dedication.

I know the superintendent for Wade’s old high school, and he has talked glowingly of how nice Wade is, and how great it was to deal with his family. Wade is still very involved with ol’ Richards High, coming back to watch his school win a state championship, and filming a shoe commercial there.

Heck, my wife once struck up a conversation with Wade’s mom at the UPS Store while she was shipping his trophies to Miami.

Fortunately, the Wade situation doesn’t seem to be filtering to the youth of America, and not to the youth of my household.  (UPDATE, JUNE 4, 2009: Wade has filed a libel suit against his old business associate over the pot-and-sex party claims. And, previously, the allegations in the divorce case about giving his wife STDs were dropped.)

What would I tell them if they asked? Well, that just because somebody is a sports star doesn’t make them a good person, and just because somebody does bad things doesn’t mean they can never be a good person. And that athletes and celebrities are not role models.

So says Charles Barkley, who should know.

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The virtues of Virtus

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catholic-church
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

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