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The myth of the "too good" athlete

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On Aug. 18, Deadspin posted an excellent, 3,000-word piece from writer Craig Fehrman coming back to Jericho Scott, the too-good-for-his-league 9-year-old pitcher who last year became a human Rohrschach test on what people thought of youth sports, America, and its possible pussification. It was not read by an Indianapolis television station which the very next day posted a too-good-for-his-league piece that made every error of judgement Fehrman said was endemic to Jericho’s ascendancy to nation victim/sainthood.

display.cgiThe hole in the middle kind of looks like home plate, don’t you think?

Jericho, as you might remember (and one point of Fehrman’s piece is that you probably don’t), was a cause celebre last year when he supposedly was kicked out of his New Haven, Conn., baseball league for pitching too fast. As usual when a youth sports issue suddenly rise to national prominence, the actual facts of Jericho’s case were tossed out as hand-wringers projected their view on Jericho, his family, his league, the other parents and anyone else who had crossed paths with the young pitcher since birth. Either Jericho represented an overly PC sports world so concerned about everybody getting a trophy that it couldn’t handle true greatness and competition, or, as a hot pitcher in a rec league, he was the embodiment of a win-at-all-costs attitude. Actually, in this case the former seemed to outweigh the latter by about 100-to-1.

As Fehrman writes, “He … became, in what is always a competitive category, the worst-covered sports story of the year.” Fehrman’s conclusive statement after seeing Jericho pitch in a PONY League tournament this summer:

It’s no surprise when sports parents behave badly (I won’t even waste our time on the call to the cops after Saturday’s game), but more than anything, more than a small youth league doing what small youth leagues always do, it was that blend of eccentricity and overcommitment that lay at the heart of Jericho’s saga. The story of a 9-year-old boy who was “too good” was in fact the story of adults — parents and journalists, alike — who were ultimately too childish.

As a youth coach, parents and chronicler of the scene, let me give a bravo and a hearty golf clap to you, Mr. Fehrman, for Getting It. Just about any local youth sports controversy that blows up nationally follows this pattern, and it can have real consequences. Just ask Micah Grimes, the Dallas high school girls basketball coach who got canned earlier this year after his school couldn’t stand the heat that came with an international blowup over a game his team won 100-0.

When a kid is deemed “too good,” there are ways to handle it without involving national media. Last season, another coach and I did just that in our fifth- and sixth-grade co-ed basketball league, working with a player, his family and the league to move him up to a higher level after it was clear after game one that his strong play and aggressive style was going to get other kids hurt and not make him any better. Fortunately, that was a situation where all parties trusted each other and worked to find a common solution that would benefit everyone.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. The problem is never the player. The spark is one, some or all of this group: the player’s parents, the other teams’ parents, the other team’s coaches, the player’s coaches and the league officials. The flame is fanned by well-meaning (or not) journalists, bloggers, local nosey nellies or anyone who either fails to account for all of the politicking involved, chooses a side or decides this is the time for a Big Statement on What’s Wrong With Youth Sports. (It’s too competitive! It’s not competitive enough!)

So has anyone learned from Fehrman’s reporting? Or even, um, this blog, if I may be so self-aggrandizing?

Not yet.

From WRTV in Indianapolis on Aug. 19 comes the story of a 13-year-old sixth-grader kicked out of a suburban football league for, you know it, being “too good.”

Some parents contend that a 13-year-old youth football player was kicked off his team because he’s too good of a player. Chris Mickel, a sixth-grader, said he loved playing football with his teammates in the Greenwood Bantam Football League. Some parents on an opposing team wanted Mickel kicked off his team. They got their way, based on the boy’s age. He’s 12 days too old to play on a 6th grade team, 6News’ Rick Hightower reported.

Parents of children on Mickel’s team said his age became an issue because of a hard hit he put on an opposing player during a game on Saturday.”They’re saying he’s hitting too hard, he’s too big and he’s too talented,” said Shane Wright, parent of another player. “The team loses 20 to nothing. The other coach gets a little bent out of shape. Some of the parents get a little bent out of shape. They start ranting and raving in the audience … cursing.”Mickel can’t play football in junior high school because he’s not in seventh grade, which is the reason the league signed him up, Hightower reported.

Parents of players whose team lost to Mickel’s team on Saturday met with league officials Tuesday night, which led to the boy being kicked off the team. 6News’ cameras were not allowed in the meeting.”All the coaches teach the kids to go out and … give it 110 percent,” said John Mickel, Chris’ father. “He does that and is good at it and they want him to back off.”The father of a 67-pound boy who gets hit in practice by Mickel, who weights 150 pounds, said football is a contact sport that will result in children hitting each other — something he contends all parents should realize before they sign children up for football.

First, I want to congratulate WRTV for using the “Hightower reported” attirbution like he just opened up the box that had the fucking Pentagon Papers. Second, perhaps if “Hightower reported” something other than a few parents bitching, he might have gotten a more accurate read of the situation. The 217 comments (as of this writing) underneath the story have information, if it’s too be believed, about how the league officials ignored their own rules on age limits in assigning the kid to sign up, more details about the opposing players’ complaints, and notes that a few players in the league are more than 200 pounds. (In a fifth- and sixth-grade league? Are they being fed cheeseburgers or HGH?)

So instead of looking at all the ins and outs of the situation, and perhaps having an even better story on the politics in youth sports (which you can get into without taking sides on the politics themselves), instead “Hightower reported” the easy story — Chris Mickel is out because he’s too good! So in those 217 comments, you can guess the number that are arguments about whether Mickel represents youth sports idiocy or athletics’ takeover by Big Pussy. (Most of them.)

Maybe in a year Fehrman can write about Mickel. That way, the lesson of what’s really behind the “too good” stories will sink in. Eh, probably not.

Written by rkcookjr

August 20, 2009 at 1:06 am