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Top youth sports stories of the year, part II (the final five)

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First, an apology. When I posted stories Nos. 10-6 for the top 10 youth sports stories of the year, I wrote that the next day, I would post No. 5-1. The first post went up Dec. 28. No second post Dec. 29. Or Dec. 30. Or Dec. 31. Or Jan. 1. I should know better than to promise on a schedule.

I presumed that news on the youth sports beat would be slow (it wasn’t), and that somehow having four kids home on winter vacation would be less than hectic (it wasn’t). Also, I was a tad late getting back from my 1o-year-old daughter’s basketball game today. I was accosted by an angry mother, the same one who tried to rush me at the bench once before, who wanted to know, in my role as a coach, if I knew what the fuck I was doing.

Actually, it was a bit entertaining, her screaming and swearing at me on the walk in front of our gym, as other parents and children stopped in their tracks to watch the entertainment (I, not she, got this view because I was facing the parking lot). Early on, the mom’s boyfriend implored her to get into the car (they had someplace they had to be), but then he turned on another guy when he started yelling at the mom to shut up. Fortunately, no riot ensued, although I wasn’t sure for a minute.

Without getting into all the details about her dispute — mainly, it was about how I was treating her son, the team’s best player and admittedly its biggest hothead — I will say that by the time the director of the basketball program rushed out in 5-degree weather to check out what was going on (he was called out by a dad from my team, who thankfully threw in that I was a nice guy), the conversation had turned civil. The mom just wanted to get her piece out, and she was willing to listen when I explained why I did what I did, that the point of this league wasn’t winning today, and that I hoped I was preparing her son for a leadership role on his school team. Or maybe she was freezing cold and couldn’t summon the energy anymore. I had two advantages: my Upper Peninsula of Michigan blood, and a much warmer coat. Maybe Mike Leach could have learned a little something, no?

So now, here I am, safe at home, no one yelling at me (yet), so I’ll take a few minutes to sum up the top five youth sports stories of the year.

5. Girls, girls, girls

Nearly 40 years after the passage of Title IX, requiring schools receiving public money to offer equal opportunities (in sports and elsewhere) to boys and girls, we’re still fighting about what that means. The most notable cases were in Indiana and Florida. The Indiana High School Athletic Association folded quickly, and correctly, when a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a 14-year-old girl who wanted to try out for her high school baseball team, but was told state rules required her to play the “equal” sports of girls’ softball. She didn’t make the team, but of course that wasn’t the point.

By the way, with no litigation involved Emily Montgomery of Vincennes (Ind.) Rivet played left field for the school’s baseball team, which made it to the Class A state final before losing. Montgomery also played in the Class A state finals for girls’ basketball, too. Her brother asked her to join the baseball team for a practical reason — the school has only 92 students and otherwise would have had only 10 members.

Meanwhile, in Florida, things were a little more contentious.

A lawsuit filed by lead attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer, fought the state high school athletic association’s scheduling cuts to all sports except football and cheerleading, in the name of saving money as the state’s property tax collections went south with the housing market (which was no longer coming south). The lawsuit alleged Title IX violations because the cuts were not made equally. Originally, the Florida High School Athletic Association said they were, because, get this, football officially is a coed sport. Hey, just because only three girls out of 36,000 players are on rosters isn’t because chicks aren’t invited! (And you can’t cut cheerleading, because if you have football, you gotta have cheerleaders.)

Dutifully embarrassed, the FHSAA dropped the football-as-coed-sport nonsense and stopped the statewide cuts. Although, speaking of cuts, that brings us to our No. 4 story…

4. The economy’s effect on youth sports

Florida was one of multiple states that looked at cutting sports schedules statewide as a means of saving money. Although few did, a lot of cuts happened at the local level, most famously in Grove City, Ohio, where all extracurricular activities were cut after voters multiple times rejected tax increases (and then came back when they finally approved one). Schools nationwide implemented pay-to-play programs, meaning students were charged a fee when they previously were not in order to play sports.

However, the down economy did not necessarily mean that fewer children were playing. In fact, many cities nationwide were building large youth sports facilities in hopes of attracting tournaments that could fill up local hotels and restaurants, and fill up tax coffers hurting from the closing of the local plant.

3. 100-0

Dallas Morning News reporter Barry Horn happened to look at his newspaper’s girls’ basketball box scores and noticed something unusual: Covenant School 100, Dallas Academy 0. So he did a nice little story about Dallas Academy, a private school geared toward kids with learning disabilities, and one that has had athletic success. About 663,000 first-day page views later, 100-0 was a Rorschach test about sportsmanship. Did Covenant coach Micah Grimes run up the score by playing pressing defense for too long? Or was Dallas Academy responsible for preparing a team well enough so it didn’t get smoked 100-0? (Complicating matters was that Dallas Academy often was portrayed as a team of Special Olympians, when in fact the disabilities ran to the likes of ADHD and dyslexia.)

Blowout scores are endemic to girls’ basketball, where the quality of talent, coaching and commitment vary widely from school to school in comparison to boys’ sports. But all the bad publicity about 100-0, and Grimes’ public statement against his school’s apology for it, led to the coach’s firing in January, two weeks after the game. Meaning, Mike Leach was not the only Texas coach in 2009 to get canned after refusing to apologize.

A post-script: in December, Dallas Academy got its first victory since 2001-02, aided by a new team member who scored 31 of its 34 points in a 34-33 triumph. Another post-script: Dallas Academy also dropped out of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, meaning that Covenant was no longer forced to face it in association play.

2. The trial of David Jason Stinson

Stinson was indicted last January in Louisville, Ky., on reckless homicide charges after one his Pleasure Ridge Park High School football players, 15-year-old Max Gilpin, collapsed and died in an August 2008 practice. Gilpin was ruled to have died from overheating, and Stinson (by then the former Pleasure Ridge Park coach) became what was believed to be the first coach in the nation to face criminal charges for a player’s practice- or game-related death.

Youth and school coaches nationwide watched Stinson’s case closely (and some did more than that, contributing to his legal defense fund) for fear that they could be next if something terrible happened on their watch. After all, the case against Stinson was built mainly on him making his players run “gassers” at the end of a practice in 94-degree heat-index weather, and Stinson’s bluster that he was going to keep his team running until somebody quit, and his allegedly denying players water. Sounds harsh, but it also sounds like what 90 percent of coaches have done at some point.

It turned out that it took the jury only 90 minutes to acquit Stinson, in part because of evidence Gilpin took Adderall and creatine, both of which can cause quicker dehydration. (A civil suit filed by Gilpin’s parents, however, is still in play.) Still, his case, if nothing else, got a lot of coaches and authorities to take heat and dehydration more seriously, including in Kentucky, where the state legislature beefed up rules on access to trainers and handling sports in the heat.

But even despite the tragedy of a teenager’s death, Stinson and Gilpin didn’t turn out to be the top youth sports story of the year, or even the top youth sports-related health issue of the year. That honor goes to…

1. Concussions

No longer is a player who gets a little foggy someone who is “dinged.” From pro leagues on down, concussions — brain injuries — are being taken seriously more than they ever have. Let’s put it this way: had alleged prima donna Adam James been allegedly locked in a room by his head coach, Mike Leach, because he had a bruised sternum, Leach might be coaching Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl, being played as I type this, instead of preparing his lawsuit against the school for firing him.

Washington this year became the first state to require young athletes diagnosed with concussions to get medical clearance before returning to action, and bills regarding concussion safety have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate. It’s not just football players suffering — one girl speaking out in favor of the Senate bill is a 16-year-old who quit basketball after 11 concussions. Eleven!

Concussions aren’t just a story confined to 2009. It goes to the top spot because they will be a topic of conversation and debate for years to come. Already, there’s discussion of what the future of football will be, or how long it has one, because of the prevalance of concussions.

Also, I can’t leave this topic without acknowledging the hard work of Alan Schwarz of the New York Times, who has covered concussions thoroughly for years, and might just be single-handedly responsible for this whole conversation we’re having about them. There are going to be people who literally will owe their lives to him.

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