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Parents told: Go to anti-drug meeting, or your kids don’t play school sports

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Swampscott, Mass., is an affluent community of 15,000 in Boston’s North Shore suburbs. It has had a notable drug problem, with 17 overdose deaths in the last few years among those in their teens and 20s, and numerous others not dead but apparently carrying on the message Swampscott natives Fran Sheehan and Barry Goudreau endorsed on the Boston song “Smokin’.”

Bad influences. Bad!

A new principal, Layne Millington, came to Swampscott High, and he decided, after seeing a “huge number of incidents landing on my desk involving drugs and alcohol,” that it was time to frog-march parents in for a meaning to shake them by their collective lapels and slap them upside their collective heads to make them aware of the problem. He did this with the superintendent’s support. From the Salem News:

Asked about reports that drugs are “all over the high school,” Superintendent Lynne Celli replied simply, “They are.”

But…

Recently, Millington’s approach included a surprise appearance by search dogs at the high school — he was heartened by how little contraband they found.

Ah, hell, let’s just go with the superintendent.

So Millington scheduled a meeting for Jan. 10, then browbeat parents into showing up by telling them their children that they (the kids) could not participate in any after-school activities, including sports, if they (the parents) didn’t show up.

Now, he hopes to form “a partnership with the parents, who are really the kids’ first teachers.” To do that, he sees the need for a meeting that carefully spells out the entire effort and the parents’ role in it.

In the past, Millington said, the announcement of such a meeting would draw only a handful of people. His decision to call a “mandatory meeting” won unanimous approval from the superintendent and the School Committee.

There are a lot of parents upset over this. Actually, the only one who appears to be speaking — or being asked — is Judith Brooks, the mother of a ninth-grader, who appeared in the Salem News and on local Boston television as a “concerned parent.” Because in the news, a parent “speaking out” is always a “concerned parent.” From the Salem News:

“The school has no legal right to compel parents to do anything,” said Judith Brooks, the mother of a ninth-grader [dang it, I mentioned that already]. Acknowledging the concerns of school officials, she expressed the need to be “treated like adults” and added, “We’re not under their thumb.”

As the hippie basketball player in Greensburg, Ind., may well learn, schools get to do all sorts of dastardly things, like make you cut your hair or send your parents to an anti-drug meeting, to let you play sports. So the parents of Swampscott, who either don’t give a shit or feel like it’s not their problem, are stuck.

Except that Millington might not have needed to be so drastic. From a 2009 article in the Swampscott Reporter:

The Swampscott Drug and Alcohol Task Force was pleasantly surprised when the Little Theater at the Middle School filled with parents that night in the first of two sessions planned to educate parents about the real problems in Swampscott.

So maybe they DO give a shit — even if their children’s sports are at stake! Maybe not enough to actually solve Swampscott’s drug problem, but maybe enough that they don’t have to be frog-marched to school on a single night during which they might have a legitimate conflict.

Alas, in his zeal, Layne Millington might have done more harm than good in his relations with the parents at large. Next time, he should propose a webinar. It is an affluent community after all; presumably they have computers.

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Written by rkcookjr

January 5, 2011 at 12:48 am

Muslims, sports, and being an American

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As I write this, today is the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, the end of the month of Ramadan. My kids, who go to a school district with a large Arabic population, know all about the holiday even if, as Christians, they don’t celebrate. For one thing, this means their friends at school can have lunch with them again.

Speaking of which, a little while back I did a post about how Ramadan affected the football team at Fordson High in Dearborn, Mich., a school with a nearly all-Arabic population. They had their preseason practices overnight, so the players could eat before practice. Tonight they face Belleville, and let me tell you, the Fordson Tractors are hungry for a win — but they’re not hungry anymore. The team went 1-1 during Ramadan, by the way.

Of course, given the charged environment on all things Muslim, Fordson’s Ramadan practice schedule wasn’t merely an interesting, passing thought. For some — particularly the type who say things like “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9-11,” it was one more stick in the eye in all things American. Heck, Fordson’s mere existence as an Arab-populated school is a stick in the eye.

That’s where the above video clip, which I found on Goat Milk Blog, comes in. A documentary is being released about Fordson, and it focuses on two great American topics: sports, and the assimilation of immigrants. The movie, “Fordson” (where did they get that title!) looks like an inspiring tale of how the younger generation of immigrants uses sports to integrate themselves and their families into the American melting pot.

They are Muslim, they have ties elsewhere, but on the football field they carry on the Fordson tradition of hating rival Dearborn just as their non-Muslim forefathers have done. The story is not unlike other children of immigrants, feeling pressure from home to keep the customs of the old country alive, while they are just as interested, or more interested, in doing the things other American kids do.

Of course, as the trailer points out, this isn’t a simple plucky immigrant story. Not with 9-11, and not with the seething resentment of Muslims that President George W. Bush, in retrospect, helped keep under wraps as he — and I’m not trying to be political here — tried to walk the tightrope of fighting in Islamic countries without sending the message America was fighting a holy war.

Just in the last few months, it seems like the football players of Fordson have been sacked in their attempt to gain ground as Real Americans.

An anti-Islam whack job’s blogging about a Muslim community center close to, but not within sight of, the former World Trade Center (where from 1994-96 I worked, in Tower Two), turned into a political football, if you will, that allowed anyone with lingering resentments or stereotypes of Islam to unleash their crazy in the name of “the sanctity of Ground Zero.” This, even though no one in New York appeared to care much about it when the site was approved in 2009.

Then you have the alleged Rev. Terry Jones, leader of a tiny, goofy Christian church in Florida, sparking an international incident with his self-proclaimed “International Burn a Koran Day” on, naturally, Sept. 11. A guy punted by his own church in Germany for being “mad” is now, essentially, holding us all hostage as he threatens to set a Koran on fire unless he gets what he wants — or burns it to get what he wants, which appears to be holy war. Meanwhile, he incites hate and creates another figure around which anti-Muslim nuts can coalesce. You can say the media should have ignored him, but like with the slow growth of the Park51 controversy, someone like Terry Jones exists only because many believe what he has to say — and because many have let their fears of 9-11 take over their logical mind.

Over Labor Day I went with my four kids to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which has an exhibit about kids who changed the world — Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White. They were thrust into their position because of fear and mass hysteria: Frank, as a Jew during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands; Bridges, as a black girl intergrating a white school in 1960 New Orleans; and White, as the first child with AIDS to fight for the right to go to school like any other kid. In all cases, it’s easy to look back and see how wrong people were. But once fear gets the best of people, there is no telling them they’re wrong.

The American story of assimilating immigrants is one in which, often, a new group is looked at with fear and loathing, and that’s even without association with the worst act of terrorism ever on U.S. soil. But what we always learn is that those people — just like Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White — want to be normal, to be Americans. That is, if we let them.

And that’s why the players on Fordson’s team aren’t just football players. They’re political symbols, ciphers onto which people can project their images of Muslims. In my children’s school, I don’t get the sense the kids think too much about that. They’re just other kids. They play baseball (and coach it, as happened on one of my younger son’s teams). They play tag. They sing in the school play. Maybe they’re parents don’t quite understand it all. But in the end, they are kids who just happen to pray in a different way.

Written by rkcookjr

September 10, 2010 at 5:11 pm

How early should we introduce soul-crushing competition to our children?

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I don’t often pass on stories sent by an author who says nice things about me, but that’s because I don’t often get stories sent by an author who says nice things about me. So with that mind, I direct you to Neil Swidey of the Boston Globe, who wrote a Sunday magazine piece about kids and competition called “What Happened to Losing?”

It’s much better than you standard rant against the wussification of sports through no-score leagues because it’s not a rant, and Swidey points out:

If you’ve come seeking affirmation for the facile argument about the so-called “wussification of American kids today,” you’ll probably want to stop reading now.

The issue is hardly black and white. It’s true that our kids, in some ways, are more coddled and have it much easier than previous generations. But it’s also true that, in other ways, we adults have saddled our kids with way more pressure to compete than we ever faced, imposing on them at young ages daunting expectations for their academic and athletic “careers.”

Swidey, though his own personal experience as a father and coach, and through interviews and research, writes about the difficult line adults try to walk with children: how to encourage children in as non-pressurized environment as possible without hurting their feelings or discouraging them by too much emphasis on competition, especially at early age.

Does everything have to be a competition?

If you ask the Father of No-Score Leagues how you do that — and Swidey did — he would tell you there is no line. You either have competition, or you don’t. That inadvertent father of that bastard child of youth sports is Alfie Kohn, whose 1986 book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, outlines how competition is bad for everyone, children and adults included. Kids might love Kohn’s other works, such as ones in which he argues homework and grades are bad for learning.

Kohn tells Swidey that he doesn’t endorse no-score leagues, either, but not because he thinks it makes your child a pussy:

“I began my work on competition from the liberal position that there’s too much competition and it’s too intense, but if we could just manage it and scale it back, we’d be fine,” Kohn tells me. “But I came to the conclusion that it’s not the quantity, it’s the very nature of competition itself that is bad. So the liberals who say, ‘Go ahead and play tennis, but don’t try to make the other person lose’ — that’s garbage. That’s self-delusional. If you’re not trying to make the other person lose, it’s not tennis.”

Kohn and his ilk argue that any games should concentrate on activities that foster and encourage group success, like seeing how many times you can bump a volleyball in the air.

Yeah, sounds dull, right? Plus, I’m not sure the experts account for other members of the group tearing a new asshole in the one schlub incapable of keeping a volleyball in the air. Heck, Kohn’s own kids don’t even buy it completely.

But as the father of a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, Kohn regretfully concedes that even he never started a cooperative game group in his own Belmont neighborhood. And though his children have independently chosen not to play youth sports, his son has shown an interest in chess — “He’s pretty vicious,” Kohn says — which, of course, is an activity built on zero-sum, warlike themes of competition. (Fortunately, Kohn says, his son has recently moved on from chess to the guitar.)

So how do you blunt the bad parts about competition? Another expert posited these conditions to Swidey: (1) that participation is voluntary; (2) the teams are set up so that everyone has a reasonable chance of winning; (3) the importance of winning is relatively minor, so that 10 minutes after the game, you barely remember who won and who lost; (4) the rules are clear and fair; and (5) relative progress can be monitored.

Actually, those five rules have generally been followed in my youth sports experience. I’ve seen these rules violated by both kids and adults. No. 2 is the one I’ve seen most violated as a child — there’s always some jerks who wants to try to game the teams his way (and, yes, some of them grow up to run the draft for your local Little League). No. 3, of course, is the big problem with adults.

And this gets me back to no-score leagues. I’ve long declared that the reason, as a coach, that I love no-score leagues is not because not keeping score takes pressure off the kids. Not keeping score takes the steam out of the adults, which then takes some of the pressure off the kids. (Children of gung-ho athletic parents who dream of future pro success are still going to put pressure on their kids no matter what.)

Unlike Swidey and others in his article, I don’t think that children are ill-served by no-score leagues because they suddenly can’t handle it when score is finally being kept. Kids learn all about competition in so many ways outside of youth sports, their ability to deal with it, or inability to deal it, is fostered long before they look at a scoreboard. Just watch two 2-year-olds fight over a toy car.

Swidey also gets into everybody-gets-a-trophy leagues as well, and unlike no-score leagues, I can’t say I’m a fan of those. Not because it has ill effects such as causing killing sprees. I dislike them because all those trophies clutter up my house.

Written by rkcookjr

August 25, 2010 at 10:49 am

How hockey goons get started

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Believe me, if the player’s mom wasn’t there, this fight would have been EPIC! I presume Dad, and copious viewings of hockeyfights.com, taught the kid how to circle the skater, then drop the gloves, like a goon four times his age (and size).

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(Hat tip: Puck Daddy.)

Written by rkcookjr

July 26, 2010 at 2:09 pm

'Sandlot Day,' or how adults organizing unorganized sports can't see irony

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There’s something pathetic about the idea of “Sandlot Day 2010,” pushed by the SUNY Youth Sports Institute as a chance “to give young ballplayers in organized leagues the gift of pickup baseball that their coaches and parents experienced.”

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There was a “Sandlot 3?” I didn’t even know there was a “Sandlot 2.”

What’s pathetic is not that it takes an organized effort to create unorganized play, although that’s pretty bad. What’s pathetic is the false nostalgia being pushed by this idea — that the glory days of youth sports were when kids did everything themselves while adults stayed inside, smoked, played bridge and fucked the neighbor’s spouse. Well, the SUNY Youth Sports Institute (and by extension, the New York Times, which wrote a kind piece about Sandlot Day) didn’t exactly push that last clause as part of its gauzy look at days gone by.

As a member of a generation in which, while we had organized sport, I played a lot of pickup games around the neighborhood, too, presumably I should be totally on board with the idea of “Sandlot Day.” After all, who can be against:

From this one day they’ll get personal memories that last a lifetime, a sense of ownership of the game, an ability to organize themselves, and so much more.

Most of our children’s playtime is organized. When a sport can offer its players a gift like Sandlot Day, it tells the players you trust them in control of the game, and it ultimately increases their passion for the game.

As coaches, you know this day is about something bigger than baseball. At first, the value of Sandlot Day may not be clear to parents. After all, they have come to expect organized games with uniforms, umpires, coaches instructing and parents cheering. But you know that to keep kids playing baseball longer they need a passion for the game.

A large part of the passion for baseball can be found in the historic roots of what occurs when playing in small games in the sandlot, playground, or backyard. Through Sandlot Day, baseball has a great opportunity give just one day back to the origins of the game.

Yes, who can be against this? [Points thumbs toward self] This guy!

The first problem is that adults are organizing this. Sandlot Day is not kids truly organizing sports on their own, picking the date, time, place and rosters. It’s organized leagues providing specific places and times, with players pre-supplied. The idea is coming from adults, not children.

This presupposes that the problem is children are incapable of organizing their own play, their abilities atrophied by years of organized sport. Actually, that’s not the case. I bet these same kids can find ways to organize video-game playing with friends, how they all interact at a school dance, or, at some point in their life, a game of tag at recess. The idea also presupposes that kids pine for the ability to organize games on their own, when in most cases, at least in my experience, they’re perfectly happy with an organized league, especially if they get a uniform out of it.

The other major problem is the whole idea that intrinsically kid-organized play is always better than adult-organized play. No doubt, adult-organized play has, shall we say, its flaws. But here are things you get in kid-organized play that aren’t so pleasant, and a few speak to how dickish children can get:

— Not having enough kids to play.

— “You’re too young! Get out of here!”

— Endless fights over the rules.

— Endless fights over calls.

— “I’m taking my ball and going home!”

— “If you score from second, I’m gonna knife you.” (This happened to me in eighth grade. I scored, and avoided the knife.)

— Bigger kids who steal your stuff.

— Game called on account of dinner time.

— “I’m the quarterback, because I’m always the quarterback.”

— Game called on account of the ball going into the crochety neighbor’s yard.

— Game called on account of smashed window.

— Game called on account of teammate getting hit by a car while chasing a ball.

— Getting picked last.

— Not getting picked at all.

I would recommend that to make a real Sandlot Day, the adult organizers throw in some of those traits into the official unorganized day. That way, when the kids come back to organized sports, the screaming parents and asshole coaches don’t seem so bad anymore.

Written by rkcookjr

March 29, 2010 at 12:23 am

'Game On' by Tom Farrey: The one youth sports book you should read

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game-on-how-the-pressure-to-win-at-all-costs-endangers-youth-sports-and-what-parents-can-do-about-itI just finished reading the paperback version of “Game On,” by ESPN writer Tom Farrey. I have a sense of relief, in that Farrey, through extensive reporting, confirms many of the biases I had about American youth sports when I started this blog in December 2008, after the hardcover release of Farrey’s book. Namely:

1. That there is too much of an early emphasis on competition, instead of learning — and even more important — enjoying a game.

2. That there is a youth sports-industrial complex that runs from the youth leagues to the colleges and professional leagues they stock that send the message to worried parents that if you don’t pay big in time and money, your child will never even sniff sporting success past, oh, age 6.

3. That this youth sports-industrial complex has created a youth sports world that rapidly tosses aside any family who doesn’t have the means to participate, or has a child who blooms late physically or don’t specialize in a sport by the time the first baby tooth is lost.

4. That the craziness — the yelling at refs, the coaching from the sidelines, the incredible money spent, the amount of time devoted — you see from youth sports parents often is a reasoned, conservative, expected, fostered result of points No. 1, 2, and 3, because parents, trying to do their job in advocating for the best interests of their children, have to resort to extreme means if they want their children to match even the limited athletic success they might have had in their generation.

5. That this system, for the most part, satisfies no one — it leaves millions of kids tossed aside with no options for even casual physical activity or team play, it squeezes out otherwise talented kids who can’t pay the cost of admission, and it doesn’t even guarantee the creation of a deep bench of elite-level athletes.

Farrey, backed by ESPN’s relatively deep pockets, was able to travel the globe to unlock the story of how American youth sports got to where they are. (While I tweaked columnist Rick Reilly for calling out USA Today — and not his own employer — for ESPN’s own kiddie-pornish promotion of youth sports, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader has given Farrey and other reporters the resources to do some great investigative work in this world and otherwise. That’s part of the yin-yang of being a big sports journalism organization and an even bigger sports promoter.)

My favorite part about Farrey’s book isn’t a specific part. It’s his whole approach. Farrey, like many of us who trade in this space, has his personal reasons for his interest in youth sports. Namely, the persons you’ve spawned who play them. (I have four personal reasons; Farrey has three.) But Farrey doesn’t make the book about him and his worry for his children. Instead, by reporting out the history and evolution (or de-evolution) of youth sports, Farrey makes “Game On” about the future of the country, not the future of his kids, or just kids in general.

Farrey ends with some of his own ideas of reforming youth sports, but I’ll get into those at a later date. I’ll bring them up later, when I finish a post I’m planning about why school sports is destined to die.

Your kid's cellphone: a youth sports parent's best friend

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You might have seen over the weekend that the New York Times put up a blurb about the growth of cell phone use by six-to-11-year-olds, a group that back in my day (insert old man voice) would still have been playing with pretend land lines. However, I see nothing disturbing at all in kids having cell phones, not with my 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter having had them for about two years. I’m also guessing a lot of parents who are shuttling kids to multiple events, sports or otherwise, feel the same way.

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“Oh-hoh! I’ll send Goofy to pick you up at the field, Billy!”

The Times, quoting a study released Jan. 4 by Mediamarket Research and Intelligence, said that in 2005 11.9 percent of six- to 11-year-olds had their own mobile phone. In 2009, that number was up to 20 percent. The most dramatic increase, according to the market research company, was 10- and 11-year-olds, whose phone ownership was up 80.5 percent.

These numbers might be disturbing if you believe cell phones cause brain tumors, or if you imagine your 6-year-old now having the power to send naked pictures of himself all over the virtual world. And, yeah, when I put it that way, even I’m starting to freak out a little bit. Let me check my kid’s phones, and I’ll be right back. …

(OK, nothing untoward there. Whew.)

Or maybe you think merely that a post-toddler or preteen is too young to have a phone.

The New York Times item on this survey, being a blurb, left out a key part of the 5,000-child survey: why they use their phone.

The overwhelmingly No. 1 reason why kids use their phones is to call their parents. Now, as a child — and I was a good kid (really, I was) — my worst nightmare was that my parents could have some sort of tracking device on me that would always reveal to them where I was at any given moment. But my experience with my own children is that both sides like the security of being able to get in touch, anytime. Certainly, a cell phone would have been helpful so I could go from one park to another without having to make a detour home first so I could ask my parents if I could go.

The survey said 88.1% of the kiddie cellphone wielders use the device to call their parents. This is where the phone as youth sports parent’s best friend comes in. There comes a time, when the number of kids you have and the schedules they keep outflank you ability to be everywhere at once, that the phone is a necessity for making sure that your child isn’t left stranded after practice or a game — or that you can talk to your child and the parents of whomever has offered to bring him or her home, preferably via a postgame ice-cream shop stop.

My 12-year-old’s phone certainly comes in handy for his frequent, hours-long in-line skating jaunts, so I can call him home, or he can call me in case there is a problem. I feel safer with him having the phone, though my concern for his safety does not extend to making him wear a helmet and pads.

Over the summer, when we were visiting my family in Carmel, Ind., my son bladed over to the nearby Monon Trail (a conversion from a rail line upon which a parent threatened to send up Hickory basketball coach Norman Dale after hidestrapping his ass to a pine rail), which runs south to downtown Indianapolis. I was running the trail myself, so I saw him as we entered at about 146th Street, and I saw him again as I ran south from the trail’s end at 161st Street in Westfield, with him heading north. His phone in hand, I let him keep going after I was done running.

About 90 minutes later, not having heard from my son, I figured I’d better call him to see if he was OK. “Yeah, I’m fine, Dad,” he said. “Where are you?” “I’m not exactly sure.” “What was the last street sign you saw?” “I think it was… 96th Street.” (96th Street is the border between Carmel and Indianapolis.) “96th Street? Where the heck are you going?” “I wanted to go all the way downtown and back.” “Uh, no.”

Hey, my 12-year-old son may be old enough to have a cell phone, but I wasn’t going to let him traverse by himself to downtown Indianapolis and back. I might let him skate with no pads and no helmet — and an iPod going full-blast — but I have my limits. (I did let him skate back, though.)

By the way, second in the survey was calling friends (68.1 percent) and emergency purposes (55.7 percent). Mediamarket says much of the rise in cell phone use has to do with more kid-friendly phone offerings.

Left totally unsupervised, with no cell phone pads and cell phone helmet, can mobile technology welcome your 6- to 11-year-old to a world of sexting, cyberbullying, tumor-iffic, airtime-charge-sucking ne’er-do-wells? Perhaps. When we got our kids phones, my wife and I gave long lectures about what they were to be used for — and not. We haven’t gotten our 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter their own phones yet, but they’re not moving about independently enough to need them.

Anyway, I think the results of the Mediamark survey show that children — and parents — want that electronic tether to make sure they’re never out of reach; what was once my nightmare, now a child’s and parent’s dream.

Written by rkcookjr

March 9, 2010 at 4:42 pm