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United Nations identifies new violent hot spot: youth sports

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Judging by the report put out by UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre (it’s based in Florence, hence what would otherwise seem like a comical Italian name), you should expect to see the blue-helmeted forces of the United Nations keeping the peace at your kid’s next ballgame.

The center (I’m spelling it the American way, damnit) took the time for its usual work of researching the most desperate regions of the world to check out the most desperate parents and coaches in the world — those involved with youth sports in so-called advanced nations. Its report, released in mid-July, is reassuring only in that the United States isn’t the only nation where everyone goes overboard about kids’ athletics.

From the report, titled “Protecting Children from Violence in Sport,” just in case you wondered what the researchers’ conclusion would be:

During recent years, however, it has become evident that sport is not always a safe space for children, and that the same types of violence and abuse sometimes found in families and communities can also occur in sport and play programmes. Child athletes are rarely consulted about their sporting experiences, and awareness of and education on child protection issues among sport teachers, coaches and other stakeholders is too often lacking.  Overall, appropriate structures and policies need to be developed for preventing, reporting and responding appropriately to violence in children’s sport.

The report is chock-a-block with examples from all over the world regarding abuse of children in the name of sport, and that’s without bringing up the name of a single gymnastics coach or tennis dad.

By the way, the United Nations does not define violence against children in sports (yes, the United Nations passed a resolution to define violence against children in sports) as merely physical, sexual  or mental abuse from a coach or parent, or overtraining a kid to the point he gets Tommy John surgery for his bar mitzvah. The definition includes hazing, peer pressure from teammates to drink or do drugs, the use of performance-enhancing substances, and — in what is sure to arouse the ire of Dave Cisar — sex as a prerequisite to participation.

This passage about organized sports being a political process, rather than a physical one, will get a hey-yeah from anyone whose obviously talented child was cut in favor of the coach’s spazz son:

Street play and other forms of adult-free recreation may be the only situations in which children have autonomy over their sport (although even then, they are often being closely observed by parents or othercaregivers). In contrast, children in organized, competitive sport usually lack authority; they are excluded from decision-making and may have their voices silenced by coaches, assertive parents or caregivers, or by senior athletes. In these instances, participation in sport is therefore a physical but not a political right. As a consequence, children are rarely allowedto shape their own competitive sporting experiences and may be subjected to violence if they fail to comply with the wishes of sport authority figures. This exclusion from the right to participation as defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child leaves children vulnerable to types of violence that range from bullying to sexual abuse and commercial trafficking.

So if your child gets cut, make sure to cite the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child in your argument to the coach. It’s your ace in the hole.

By the way, if you’re like me — and thank whatever god you worship if you’re not — you did a stop on “commercial trafficking.” You mean, like how strip clubs get their dancers from Eastern Europe? Well, maybe not a large extent, though you can argue the system that rewards street agents to deliver under-18 baseball players in Latin America to Major League Baseball teams is child trafficking of a form. Heck, you could extend the definition to Clark Francis’ Hoop Scoop rating fourth-graders for the pleasure of college coaches, given how far the United Nations extends its definitions of violence against children.

Trafficking in the context of sport involves the sale of child athletes, usually across national boundaries and for profit. This has been described as a new form of child slavery that leaves players in a precarious legal position. There are known cases of trafficking in baseball and football, but finding systematic data on the practice is a challenge. Unofficial, and therefore unregulated, football training centres test young players, who are then recruited or discarded. These players may become involved in illegal migration or be traded from club to club. Research for this report found very few references to trafficking of children in sport; most references concerned children working as camel jockeys.

The Innocenti Research Centre, like any UN peacekeeper, doesn’t have a magic bullet that can end all the violence. The conclusions of its report talk about having more research into exactly how many children in sports are affected bv violence, and what kind; more training and awareness programs by sports organizations; turning over anyone who commits criminal violence against a child to authorities rather than handling it internally (ahem, USA Swimming); and otherwise making it clear to all involved that violence is something you have to worry about.

This report focused only on the industrialized world — not the places where, since the turn of the millennium, the United Nations has launched sports-based programs to help impoverished children in war-torn lands. After all, like most of the rest of us, while the report saw problems in youth sports, it acknowledges it can have great benefits, and that many children enjoy them. The United Nations’ goal, it appears, is to ensure that blood diamonds exist only inside a youth sports complex.

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Written by rkcookjr

July 17, 2010 at 4:01 pm

American youth sports system: The root of all evil

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It’s rare you see a newspaper editorial that wraps up all the ills of the youth sports-industrial complex at once, blaming it for poor athlete development, obesity, classism and minivan windows caked with messages like “Go Lightning! Katie #12! Whoooo!”

The Mercury News of San Jose, Calif., uses the recently concluded World Cup to conclude that the way youth sports is run in the USA sucks soccer balls.

The burst of excitement when it seemed the United States might have a chance to get to the World Cup final this year has led to heightened hopes that we’ll make it someday. But without a revolution in how we deal with youth sports, it’s unlikely to happen.

During today’s game between Spain and the Netherlands, on too many playgrounds across America, the soccer goals will be locked up — available only to children whose parents have the money and the inclination to pay for them to play.

Unregulated private clubs are increasingly dominating access to American youth sports. Parents now spend more than $4 billion every year for private sports training for their children, with kids from less wealthy or less sports-inclined families denied equal opportunity to develop their talents.

This is not the way to develop world-class teams in sports like soccer, when in most of the world even the poorest kids grow up kicking a ball around. More important, an over-reliance on pay-to-play sports is not in the best interest of children’s overall development.

I can give you 4 billion reasons why pay-to-play isn’t going to change. It’s not just the athletic companies, travel league organizers, concession stand suppliers and minivan-window marker manufacturers that don’t want to see things change. The problem is that no matter how much you try to equalize things, parents are more than willing to pay big bucks to gain an advantage for their children. I’m not sure how you stop that. “Hey, parents! [Finger wags.] You stop doing what you think is best for your kid!”

The editorial notes that the only sport in which the United States is a consistent world power is basketball, because of “players who primarily develop their skills on public courts, playing pickup games after school and on weekends.” I hate to break this to the Mercury News editorial board, but has it ever heard of AAU ball? Of course, poor kids often only get an opportunity there because they’ve shown some incredible amount of talent and physical prowess early, and some sugar daddy wants to cash in once the first pro contract is signed.

However, I, along with the Mercury News editorial board, would like to think all hope is not lost in giving all kids an equal chance of at least participating in sports, regardless of income, particularly as cash-strapped schools, cities and parks make cuts or ras

America needs a national debate about the direction of youth sports. Educators and health officials at all levels should be discussing whether sports teams should have more defined seasons and whether all children should have more access to fields and teams.

Of all nations, ours should be dedicated to equal opportunity in youth sports and fitness. Besides promoting health, sports can help keep kids engaged in school and get into college.

And as a side benefit, by developing all the American talent available, we’ll also have a better shot at producing world-class teams.

Written by rkcookjr

July 12, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Is cheerleading a sport?

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TOKYO - AUGUST 24:  Members of the Nippon Spor...

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“Is cheerleading a sport?” isn’t some sort of semantic question, like “is bowling a sport,” “is auto racing a sport,” or “is challenge pissing a sport.” (The link is NSFW language, but it’s not what you think. Or hope, if you’re R. Kelly.)

“Is cheerleading a sport” is a question that will be answered in a courtroom, and it could have an effect on how boys and girls are counted when it comes to Title IX, the federal law guaranteeing equal access by gender for any student in any school that receives federal money.

A trial started Mon., June 21 against Quinnipiac University (the Fighting Pollsters!) of Hamden, Conn., which is being sued by six women’s volleyball players over the school’s dropping their program. The players contend the elimination, as part of budget cuts, violated Title IX federal guidelines. A judge has already sort-of agreed, granting a temporary injunction to keep women’s vollyeball alive at Quinnipiac and granted the lawsuit class-action status.

That’s all well and good. But more interesting is one way Quinnipiac sought to prove that its female athletic participation is in step with its 62-38 female-male ratio: by elevating competitive cheer, with its 40 female members, to the rank of “sport.” From the New Haven (Conn.) Register:

The trial could ultimately be a referendum on competitive cheer, the gymnastic-like sport that is neither recognized as a varsity sport by the NCAA nor listed as an emerging sport. Quinnipiac initially intended to replace the 11-member volleyball program with a much larger competitive cheer squad.

According to published reports, cost estimates for a roster of 40 in competitive cheer is approximately $50,000. The volleyball budget was over $70,000 for 11 players last year.

Competitive cheer has many of the qualities of gymnastics, yet to some, it’s just an extension of “sideline cheer,” which is commonly seen at collegiate sporting events.

Others see competitive cheer as a low-cost loophole used to inflate the proportionality of female athletes at a school.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which sets the guidelines for Title IX student participation does not have a specific ruling to allow or disallow competitive cheer, but in 2008 issued a “Dear Colleague letter” which provided clarifying information to help institutions determine which intercollegiate or interscholastic athletic activities can be counted for the purpose of Title IX compliance. The letter indicates that when OCR conducts an investigation to determine whether an institution provides equal athletic opportunities as required by Title IX regulations, OCR evaluates the opportunities provided by the institution on a case by case basis.

Quinnipiac is currently in an alliance called the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association which includes the universities of Maryland, Oregon, Baylor, Ohio State (club team), Fairmont State of West Virginia, Azusa Pacific of California and Fort Valley State of Georgia.

If this were a movie, there would be a climatic scene in which the competitive cheer team performs in court, and the judge, so moved, declares: “You ARE a sport after all!” And everybody hugs.

In 2009, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared cheerleading was a sport — and a contact sport at that, in that competitors were in physical contact with each other. (And given the high injury rates for competitive cheer, you’d be safer on the football field instead.) However, that ruling wasn’t for Title IX purposes. It was to disallow a cheerleader’s right to sue the partner who failed to catch her, as well as the school and its insurance company to pay for treating her injuries.

In some states, the high school athletic ruling body includes competitive cheer under its jurisdiction, although often it seems like it does so to pull the same kind of Title IX shenanigans in which Quinnipiac is accused of engaging. For example, in 2009 the Florida High School Athletic Association had plans to cut back every sport but football (which it declared was coed because three girls played) and competitive cheer. Those plans were beaten back by Title IX activists, among others. And Florida’s inclusion of competitive cheer also seemed similar to why catchers have to report with pitchers to spring training. Somebody’s gotta cheer for the football team, and somebody has to catch the ball.

As of this writing, the Quinnipiac trial is ongoing.

USA Swimming getting lessons in how not to molest children

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USA Swimming, apparently not able to figure out itself how not to have coaches abuse children, is partnering with the Child Welfare League of America to teach it. Here is USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, explaining in a joint June 21 news release how this uncomfortable marriage came to be.

“As a youth sports organization, we recognized the importance of obtaining concentrated input from independent experts in the field of child welfare.  After meeting with the CWLA and reviewing the long and distinguished history of the organization, we are confident that we have the best people helping us with our ongoing efforts to serve our membership.”

If Wielgus hadn’t been so stinking clueless and dismissive about problems with swim coaches in ways that would make Pope Benedict blanch, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that this move has please-don’t-sue-me written all over it. Hey, I’ve sat through how-not-to-molest-children training required to coach a Catholic school team, training developed by the church’s liability insurer, so I know a please-don’t-sue-me-move when I see it.

Of course, there are multiple lawsuits already against USA Swimming for various sexual misconduct alleged against coaches, cases that have inspired ex-Olympians such as Diana Nyad and Deena Deardurff Schmidt to step forward to say they were victims, too.

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An attorney in one of the lawsuits dismissed USA Swimming’s announcement, telling The Associated Press that the Child Welfare League of America is a lobbying organization, not one that knows anything about developing youth sports protection guidelines. The league would argue otherwise, but that’s besides the point. After rushing out a seven-point action plan following a devastating report by ABC’s “20/20” on the grabby-hands problem, USA Swimming is hiding behind a brand-name organization so that the next time someone sues, it can say, see, we tried to do something about it. We can’t stop everyone, you know.

Also, USA Swimming’s move would reek a little more of sincerity if it hadn’t, since the “20/20” report, removed coaches critical of its policies from high-profile assignments. Geez, even the Catholic Church lets priests critical of its conduct (or lack thereof) keep their parishes.

Should you go to all your children's games?

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In its June parents’ newsletter, U.S. Lacrosse answers the guilt-driven question, “Should I go to all my children’s games?” But first, let sports psychologist Richard Ginsburg tell you whether your children want your presence:

In our research on this very question, we learned that almost 100% of youth soccer-playing-kids ages, 7-14, wanted their parents to attend their games. Our kids want us to watch them play, to witness the wins and losses, the accomplishments and the disappointments.

Don’t you feel guilty for even asking the question?

Actually, Ginsburg let we parents know that our children will not someday end up on Dr. Phil if we miss a few games.

That said, it is also OK for us as adults to have our own lives, to miss a few games here or there. In fact, having a life outside of our children’s sport experiences is healthy.

Are parents fucked in the head, or what? We need a psychologist to pat us on the shoulder and tell us that our child won’t become a serial killer if we miss a baseball game! That a truly adult perspective is NOT revolving your life 100 percent around your children’s activities!

Written by rkcookjr

June 4, 2010 at 12:39 am

Ottawa league's blowout rule: Making soccer more communist?

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My Twitter was a-blowin’ up today over a soccer league that is contributing to what is often called the pussification of sports by declaring any team that wins by five or more goals has won by too much, and therefore has officially lost. From what I saw on the ol’ Twitter, the edict from the Gloucester Dragons Recreational Soccer League is infecting America with sports communism, Trotsky and Lenin and no-score leagues and pitch counts and moms as coaches. (No matter that this league is in Canada — close enough!)

When the he-man world discovers the latest threat to youth sports as they should be — a combination of yelling, Social Darwinism and the occasional wedgie — the Internet pattern goes like this:

1. Someone writes a story, full of quotes from perturbed parents and tight-assed sounding league officials. In this example, the National Post in Toronto.

Kevin’s father, Bruce Cappon, called the rule ludicrous.

“I couldn’t find anywhere in the world, even in a communist country, where that rule is enforced,” he said.

Mr. Cappon said the organization is trying to “reinvent the wheel” by fostering a non-competitive environment. The league has 3,000 children enrolled ranging in age from four to 18 years old.

“Everybody wants a close game, nobody wants blowouts, but we don’t want to go by those farcical rules that they come up with,” he said. “Heaven forbid when these kids get into the real world. They won’t be prepared to deal with the competition out there.”

Club director Sean Cale said he is disappointed a few parents are making the new soccer rule overshadow the community involvement and organizing the Gloucester club does.

“The registration fee, regardless of the sport, does not give a parent the right to insult or belittle the organization,” he said. “It gives you a uniform, it gives you a team.”

Mr. Cale said the league’s 12-person board of directors is not trying to take the fun out of the game, they are simply trying to make it fair. The new rule, suggested by “involved parents,” is a temporary measure that will be replaced by a pre-season skill assessment to make fair teams.

2. The story gets posted on the likes of Fark and Deadspin, followed by lots of snarky comments, some of which rail about pussification, and some of which just make smart-aleck jokes.

3. The presence of the story on the likes of Fark and Deadspin gets people a-Twitterin’.

4. That’s where I come in to float above it all and tell you what to REALLY think.

So here we are at step No. 4.

As usual, what the Gloucester Dragons league did was a well-meaning combination of thoughtful and stupid. As the league name says, it’s a recreational league, i.e., for fun. There’s no better way to drive away players who are there for the fun of it by putting them on a team that consistently gets their ass kicked. Hey, we’re playing for fun, but we’re still keeping score, and it’s not a lot of fun to get your ass kicked.

The league has the right idea by having a tryout camp to try to ensure teams are equal. But to tell teams that, in the interim, winning by a lot means that they’ll actually lose — it’s not communism, but it is dumb. It’s insulting to have teams fart around for the sake of increasing the margin to six. There are a lot of ways to stop a blowout: slaughter rule (ending the game when the margin is too high), having the leading team play with fewer players, a running clock. Not telling the winning team they’ll actually lose.

If having a blowout is that worrisome, just don’t keep score. As you can see by the National Post story, the whole idea of blowout prevention came from parents. The great upset about blowout prevention is coming from parents. Well, some kids, too. But like in my 7-year-old son’s no-score baseball league, if the kids want to keep track, that’s fine. The reason for no-score leagues is so parents won’t lose their shit over a game.

It’s not pussification. It’s parent pacification.

Written by rkcookjr

June 3, 2010 at 1:05 am

Will Arizona kill school sports — and itself?

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Arizona’s developing quite a reputation for being a state by and for scaredy-cat old white people feeling the hot breath of becoming the minority (which the Census Bureau expects will happen by 2015). The infamous SB1070, another law banning the teaching of ethnic studies, and  a bill coming through that would make schools count illegals and tally up their “cost” — I guess that’s what happens when a real estate market collapses, and white people can no longer sell their houses to flee, um, whatever they call those who are not white people.

It didn’t take a Sarah Palin-assailed girls high school basketball boycott for the state to set up a “hey-weren’t-not-so-bad-commission” to burnish its image as something more than Crazy Coot Cracker Central. It took multiple boycotts by multiple organizations.

Even with all that, the worst hit to Arizona’s image may be yet to come. That will happen if the state’s voters on May 18 turn down Proposition 100, which adds another percentage point to the Arizona sales tax, with most of the money going to schools, as well as health care, and police and fire services. It won’t be interpreted nationwide as an attack on illegal immigrants only. It’ll be interpreted a sign Arizona is closing up shop to pretty much everybody except scared old white people — and even they’re going to be hit if the day comes that budget cuts make an ambulance a lot slower in coming.

How do I know this? Because the of the list of supporters. Among them: pretty much every state and local division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Education Association, the Professional Fire Fighters Association, the Gila River Indian Community, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, the Arizona Medical Association, US Airways and the Arizona Cardinals. Basically, a mishmosh of large and powerful and not-so-large and not-so-powerful that rarely stand on the same side of the same issue. Oh, and also the majority of Arizona state House and Senate, and Gov. Jan Brewer, who had to approve of the ballot measure.

Their fear is this: if Prop 100 — which would raise taxes only through 2013, when the provision sunsets — doesn’t pass, the state immediately cuts $900 million from a state budget already collapsing from a housing and tourism bust, including $450 million in cuts from education. This isn’t a threat or a hypothetical. The Arizona state legislature already has a contingency budget passed in case the tax increase is rejected. (The Cardinals also might feel a little guilty for youth sports funding being slashed because tax revenue generated around its new stadium wasn’t up to par.)

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And more than the budget cut is the signal the rejection sends: that the old white people of Arizona are dying, and they’re taking the state with them. Even for business types who get a cold sweat at every mention of a tax, such a loud and public signal of disinvestment in education, public safety and health (the beneficiaries of the tax increase) would let the world know Arizona isn’t willing to step up to invest in its future. I know every state is cutting, and the backers know every state is cutting. But they also know that at least the signal needs to be sent that they feel a little bad about it.

So what does this have to do with youth sports? Plenty. Many Arizona schools already have certain sports, particularly nonrevenue sports and programs for those who are not on the high school varsity — at the ready to get chopped by their budgetary guillotines. From MaxPreps.com:

“If it fails, the announcement has come from our district office that the possibility of eliminating athletics across the board in our district is real,” said Herman House, director of interscholatics for the Tucson Unified School District. House doesn’t think it will come to that. He believes revenue-producing varsity sports such as football, basketball, baseball and softball will survive, but the reality is, if Prop. 100 fails, Tucson will have to shave about $45 million from its annual budget.

“Athletic directors are a resilient bunch and we always seem to find a way,” said Mesa district athletic director Steve Hogen, whose district is the largest in the state. “At the same time, there are fiscal realities you can’t ignore. Sometimes, that has bad consequences for the kids.”

Hogen said Mesa was already discussing a pay-for-play fee for all student-athletes. But if Prop. 100 does not pass, that fee will likely rise by 50 percent, putting a hardship on a district with many lower-income families. House said if Proposition 100 fails, his district is also considering restrictions on travel and a reliance upon fundraisers to pay coaches’ salaries and keep sports self-sufficient.

Not to mention, a Prop 100 passage might speed up or intensify a plan by Arizona’s state high school sports authority to cut athletic divisions and tournaments, and set limits on travel, all in the name of saving money.

If Arizona wants a preview of how this would work, it can look at New Jersey, where school districts across the state are slashing sports — and, of course, lots of other, more curricular parts of education — when locals rejected higher school taxes on top of state budget cuts. Or just about anywhere else nationwide, really. Having your funding tied in a big way to property taxes and state government receipts is great when housing prices are flying upward, not so when they’re crashing. Just go to Google News and search “school sports budget cuts,” and you’ll get the feeling in many places this recession means the end of days for school-sponsored sports.

Or look at the past coverage of tax rejections at the Grove City Schools in Ohio, which became national news precisely because the district eliminated sports entirely as a result — but were brought back when voters finally passed a hike. Maybe you don’t notice when the math department cuts a teacher, but everyone notices when the football team isn’t playing on Fridays.

So why does Arizona get the pressure of having its image tarnished by rejecting an education tax hike? Well, there’s the matter of all the other legislative nuttiness in the state. But there’s also the matter of Arizona’s taxes being relatively low to start with. The sales tax hike would go to 6.6 percent. Not bad at all, especially to someone such as myself in Chicago, where the sales tax can go more than 11 percent. That’s not to say Arizonans deserve to get soaked as much as I do. It’s more like the feeling I have when I would hear my parents in Carmel, Ind., carp about their property taxes, and I’d find out they were paying about one-quarter as much for a house that wasn’t worth that much less than mine. It’s just hard to work up sympathy. And least New Jersey’s rejections were understandable, with the state’s extremely-high-in-the-nation property taxes.

However, the main issue is that Arizona’s populace knows exactly what it will get if the tax doesn’t pass. The gun is loaded and at your head — and yet you might still decide to pull the trigger.

If most polls are to believed, about half of the state’s voters are suicidal, with passage of Prop 100 as a tossup. While the supporters are well-funded, the opponents have some politicians on their side, as well as the always more popular stance of not raising taxes.

Maybe what supporters need more than money is 7-year-old Logan Wade. He is the young fan Glendale (Ariz.) City Council member Phil Lieberman credits with convincing him to join the majority vote May 11 for a $25 million guarantee for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, which play in a taxpayer-funded arena in a taxpayer-financed entertainment district that threatens to go down the tubes if the Coyotes, as is very possible, move back to their ancestral of Winnipeg. This vote, which would come if the NHL-owned, bankrupt team can’t find a buyer, comes despite the city budget deficit of $15 million. But how can you turn down a little kid? From the Arizona Republic:

Councilman Phil Lieberman, who had asked tough questions of staffers, said he was persuaded by Logan Wade, a 7-year-old fan.

“‘Will you vote for this resolution tonight?'” Lieberman said the Glendale boy asked.

“I can’t turn him down,” the councilman added.

What Prop 100 supporters should do is spend their money on jetting Logan Wade around the state on the May 18 election day, and have him wear a jersey for a local high school, asking voters, “Will you vote for Prop 100 today?” Even scared old white people can’t turn him down!