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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Fame – Remember My Name

Susan Boyd

Do you remember Freddy Adu? He’s the phenomenal youth player who, at age 14, became the youngest player to earn an MLS contract in 2003. For the next five years things went well for him. He played a significant role with D.C. United and Real Salt Lake before being picked up by Benefica in Portugal. But at the ripe old age of 19, he began to see his soccer career unravel. He was loaned out to four lower tier European teams with minimal success, then returned to the MLS in 2011, playing two seasons with the Philadelphia Union. Bahia in Brazil picked him up, but he made just two appearances. His time on the U.S. Men’s National Team extended from 2006 to 2011, with only 17 appearances. He was off the squad all of 2010, which was a World Cup year. Presently, he is training with Blackpool F.C., which is a second-tier English team, but the side decided against offering him a contract. He’s had overtures from the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks but is hoping for a European team to pick him up.            

His story is one of the cautionary tales that come from youth sports. Parents hear about someone like Adu, and we may immediately begin comparing our own child against the big news. These unusual players create the belief that the brass ring of playing professionally sits just outside our child’s reach. With the right break, continued on-field success and the proper exposure, our kid could be the next Sporting News headline. The question is: Do we really want this to all come so soon? Adu had and undoubtedly still has exceptional talent. But once he signed a contract, his life switched from developing those talents to exercising them solely for the profit of team owners. When he ceased providing that profit, either through assisting a winning season or drawing fans with publicity, he ceased being relevant in the sport he loves. Two of my grandsons will be 14 this year and I can’t imagine either one of them capable of handling the pressures of being on a pro team. They would be out of their element as it relates to family, peers and age-appropriate social life. There are some rare kids who can step into that arena, but when we look at them years later we can see the toll it took on their lives. Just consider all the child actors who have imploded.            

Too often parents have the mistaken impression that the window of opportunity to make the top echelons of soccer is small and comes really early in a player’s growth. This perception gets fed by YouTube videos, media reports and rumors. We can watch young players juggle a ball 200 times with lots of trick moves or 10-year-olds dodging adult players on the way to scoring a goal. We wonder if perhaps we should be promoting our own children showcasing their skills for the world to see on the off-chance they will catch a scout’s eye. Certainly, even if we aren’t pushing our pre-teens into a pro career, we do end up needing to publicize them when it comes to college recruiting. Therefore, navigating the waters of soccer exposure becomes justified. We know we have to do it, so why not do it earlier? We might just hit the jackpot.             

According to research done by Georgia State University and NCAA statistics, the chances of a high school soccer player eventually becoming a professional player is .08 percent, which is eight players out of 100,000 or one in 12,500. To put that into perspective, a team of 22 players will have someone go pro every 568 seasons. Even spreading this out among all the high schools in your city, you’re still looking at one every 30 to 40 seasons at best in the entire community. Our children would not only have to be the best out of 12,500 players at their age level, but also be lucky enough to be scouted and selected. Signing as a pro doesn’t insure someone will play as a pro. Lots of players get the call but only few hang on to the contract. A friend’s nephew, B.J. Tucker, was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of Wisconsin in 2003. He went in the sixth round (178th overall) because in addition to his football skills, he ran track. His speed earned him a nod, but only a nod. He bumped around the NFL, joining the rosters of four different teams between August and September in 2003 alone. His only playing time came through the Seahawks when he was loaned to an NFL Europe team. Otherwise, he was either on practice squads or simply released. In 2008, he was signed by the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League with limited special teams play. He’s “retired” now without much savings. He had promise but couldn’t turn that into a contract. His story is the one most young athletes face even when drafted by a pro team.             

Then there is Freddy Adu, who achieved the dream only to see it disappear all too quickly. We can speculate on what happened. Perhaps he was too young, perhaps he didn’t get big enough to sustain his power on the field, perhaps he was excellent for a 14-year-old but not so special for a 20-year-old, or perhaps he burned out — unable to handle the pressure to succeed. Whatever happened, it happens to many a young player. Unfortunately for Freddy, his world-wide fame made his struggles very public, another burden for him to shoulder. His celebrity also contributes to his inability to make the best choices for his future. Having played at the top levels for years, including going to the 2008 Olympics, it’s demoralizing for him to find himself starting over at a lesser level of pro soccer. His career won’t be helped by riding the bench on a top European team although it will soothe his ego. He needs playing time and further development to find his professional footing. I’ve always said that kids should play on the best team where they will be a starter. That’s a difficult choice for parents and their children who favor status over development. However, I can offer scores of examples of youth players who didn’t play on the top team in their community then went on to play at a junior college transferring to a Division I school and earning an invite to the MLS combine. Everyone develops on a different schedule. What matters is being the fittest, most developed player when the scouts are watching. Youth players can grow into that position, most likely not at 14 and possibly not even at 20, but if they have passion they can fight to move into the professional ranks.            

I can use my oldest son as an example. He played on a lackluster youth team, but as a goalkeeper, weak defense afforded him opportunities to showcase his talents, which he did at the Dallas Cup just four months before his first year of college. He had despaired of being able to play college soccer since only one school had shown interest, but he did not feel comfortable when he visited. However, from his performance at the Dallas Cup (actually from one game there) he was recruited at truly the last minute to play in San Francisco. Then he struggled during his college career, eventually transferring to UW-Milwaukee. Once his eligibility ran out, he bounced around playing for adult teams in the Milwaukee area, until, using all the networking he could muster, he got himself a chance to practice with the pro indoor team. At the end of this season, he was signed for the last month and a half. It’s a start for him. Whether it will result in bigger options, who knows. He didn’t make the splash of a Freddy Adu, but he’s in a position to advance. Achieving a professional career has as much to do with passion for the sport as it does with athleticism and skill. To make himself stand out, he has to work on his fitness constantly, not just during team practices, do daily training in drills and practice kicks, and he keeps up with what is going on in the world of soccer, always looking for openings.            

When we think of soccer superstars, we are looking at the top 20 players in the world. Their level of success involved some luck and lots of hard work, not to mention innate athletic abilities. Some of the stars began blazing at a young age, some later. Parents need to understand how unusual and difficult it is to make it to the top. As parents, we can’t isolate some accomplishment from our child’s soccer history as proof that they have what it takes to go pro. In Robbie’s first high school game, he fired a bullet shot from 35 yards out over the head of the keeper into the back of the net. He never again duplicated that shot, but he played in college with a teammate who did it regularly. Robbie’s hallmark skill became dribbling down to the corner and making really dangerous crossing shots or passes that goalkeepers had difficulty handling. However, that skill wasn’t fully developed until early in his college years. Despite his speed and agility, which might get him a pro tryout, he’s opted to fill out his med school applications and move onto the next phase of his life. He’d been down that “you can be a star” road already. When he was 14, he was invited to try out for the Youth National Team. He broke his foot the week before the tryout but went anyway. About three days into the event, the coach came to him and said, “Boyd, I thought you were fast.” Robbie explained about his foot, but no one cared. He had to perform at his top level right then and he couldn’t. I wonder what we would have done had he been invited to join the National Pool. How would we have balanced the excellent education he was getting at the Catholic high school in Milwaukee against the possibility of making a National Team roster? Two years after his tryout, one of his high school teammates made the pool and left school to train in Bradenton. Within a year he was released, but he couldn’t transfer back to the high school, so he finished out his education in Florida and then went to play for George Washington University.             

Robbie’s story, his teammate’s story, Bryce’s story and Freddy Adu’s story are all similar. Freddy went the furthest, but he doesn’t have a college degree and, not yet 25-years-old, doesn’t have a team. Robbie will go to medical school, his teammate has a job in finance, Bryce has about one more year to try and make it as a pro before he has to switch to a more traditional career, and Freddy is hoping (without a basis in reality) to get back in the U.S. National Team picture. Dreams are important, fame is fabulous, and success feels wonderful, but in the world of sports, all of that can be fleeting. We do best by our children not to overcommit them to a life of striving for athletic honors. Yes, our sports figures are idolized unlike someone who cures polio or negotiates peace settlements, but the latter have a far more significant impact on the world despite being achieved without the rabid groupies and lucrative endorsements. The names of team power players may hang from the upper decks and rafters of arenas, but the real fame is found in those who make an indelible difference in the quality of our lives. 

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Cutting Edge

Susan Boyd

Perhaps because it is a world-wide sport or perhaps because it has a long history, but soccer has managed to stay at the forefront when it comes to women’s issues. As a bellwether of women’s social advances, soccer either precedes them or supports them. In 1894, Nettie Honeyball founded the British Ladies Football Club, which played vigorous and popular games throughout Great Britain. They used the men’s association fields and often had crowds topping 45,000, larger than the men’s teams were mustering. As Honeyball said, "I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured. I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most." Clearly, she saw the link between soccer and women’s rights. Her philosophy of the intertwining of sports and women’s rights soon got vindication — only negatively. Citing that women playing the game was “unseemly,” the Football Association in 1921 forbid women’s teams to use the men’s fields, a ban that lasted 50 years. Nevertheless, there has been a women’s season of soccer in Great Britain every year since 1894 to the present. And the political status of women has steadily improved.             

The international community was slower in accepting women in the sport, only sanctioning Olympic participation in 1996. Women’s basketball, on the other hand, found a strong supportive home in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which not only recognized women’s participation in the contests, but set up the first international competition in 1953 — which has continued every four years since. The Olympics added women’s basketball to the games in 1976. Women’s soccer had to struggle a bit more to gain the sanctioning of the world’s soccer association, FIFA. Non-FIFA leagues existed in the 1960s, formed by women in countries such as England, Germany, Mexico and India. Despite the restrictive regulations unsympathetic to women, teams flourished using rugby grounds when soccer pitches were prohibited to them. Germany, Brazil, France and England all had long stretches where they banned women’s soccer in their countries. Nevertheless, women persevered, circumventing the restrictions through creative choices in where they played and how they organized. In 1970, the first World Cup was played in Italy, as Denmark defeated Italy, 2-0. The second was in 1971 in front of 100,000 fans in Mexico between Denmark (3) and Mexico (0). Amazingly, although FIFA likes to brag about the 90,800 who attended the Women’s World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in 1999 as the largest audience for a women’s sporting event, they were nearly 10,000 off the mark. Interestingly, FIFA did sponsor a contest in April 1971 between France and The Netherlands in front of only 1,500 fans. FIFA celebrated this event in 2011 as the 40th anniversary of women’s international competition, touting its amazing growth during those years, even though that anniversary isn’t even remotely correct in the real world of women’s international soccer.             

In other areas of the game, soccer has been a leader concerning women. FIFA certification to referee is not gender-specific, although few women have been called up to officiate at men’s games. The first women referees in the MLS began in 1998, in 2004 a woman oversaw a men’s World Cup qualifier, and women now routinely get the call to ref at level two of men’s professional leagues in Europe. FIFA’s rules require that anyone wanting to be certified to officiate at international games must first do so at the highest level in their own country. In the U.S., that meant the MLS, but as women have developed stronger, more stable professional leagues, female refs can get their experience there. In all cases, FIFA referees must retire at age 45 and few referees make a living at their craft. Think about that the next time you scream at a referee — he or she is most likely doing the job out of love for the sport, while surrounded by multi-millionaire players. In other male-dominated sports, women have not made headway as much as they have in soccer. During the 2012 NFL referee lock-out, Shannon Eastin, who has officiated minor league football games, got called up to be a line judge. Once the lock-out was resolved, Eastin got booted. In 1997, the NBA allowed Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner to ref games, but only Palmer still does. In the MLB, one woman, Bernice Gera, has called a Class A game in 1972 but she had to sue the league for the opportunity. She was followed by Pam Postema, who umpired spring training games beginning in 1989, although she was eventually fired. Ria Cortesio also umpired exhibition games in 2007. That same year, she was denied further promotion and was released by MLB. In fact, in the U.S., only 10 women officiate at men’s professional sports games. At one time, there were three women officials in the MLS, but all have retired.             

The final frontier for women in a men’s world would be coaching, and this week Clermont Foot, a second tier club in France, hired Helena Costas to take the reigns as manager at the end of the season. Costas has been the coach of the women’s national teams in Qatar and Iran, so she has plenty of experience surviving in male-dominated cultures. She recently stated, “I opened a door today and more women will walk through on my back.” Besides coaching, she has served as a scout for the Scottish men’s club Celtic and, for 13 years, has been the manager of one of Portugal’s Benfica boys’ teams. Claude Michy, the president of Clermont Foot, has been surprised by the interest in Costa’s hiring, because “in the world there are lots of women in important positions…But because it’s football — something global and still rather conservative…it creates a media earthquake.” Fabien Farnolle, a goalkeeper on the team, said, “On a personal note, I feel everything that goes in the direction of progress — away from discrimination against race, gender or religion — is positive.” Hopefully more clubs will share in that opinion. Looking just at France, there are few women agents, and no female club presidents or head coaches. Costa breaks this barrier with a strong soccer history, including her 13 years with Benfica, directing the Qatar and Iran Women’s National Teams, and as a holder of the UEFA Pro License, the highest level available to European soccer coaches. Being a woman wasn’t a significant factor in her hiring, although it was a factor. The front office was looking for a top-level experienced coach who could bring some excitement to a team that is overshadowed by rugby in their town. Her gender adds some spark, but her credentials insure the promise of success.       

The strength of women’s soccer needs to be matched by the strength of women in soccer. While the U.S. has one of the most powerful programs in the world, that has not transferred over in terms of coaching, officiating, scouting and ownership with men’s teams. There is no social law that requires men and women to crossover in terms of power, but given that the opportunities for advancement, monetary compensation and exposure give the edge to the men, it would be wonderful to see those prospects shared equally. Even the female referees argue that having experience with both men’s and women’s games improves their skills. Considered one of the best, most experienced soccer referees in the world without regard to gender, Karen Seitz argues that men need to work women’s games and women need to work men’s games to get the most accumulated knowledge of the craft. Sandy Hunt, who retired several years ago and works as a referee assessor, sees her impact as a woman in a predominately male profession in universal terms. “When you’re the only one doing it, you’re holding the door open for the other women who want a chance. All I want to do is advance the ball. I don’t feel I need to score a goal. If I can just keep my foot in the door and do a solid job, people — men or women, maybe of color, minorities or whatever — should get just as fair a chance.” This responsibility of the sport to promote cutting edge policies not only helps soccer advance, but also opens doors for far-ranging participants in the sport. The more we pursue these advanced programs, the more we ensure equality and strength in the game.

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The Power of Hate

Susan Boyd

News exploded with the fireworks of bigotry last week. Somehow, the recorded private conversation of wealthy landlord Donald Sterling with his 49-years-younger mistress got released to the media, revealing some very distasteful, ugly and intolerant vitriol. I don’t know if it was the salacious nature of the primary actors’ relationship, the wealth of the bigot, the fact he owns the L.A. Clippers, or the actual atrocious dialog that earned it world-wide attention, but attention it got. I have a theory. Very few were surprised by Sterling’s prejudice, but it had been ignored for years. These tapes, revealed in the middle of the NBA playoffs — when teams earn the bulk of their income — jeopardized the economy of the league. Players were threatening to boycott the games, sponsors were pulling their money, and fans were protesting. Adam Silver, the first-year NBA Commissioner, had no choice given two facts: Sterling admitted the tapes were authentic and the financial bleeding needed a tourniquet. He issued a quick, decisive response banning Donald Sterling for life and urging the other team owners to vote that he divest himself of the team. Of course, selling his team will make him a tidy profit of $580 to $780 million minus the $2.5 million fine he has to pay for his remarks. So the pain of his ban will be mitigated by his expanding bank account.               

This underbelly of bigotry that exists in our society is often overlooked, denied or excused. I would argue those who ignore it are just as complicit as those who speak it. And when both actors have the power to not just exercise free speech but to use that speech to put into place policies that suppress the rights, progress and freedoms of others based on their race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, then bigotry morphs into real racism (or any of the other appropriate –isms). Merriam-Webster defines it as poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race, a definition which goes beyond just thinking people of another race are inferior to your own. Donald Sterling has power to put his viewpoints into practice, which he has shown over the last eight years. In 2006, he was sued for discriminatory housing practices in his rental properties and settled in 2007 by paying out $2.77 million in fines. This was public record and reported in the news, so the NBA can’t say they didn’t know with whom they were dealing. In 2006, ESPN reporter Bomani Jones wrote an article titled, “Donald Sterling’s Racism Should Be News.” Jones’ point was that people focus on the wrong thing. While the opinions Sterling expressed are repugnant, they are merely opinions, which is probably why everyone turned a deaf ear. However, Jones stressed that Sterling has the power to put his opinions into action. He has been in a position to deny decent housing to Blacks, Latinos and families with children. The power to block housing for minority families prevents them from living in neighborhoods with good schools, safety and pride. Forced to take lesser options, these families are held back from opportunities in which they have the economic ability, but not the freedom, to enjoy. The old argument of “there goes the neighborhood” taints the efforts of families to improve their circumstances, and Donald Sterling has the power to insure that continues.              

By brushing aside Sterling as merely a socially ignorant man, the NBA also allowed Sterling to exercise his bigoted power in the league. Evidence that his policies hurt people associated with the team can be found in the number of staff that quit, unable to work under his vitriolic points of view, the players who operated under a cloud of prejudice and disrespect, and in Elgin Baylor, the 22-year general manager of the Clippers, who filed suit in 2009 against Sterling for discrimination and wrongful termination on the basis of age and race. He lost the case in 2011. The racial discrimination portion of the case was dropped prior to it going to court. Nevertheless, Baylor said during the trial that Sterling embraced "a Southern plantation-type structure" (supported by Sterling’s own words in the tapes – “I support [the players] and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses.” — a stance slave owners took to show their “benevolence”). Allegations of racism were levied against Sterling in the trial, many involving former Clippers players. Putting it all in context, there are certain conclusions that can be drawn. In 2008-09, the team went 19-63, so Sterling’s team was no threat to the economics of the NBA. There was no reason to act. As long as everything that happened within the league was quiet and unobtrusive, the NBA wouldn’t rock the boat. However, the “morals clause” of Article 35(A), titled, “Misconduct of Persons other than Players” subsection (d) allows the Commissioner to suspend or fine an owner for being found guilty of conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA existed then as did Sterling’s overt and verbal racism. The only thing that has changed is that this recent audio revelation comes during the playoffs, when teams make the bulk of their income, and sponsors were pulling out rapidly. “Doing the right thing” was probably as much driven by economics as by honor. That makes the NBA a partner in how the offensive behaviors grew and ultimately exploded. Had they put Donald Sterling’s feet to the fire in 2007, his behavior would have been addressed without possibly the grave consequences both for the league and for Sterling that ensued last week. Even more importantly, the league would have taken a strong public stance against racism expressed both inside and outside the NBA — showing that intolerance would never be tolerated. That message would have been far more powerful than anything implemented recently when, frankly, the commissioner really had no other choice. Rather than an act of standing up against racism, this was more an act of bending to pressure.               

For our children, I’m happy that justice was meted out to this man for his attitudes that reflect badly on the sport he represents. Our kids need to see that in this era of quick, knee-jerk Twitter, Instagram and Facebook comments, words have the power to hurt and the power to destroy. Kids who express hate-filled language need to experience consequences just as they would for physical actions. People who recite, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” as a deflection from their actions have probably never experienced the unrelenting barrage of prejudice that so many of our young people endure day in and day out, targeting their race, religion, appearance, sexual preferences, disabilities and even gender. Like verbal water torture, the constant drip, drip, drip of words pierce our children’s self-esteem, sense of safety and happiness. Unfortunately, unless a kid snaps and uses a real weapon to heap physical retaliation on the word warriors, this problem gets little attention.              

My sons are African-American and Hispanic. They constantly face some type of prejudice or disrespect for their race. It can be as subtle as being ignored when in line to pay for something or as overt as hate language spewed at them. Something as simple as marking their race in official forms can’t be completed because, although being born to an African-American father and a Latina mother, there is no box for 50/50, an insult to their pride in being representative of two minorities. In middle school, Robbie was subjected to a daily rant on his bus ride to and from school from a kid calling him every hateful racial slur in the book. This went on for more than a year despite repeated complaints to the principal. One day, in the locker room after his physical education class, this kid’s shoe was resting in front of Robbie, so he asked him to give it to him with the phrase, “Hey N…., give me my shoe.” Robbie obliged by throwing it at him and they ended up wrestling on the locker room floor. For this episode, Robbie got suspended for two days and the kid got no punishment. In a conversation with the principal, he explained that Robbie started it by throwing the shoe, and that “I love black people. I have black friends. This has nothing to do with Robbie being black.” Only he was wrong. It had everything to do with Robbie’s race and with this kid’s unfettered autonomy to constantly denigrate Robbie’s race. I never advocate physical retaliation, but I also don’t condone tacitly supporting hate speech by ignoring it. Both boys deserved suspensions.            

On the field, our sons have been verbally assaulted by players using the boys’ race as a way to provoke them. We have always told the boys that people love to latch onto what they perceive to be the warts of others, so our sons can’t use race as an excuse for failure. Still, suffering the racial barbs flung at them, rarely as Nietzsche would argue, make them stronger. It’s just a beat down on their psychological well-being. Hate language is too often the armor with which people enter the battle of life, hoping to deflect criticism from themselves by dishing it out first. What really gets my blood boiling is not just that players and fans use bigotry to make a point, but that they aren’t called out for it. Those of us not directly affected by that type of language don’t have the empathy to understand how overwhelmingly defeating it can be. Imagine that someone angrily and publicly belittles you for something in your appearance. If you woke up every morning knowing you were going to regularly hear “What a fat cow you are,” “Hey big nose,” or “No one can see you, you little shrimp,” you’d cringe going out in public. Language can wound us deeply.           

While I’m glad Donald Sterling got caught and reprimanded for his opinions, parents need to understand that his behavior is only the tiniest sliver of the tip of a giant iceberg. If we just focus on professional sports, here’s a taste of what has happened in the recent past. During a game last week between Villarreal and Barcelona, the latter’s Brazilian defender, Dani Alves, who is black, got pelted by a banana thrown by a Villarreal youth club coach. Wayne Simmonds, an African-American player for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, also had a banana thrown at him during a game in London, Ontario and during the 2012 lockout when NHL players went to Europe to play he had racial taunts aimed at him by fans in the Czech Republic. Jonathan Martin resigned from the Miami Dolphins after an unrelenting harassment of racially charged texts from teammate Richie Incognito. The fan club of the Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) soccer team has demanded that there be no black or gay players on the team while disturbingly the managers remain silent in rebuking their requests.             

When it comes to our children, prejudice in the hands of powerful people can have similar effects on a smaller scale. If bigoted coaches won’t give players field time, or silently tolerate prejudicially charged comments from teammates, opponents and parents, or express prejudice themselves, they have the power to take away the dreams and joy of players. They also condone an environment where our children believe hate language to be acceptable. As parents who don’t want our children to be either victims or abusers, we need to call the purveyors of hate talk to task. Robbie’s college soccer coach was eventually fired for his continued racial slurs, but it took months of documentation, protest and several players quitting the team, including Robbie, before the athletic director took action. Even then, the school argued that his firing was for NCAA violations and not for his hate speech. Why are we so afraid to confront prejudice and to punish those in positions of power who exercise it? While every accused person deserves a fair chance to defend themselves against charges of discrimination, that moment of defense should come with the first complaints, not months or even years later. And every charge should be investigated and taken seriously.          

The positive of the Sterling incident is that it forced a public discussion about prejudice. I know plenty of bigots, and I do my best to address their opinions. But anyone who has the power to act on their bigotry carries a bigger, scarier stick. The very definition of a racist is someone who has the power to subjugate another due to their race. Donald Sterling fits that description and actually has used his intolerance as a weapon. But I would also argue that the NBA likewise borders on racism by tolerating his behavior for at least eight years and quietly sweeping it under the carpet. They allowed Sterling to exercise his viewpoint in the running of his team and to represent the NBA in his public dealings. If nothing else, by speaking up, parents will show our children how to handle bigotry. That’s the lesson I hope comes from this event — when we tolerate hate speech we empower the speaker.

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Keeping the Lid on Costs

Susan Boyd

Recently, my oldest son announced he needed new cleats. As he put it: “Nothing special. Certainly, not top of the line. I just need cleats that don’t rip apart.” He said this right before he informed me cleats fitting those three categories apparently cost $220 to $270. Yeah, right. When I went online and looked, I discovered plenty of cleats in the $70 to $150 range, so I wondered how the ones he touted weren’t “top of the line.” He had no response other than to say he needed the right weight and durability and, of course, the right colors. I had run into the technology wall. Soccer equipment, which used to be serviceable boots and something round to kick, has now moved into the realm of super-scientifically designed gear. Cleats have become an impressive selection of incredibly lightweight, colorful, streamlined and transitory purchases. New car models have nothing on new shoe models. How do parents fight our children’s urge to gravitate to the shiniest and therefore most expensive baubles in the soccer shop?              

Sports products are driven by the professional athletes in the sport. Whatever high-end equipment the superstars use immediately floods the stores, fulfilling the dreams of thousands of youth fans. If Ronaldo runs faster in 3-ounce shoes, then every kid believes he or she will also run faster. Boots in radiant color schemes that light up the pitch in a UEFA Champions League game continue their siren call from the shelves of the local soccer shop. Soccer balls that promise straighter passes and elegant bends serve up rapid sales. Team jerseys, practice shirts, and warm-ups run two to five times the cost of regular soccer clothing. Throw in scarves, pennants, posters, t-shirts, and training DVDS and books to create a black hole of expense for the soccer family. Finding the happy medium can prove elusive, especially when one kid on the team shows up in the most expensive cleats. Just like we all stop and gape as a bright yellow Lamborghini purrs by, kids do the same for top-of-the-line soccer gear. We end up not only trying to keep up with the Joneses, but also with the junior Messis, Wambachs, Beckhams and Drogbas. We are fighting a tide of trendiness.              

First of all, very few players need specialized gear other than for the cool factor. While light-weight cleats are great for giving an extra split-second of speed, they also offer less foot stability and support. Youth players with their developing bones and muscles don’t have the physical strengths to make effective, safe use of such specifically designed gear. While they may have faster feet, they may also end up with Achilles’ tendon strains, ankle sprains, calf and shin cramps, and arch collapses due to inappropriate equipment for their developmental level. The damage can extend to other joints, especially knees, as the body tries to compensate for inadequate support at foot level. Luckily the major companies, such as Nike and adidas, have recognized the twinkling lure of the professional gear and create various levels of the same gear with slight exterior design tweaks on the proper “chassis” for a child’s feet. Kids will recognize the design differences, but when parents appear willing to spring for a less fancy model that at least mimics the higher-end prototype, they will often be happy to concur. Ask at the soccer shop or run a search online for these kid and budget friendlier products. Ultimately cost and safety should take the front seat in making your selection. Discuss with your kids the possibility that injuries, even soccer ending injuries, could result from making the wrong choice of cleats. Most kids will understand and happily accept a small change in design to get a pair of the cooler cleats rather than the pragmatic basic black brand.             

The older the player, the tougher that argument is to win. The good news is that teen players usually have stopped growing, or at least growing rapidly, so that a pair of shoes can fit one or two seasons. Your budget may allow for a more expensive model but not for all the sparkling options that assault players entering the soccer or sports store. You can put the responsibility on your child. Offer the mid-priced option, but agree that if your child wants to spring for the difference in price between that and the top-of-the-line model, then that would be a possibility. I found my sons, when faced with that choice, let me pay for the mid-price and kept their money. Coolness had a price they let me sacrifice for, but not themselves. Older players also can work to earn some of these treats. State Associations are always looking for referees. The flexibility of officiating games when the player’s schedule allows makes this a great job for soccer kids. Many clubs will pay their players to mow and line fields, run concession stands and clean public areas, including bathrooms. Again, these jobs offer some flexibility. Getting a job with a store like Sports Authority not only provides a pay check, but also gives the employee a steep discount on store merchandise. So that’s a great way for a player to stock up on the elite equipment they crave.             

Team jerseys rarely come with a discount. They can cost $120 to $200. This is the time to alert grandparents to the wish list. They can purchase gift certificates to major distributors and online soccer sites for special occasions like birthdays and graduations. There are off-brand replica possibilities for several teams, but rarely for Premier League teams and players. Online auction sites might offer jerseys, albeit discontinued styles, for a bargain. The same holds true for warm-ups. These specialized jerseys shouldn’t be impulse buys. Also consider less expensive official team training jerseys. They aren’t as fancy but come in all the team colors and designs. They can run as low as $50, a much more palatable price for a young family. Saving these purchases, which aren’t necessary to play the game, for significant moments will make them more meaningful and let our kids know that focusing on their development is the important point of spending money. However, I will agree that kids find validation in their sports’ choices by identifying with particular teams and players. Since soccer’s popularity is still evolving in America, finding those factors that make a kid feel proud are important. The cheapest way to do that is by supporting them at their games, attending high school, college and professional games as a family, and watching games on TV. Creating the bonds between parent and child also creates the pride in the sport and the child’s participation in the sport.          

Soccer balls make me crazy. First of all, hundreds of thousands of skillful players grew up kicking a can, a melon, a threadbare ball or a piece of wood. So paying over $50 for any soccer ball seems ridiculously extravagant. Then I’ll ask you how many soccer balls your child has lost over the years? I bought a 2006 World Cup ball for nearly $200 for my boys with strict orders it was not to be used for practice. One week later it was lost in the canal behind the Marquette University fields because they brought it to US Youth Soccer ODP practice. UGH! Unless you are in the business of collecting sports memorabilia, there’s no need for such fancy expensive balls. I have found great balls for $3 at Goodwill and kept a huge supply in the trunk for practices and games. Often these balls were selected as the game ball because they were actually quite good. Invest in two good pumps — one for the garage and one for the trunk — and then three or four inexpensive balls. Kids can claim a fancy ball, but when it comes down to it, balls become communal once they hit the pitch, so there’s no need to help a teammate go home with your expensive treasure. Occasionally, high schools and colleges may sell or give away their old balls, so that’s worth a phone call to the appropriate athletic directors.      

Today, I’m addressing the issue of my son’s shoes the way I always have. I set a budget and if he wants to go over it, then that’s up to him. I did the research, and, for half the price, I found the same shoes just a half ounce heavier with a slightly different color scheme. He’s trying to save for a car and the insurance to cover it, so having flashy cleats will steal away from having a serviceable car. We’ll see what he opts to do. When all else fails, I return to the speech he hates, but knows is true. I put 10 pennies on the table which each represent $100. Then we look at choices he has to make every day with his limited budget. It’s a tangible representation of the budget none of us want to acknowledge constrains us. A lot of pennies skittered off to the side for rent, car payment, car insurance and food — leaving just one to represent anything vaguely “disposable income,” a term I scoff at. I feel like all we do in the year is dispose of our income and rarely for something fun and extra. That remaining penny also had to cover any emergency and any savings. Looking at the pile of pennies at first seems comforting and sufficient; pulling them out one by one shows how transient his finances actually are. He hates the penny demo, but he also appreciates how it reminds him to stay focused on what is really important. I’m hoping cleats with the coolest gradations of orange are less important in the grand scheme of things.

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