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A youth sports punch can get you six years in the clink

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I haven’t seen a punishment this severe for an assault on youth sports personnel, but maybe six years in prison should be a warning to any parent who goes nuts over kids’ athletics — at least to any parent with priors.

From the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.:

A Minneapolis man will serve six years in prison for punching the commissioner of a Burnsville youth sports association in the face after a sixth-grade basketball game [Feb. 13]

Robin Johnson, 49, also was ordered in Dakota County District Court to pay more than $14,200 in restitution and have no contact with the victims, who were not identified in court Wednesday. Johnson pleaded guilty in June to felony first-degree assault.

According to witnesses, Johnson was taunting at a player to make him miss — during a sixth-grade house league game. Commissioner Jeff Shaud asked him to stop, and when Johnson didn’t, Shaud got out his cellphone to call police. Johnson slapped it out of his hand, and then punched Shaud in the face to register his disagreement with the commissioner.

Police said Johnson landed multiple punches before being subdued by others in the crowd, most notably by a crowd member who kicked him in what my 7-year-old likes to call the “sheen.” (Not named after Charlie, but it could be.)

One of the amazing things about men is that no matter how many times they watch this, they will find it funny. And they will grab their man parts.

As youth sports parents and coaches, we’ve all dealt with nuts, and I don’t mean the kind that Robin Johnson was holding after he was kicked. Often, when writing about these folks, the assumption is they are otherwise normal people who get caught up in the youth sports moment. Alas, if that were always true. Often, many of these nuts bring their nuttiness with them. Johnson, for example, had issues that ranged far beyond his feeling on sixth-grade free throws.

Again, from the Pioneer Press:

In a separate case, Judge Michael Mayer also sentenced Johnson to a year of jail for violating a protection order, a gross misdemeanor, said Monica Jensen, a spokeswoman for the Dakota County attorney’s office. Johnson will serve the sentences concurrently. …

Previously, Johnson was convicted in June for violating an order for protection, in 2007 for giving police false information and violating an order for protection, and in 1997 for fifth-degree assault and fifth-degree domestic assault.

So if you’re the type who punches people at random… well, stop. But, please, don’t come to the kids’ games. If you do, there might already be a prison bunk being made up for you.

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Written by rkcookjr

November 4, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Hazing allegations shut down Minnesota HS football team, for now

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Hazing allegations involving a sports team — not unusual. Suspending practice while the school tries to get to the bottom of those allegations — that’s unusual.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the varsity football program at Elk River (Minn.) High School, located in an exurb at the end of a commuter rail line connected with Minneapolis, was suspended Aug. 25 while school officials check into hazing allegations made by the parent of an apparent victim.

The school did not reveal the nature of the hazing, and apparently no one has sought medical attention related to it, according to the Elk River district. But the school has hired an attorney to conduct a third-party investigation. The district told the Star Tribune that all 54 players have been interviewed, with 15 of those players more closely tied to the allegations coming back for another round Aug. 26.

From the Star Tribune:

Superintendent Mark Bezek announced his decision to shelve the program “until further notice” in a meeting with about 200 parents and students Wednesday night at the high school.

“I am shocked and dismayed by these allegations,” Bezek told the gathering. “This district does not tolerate hazing or other unlawful activities.”

Bezek added, “This isn’t just kids fooling around. This has some very serious implications.”

One of those implications: that the school will get its ass sued off and/or get its name sullied if it doesn’t address the hazing allegations in a firm and forceful way. Ask Carmel, Ind., High School how much mental and financial pain has come from brushing off hazing allegations involving its boys’ basketball team, allegations that later become criminal cases against the players who allegedly perpetrated the treatment.

Of course, you’d also like to think that the school really was outraged on a moral level. Until I hear otherwise, I won’t take the cynical route outlined in the previous paragraph.

The Star Tribune reports that the players could be back on the practice field as soon as Aug. 27, and that Elk River’s  opening game is still expected to kick off as scheduled on Sept. 2. However, it will be interesting to see what is left of the team at that point. Unless the hazing allegations turn out to be completely baseless, you can consider Elk River’s season sufficiently ruined.

Written by rkcookjr

August 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Youth soccer facility, eliminating the middleman, starts its own pro team

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The National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., is the model everyone wants to follow when they want to built a big honkin’ facility to host big honkin’ youth sports tournaments. But the National Sports Center stays one step ahead. Not only does it provide the means for parents who dream of their children going pro, but it also now provides its own pro team.

The center decided to own its own Division II-level pro team (one level below Major League Soccer) to replace the Minnesota Thunder, a National Sports Center tenant that died as the United Soccer League converted into an old name playing a lower-level game, the North American Soccer League. Pele will not be in this league.

Inside Minnesota Soccer gets the word from Paul Erickson, the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission’s executive director, on why the National Sports Center is expanding into the professional sports business:

The one advantage we have, we are the only owner in the entire division II system that owns all of its own facilities. We also have the largest soccer complex on earth with 4 million annual visitors. Now that we are owners of this team we have the ability to program all the youth soccer tournaments and other facilities and incorporate a professional soccer experience. Now that the owner of the team is the owner of the events, we can do a lot more creative things in building ticket packages into the events to make it a comprehensive soccer event.

Plus, the National Sports Center has a beer garden.

The facility is having a name-the-team contest through Jan. 26. Your choices are: the Minnesota Voyageurs, NSC Minnesota, FC Minnesota, Minnesota United, Minnesota Northern Lights, Northstar FC, or that ever-popular choice, Other. Everything but Other sucks. How about the Fats?

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You can laugh at the idea of a Minnesota Fats record album, but Etta James is allegedly his daughter, and she had to get the talent from somewhere, right?

Written by rkcookjr

January 18, 2010 at 3:53 am

Shocking news: school district, parents act civil in debate over coaches' conduct

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In Hickory, Ind., the high school basketball coach has to survive a round of interviews with the local hayseeds.

If David Jason Stinson thinks he’s going to get back into coaching and tell players he’s going to run them until everyone quits, he’s going to face a foe much more powerful than the Jefferson County, Ky., prosecutor  — parents.

Not that parents getting involved in hiring and firing coaches is new, but the latest pattern in complaints — a pattern that’s no surprise to the masses that fill up newspaper comment boards about how we’re turning our children into pussies — is whether a coach is being verbally abusive.

Even more disturbing, it appears parents and school districts are beginning to act like adults, working together to find solutions to the problems. What the hell, man? When did the comity of the State of the Union gallery and the screeching of school board meeting crowds switch places? Is it Opposite Day, and no one told me?

Here’s an example from Barnesville, Minn., where parents are questioning whether the high school coaches are properly Minnesota nice.

From the Forum in Fargo, N.D.:

A group of residents [in Barnesville] is calling on their school district to start soliciting parent feedback on the performance of coaches.

Parents sprung to action this summer after hearing that several Barnesville coaches might have used deprecating language [including profanity] toward students during practice – concerns they say athletes and parents are reluctant to voice for fear of retribution.

District officials have balked at the idea of a parent survey that would count toward coach evaluations. They point out the district has a streamlined system to handle complaints, and they scoff at the idea a coach’s livelihood should depend on input from adults who are generally not around at practice time.

The clash has spawned a well-attended parent meeting to air concerns, an open records request for district e-mails and, more recently, a compromise solution [to have student athletes fill out anonymous surveys created by parents and the district].

And all of this echoes a heated Minnesota debate over parental input about coach performance – to some, an out-of-line bid to micromanage; to others, a way to rein in a growing emphasis on winning in high school athletics.

“This has got to be the No. 1 hottest issue parents have in high school and junior high,” says Mary Cecconi of Parents United, a Minnesota parent advocacy group.

Parents and administrators are working together to create a solution? C’mon, Minnesota! Where’s the screaming! Where’s the outrage? Where are the signs depicting the athletic director as Stalin, Hitler and Castro?

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This is the kind of lameness that Minnesotans called a raucous health reform debate. You call this an angry mob?

Written by rkcookjr

September 23, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Minnesota declares a week without sports…

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…and I’m sure it’ll be just as effective as TV Turnoff Week.

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

…[t]he Minnesota State High School League [approved] a no-contact period for coaches and student-athletes effective July 1-7, 2010. The amendment, which the MSHSL representative assembly passed by a 43-2 vote, calls for an Independence Week of sorts, a small piece of summer reserved for athletes and their families.

“The kids need breaks,” MSHSL executive director Dave Stead said. “They are not collegians connected through a scholarship to play a sport. The good coaches know that, and they’ll make the adjustments.”

Metro-area coaches, while acknowledging a seven-day moratorium is not a big deal — Apple Valley wrestling coach Jim Jackson called it “trivial” — question two principal implications. Girls’ basketball coaches Faith Patterson of Minneapolis North and Ray Finley of Providence Academy wondered what message is being sent when only high school coaches — not AAU basketball coaches — are asked to provide time for kids to be kids.

And Blaine boys’ hockey coach Dave Aus and Spring Lake Park boys’ basketball coach Grant Guzy are concerned that the MSHSL might decide to expand the no-contact period. If that happened, Wayzata football coach Brad Anderson worries that athletes choosing to invest in private instruction might not get a worthwhile return.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association established a similar summer no-contact period in 2007. Associate director Tom Rashid said schools can choose their own seven-day break to be completed by Aug. 1, and about 95 percent do so over the Fourth of July. Adjusting to the new rule, Rashid said, took time.

“We probably had 100 phone calls that first summer, maybe more, from coaches asking, ‘I can’t do this? I can’t do that?’ Rashid said. “The amount of agony in the first year of the program to find 168 hours of no high school sports led me to believe that we absolutely needed something to pull the reins back.”

Bless their bleeding hearts and good intentions, but here are the problems for any high school athletic association mandating a week without sports.

The elite athletes, as noted above, are going to keep playing AAU and club sports, so all this rule does is give athletes and their parents one more reason to find school-affiliated sports lacking in comparison.

As for the comments that athletes investing in instruction might not get a worthwhile return — it sounds crazy that one week mandating no practices or games might make that much of a difference. But I’m sure every hockey and basketball coach (and every other coach in every sport but football) in Minnesota (and the nation) sweats whether the best players are going to keep playing high school sports, knowing college recruiters are paying a lot more attention to the more elite club level.

Meanwhile, the middling high school athletes, trying to keep up, will still end up in private sessions, worthwhile return or not. So it’s not like they’re actually taking a week off — nor are their parents.

I know we’re all trying to figure out ways to de-emphasize sports so kids aren’t getting mentally or physically burned out. But Minnesota’s rule rests on an assumption that kids at the high school level are burning out. That’s not necessarily so. Most surveys talk about 75 percent of youth athletes quitting by age 13. However, one Canadian study, looking at registration data, posits the idea that the decline in youth sports participation into the teenage years not a matter of kids quitting en masse in the tween years– it’s that fewer new players join a sport as the years go on. That makes sense, given the early age so many kids start in sports, and the self-selection either in discovering one’s talent or realizing one is a long way back from the kids who have played for a while.

There are players quoted in the Star-Tribune story saying they feel like the week without sports is ridiculous. After all, if you’re dedicated to some activity at the high school level, you’re probably good at it and passionate about it. Heck, my 6-year-old son, whose T-ball closing ceremony is tonight, is upset he can’t start next year’s league tomorrow.

Minnesota’s move for a week without sports comes from lofty ideals, and I’m sure there are parents who hope that really means they’re on break for a week. However, I doubt it’s going to change the athletic landscape in the state, except to tip a few more of the top athletes away from high school sports.

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.

Political science

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This post will be about politics in sports, but I came up with the headline  as an excuse to post Randy Newman doing “Political Science.”

Greg Sellnow of the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin isn’t a sportswriter by trade, but he’s been a sports parent and coach for a long while. So it makes sense he used his bully pulpit to preach on about the complaints regarding youth sports, and whether they are grounded in any reality.

I won’t go through all of them, but I will highlight two that struck me as most interesting.

Complaint: Youth sports are too “political.” The top traveling teams are picked by a few rich and powerful parents who control the selection process.

Reality: Sure, there are some coaches and youth sports board members who are listened to more than others. And it’s time that some of these folks give it up and allow some “new blood” to get involved.

But, by and large, the people who serve in these influential positions are there because they’re willing to donate a ton of time and effort to the kids. It’s been my experience that many of the parents who complain the loudest about youth sports being “political” are those who are least willing to volunteer to get involved.

Politics is politics, whether it’s the President of the United States or the president of the 9-year-old girls softball travel team. The ones in power are most influenced by anyone who gets their ear, which is why there are people who dedicate their lives to getting the ear of either president. Or finding a way to get themselves involved in the political system so the president has to listen to them.

The parents who put in the time to help run leagues are often doing yeoman’s work, a thankless job that’s noticed only if someone is pissed off. If that gets their kid a little bump ahead, what the heck? At least everyone knows that kid’s parents is helping to keep things moving.

On the other hand, mee-ow, Greg. Space constraints might have explained why you left it as the bitching parents being those “least willing” to get involved. They might have a legitimate reason not to get involved — job conflict, taking care of a sick mother, taking care of multiple kids, etc. I’m sure you and anyone else in sports have gotten crap from parents who just seem to like to complain, or don’t find out why something happened before yelling about the injustice. But it’s a disservice to all involved if the people involved in running youth sports believe those who aren’t at their meetings are people who don’t give a shit.

On the third hand, if you’re a parent who is upset at how something went down, it wouldn’t hurt to find out how the whole process works. In most cases, the decision-making is far less diabolical than you would believe.

Here is the other nugget from Greg Sellnow’s column I wanted to point out:

Complaint: Kids are encouraged to become one-sport athletes at an early age.

Reality: There’s a lot of truth to this. When my son was in middle school, an assistant youth football coach berated me in front of my child for picking him up early from football practice so he could attend hockey practice. I thought my son showed his dedication to both teams by wanting to fit in half of each practice, rather than skip one altogether. The assistant coach didn’t see it that way.

I’ve always thought kids should be encouraged to participate in multiple sports and a variety of other after-school activities, especially elementary and middle school students.

After all, very few of these kids are going to go on to play competitive sports in college. Many of them won’t even play varsity high school sports. Why not allow them the benefit of a little variety when they’re in elementary and middle school?

I must admit — I’ve been the dickish coach who Sellnow describes.

When I coached my son’s basketball team in fourth grade, I had a kid who also had hockey practice the same night as our practice. No problem. I worked it out with his parents that he alternate between hockey and basketball. I was assured the hockey coach would sign on.

Presumably, he did not. Because this kid probably went to only one or two basketball practices all year.

I was, to say the least, peeved. I had a rule that a kid who missed a practice without letting me know had to sit out the first half, and the parents of the hockey kid didn’t care for that. But the other parents were ticked that this kid never showed up to practice and yet was playing at all. I ended up dropping the rule — that was a bit hard-core for fourth-grade. But also, I was angry at the parents for never following up as to why their kid wasn’t showing up to practices.

What I learned from that was, hey, douchebag, you’re a fourth-grade coach, not Phil Jackson. I probably made the situation bigger than it should have been because I was all, “You must be at practice! This is serious!” What I also learned was that parents and coaches need to communicate with each other in a double-sport situation.

Looking back, the issue wasn’t that the kid wasn’t at my practices. The issue was that the parents said he would be at certain practices, and didn’t bring him. I suspect the hockey coach didn’t agree, and that’s why he didn’t show. But it would have been nice to have been told. If you’re going to have your kid in multiple sports at one time, you owe to your child and your coach to be upfront and make arrangements.