Every week I read several soccer-related news outlets such as the USSF website, Soccer America, College Soccer News and Soccer Times. These sources give out information on the various youth and adult national teams, college rankings, soccer stories and various soccer matters. However, many of the more interesting youth sports stories come from the general news media. This week seemed to deliver a more than usual number of stories that impact those of us with youth players. The issues raised by this week’s reports cover a wide-spectrum of provocative topics which highlight fascinating ideas affecting youth sports. So this week I decided to look briefly at each of these stories giving you readers a taste of the discussions out there.
Last week, it was reported that Peter Edwards in Wales had made a £50 bet with a bookmaker 16 years ago that his grandson, Harry Wilson, who was 18 months old at the time, would not only grow up to be a proficient soccer player, but would actually play on the Wales National Team. When Harry entered as a substitute in a National Team game last Tuesday against Belgium, Peter collected £125,000 (just over $200,000). True, Wales is a country of only three million and only 360,000 of those are 18-24 years old, meaning Harry was one of approximately 180,000 men a year available to be drafted by the National Team. That translates into Peter Edwards having a 1/180,000 chance that his grandson would be a playing member of the Wales National Team, odds that would prompt me to place a bet and further indicate that the bookmaker might have been a bit hasty in taking the bet. Nevertheless, I’m wondering how many parents and grandparents might seek out a Vegas odds maker to lay down a bet on their budding soccer player on the off chance that the tens of thousands of dollars we lay out for our kids to develop into competent athletes might be covered at the end with a well-placed bet. The expenses will certainly never be covered by any scholarship to college or mega-million dollar contract with a USL, MISL or MSL team. We ostensibly lay a bet every day when we write a check to our clubs for that year’s training, or pay for summer soccer camps, or fill-up the car for another trip out of state which will never result in a monetary pay-out. In fact, statistics clearly show that if we invested the money we spend on youth sports in a college fund instead, most of our children would be able to afford an Ivy League education without borrowing a penny! But we make the investment in their sport because they love to play and it gives the family an activity in which everyone participates. We get to cheer our children on, possibly see a bit of the world in the process, and end up with the satisfaction that we all "win" even if we don’t see the results on our bank’s balance sheet. Priceless.
Texas has become the symbol for Friday night high school football. They love their teams there, and most towns support the teams with a fervor not borne of a personal connection to any player. Families attend football games well before any of their kids hit high school and for years after their kids have gone on to college, marriage and their own families. It’s a tradition that runs as deeply through the psyche of the population as the waters that run through the Rio Grande. So last week when Aledo High School faced Fort Worth’s Western Hills High School, football fever was in high gear. So was Aledo High School, which by halftime had piled up 56 unanswered points against Western Hills. To rub further salt in the wounds, Aledo is a town of 2,700 to the west of Fort Worth, a city of nearly 800,000 and the 16th largest city in the United States. It was certainly a classic David vs. Goliath tale. When the final whistle blew, the score was 91-0, the true definition of a beat down. Following the game, a Western Hills parent filed a complaint with the Texas High School Athletic Association alleging that Aledo’s coach was guilty of bullying for allowing and possibly encouraging his team to quash its opponent. This is an interesting concept that a team can bully another team by defeating them so decisively. The Aledo coach, Tim Buchanan, argued that he actually kept the score down by using second and third string players, running out the clock, and not using unusual coaching options to run up the score. Even the Western Hills coach stated that he didn’t feel that Aledo bullied his team. Neither did the athletic association, which dismissed the case.
This all brings up an interesting issue about playing a game that is properly coached with proper team tactics. Robbie’s club team had a similar situation one summer. They were playing a Super-Y league game at noon and then immediately leaving to go play in the US Youth Soccer National Championships. Their opponent for the Super-Y league brought only 12 players (so just one sub) on day that was well over 90 degrees. Robbie’s team took an early and commanding lead, but his coach had a dilemma. If we played a different tactical game to insure the score didn’t get even more lopsided, he risked his team not going to the championship in top form, but continuing to play "tough" against a weak and poorly manned opponent wouldn’t really yield any better preparation for the team. In the end, he opted for employing unusual tactics moving the offense to the defense, requiring that all goals be headers, and ordering that every player have only one touch before passing. Even with these "rules" in place, Robbie’s team eventually won 12-0. The opposing team groused loudly about the bad sportsmanship we showed. The only other alternative was to either call the game early or to have the opponents forfeit the entire game. And that idea was presented to them, which they refused. The Aledo coach had the same reaction, "How do you tell your kids not to play hard?" I tend to agree. We train our players to a certain level of proficiency making it difficult to ask them to revert to bad habits and weak play. Sometimes games just end up lopsided, embarrassing and painful to swallow. Most of our kids, mine included, have been at the humiliating end of that spectrum. I’m not sure if it is character building, but it is a fact of life that sometimes our adversary is really that much better than we are.
We have all heard the taunts from both players and fans that cross the line denigrating racial, religious, social and gender characteristics. Pro players, including all-stars Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah have been fined for using homophobic slurs. Recently, a video went viral of a 7-year-old Jets fan taunting an adult Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan without a single grown-up (and I use the term ironically) putting a stop to his outrageous behavior. As one authority put it, "People shouldn’t become numb to it and tolerate it." And that’s exactly what is beginning to happen. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees all high school sports, has issued a ban on biased language at any game that has officials. They are the first state to do so, but several other states are looking at New Jersey’s policy with the idea of creating their own. The ban is read to all players and coaches by the referees, who carry a laminated card outlining what language will result in immediate removal from the game and a report to the state’s Division on Civil Rights. The same rules are read to fans over the loudspeaker before the opening play and fans are subject to removal from the game and prosecution by the Civil Rights authorities. The issue came to head last Thanksgiving in a game between Paramus Catholic High and Bergen Catholic High when the Bergen fans began taunting Paramus player Jabrill Peppers, who is black, with racial epitaphs and signs such as "Peppers Can’t Read." Fans also wore prison stripes, a clear reference to Peppers’ father who was incarcerated at the time. The Paramus coach, who is white, also came under fire for supporting his black players. The level of disrespect, vulgarity and bigotry had reached a level that people could no longer ignore. My sons are African-American and Hispanic, so they have faced their share of bigoted comments from fans, players and even their own coaches. But the ban extends to all levels of biased language, including religious bigotry and homophobia. The ban is so important that swearing may not land a player in hot water but using the "N" word or calling any player a homophobic name will result in a one game suspension and disciplinary action by the Division of Civil Rights. While New Jersey readily agrees that it can’t legislate an individual into becoming unbiased, the state can insure that public outbursts directed at players as young as 14 won’t be tolerated. As the level of rhetoric at sporting events gets more manageable, perhaps people won’t feel so free to express their own prejudices openly in other venues. Only time will tell.
Addressing this issue of language has been the mission of an organization called Athletes Ally. Much of their focus is on gender and sexually biased language, particularly with Russia’s recent declaration on not allowing gay athletes into Russia for the Winter Olympics, but the organization also seeks to curb racially and religiously biased language against all athletes. In an interesting move, Athletes Ally recently took on the issue of language that maligns women and their athletic abilities including phrases such as "You play like a girl" or "Take a knee, ladies" said to male players as a way to demean their abilities. This type of personification of male players as somehow inherently weak and incapable because they are like "girls" has been a pet peeve of mine for years. Both our daughters were athletes as was I growing up, so I know how hard women work and how capable they are. We only have to look to soccer to see the amazing athletic prowess of women. Our Women’s National Team regularly appears in and wins both World Cup and Olympic championships. Diana Nyad became the first person (not just the first woman) to swim from Cuba to Florida. Dara Torres broke her own 50-meter freestyle record at age 40, which she had set 25 years earlier when she was 15. Oh, did I mention she was just a year past delivering her first child? Female athletes train as long and as hard as any male counterpart. Playing like a girl should be a badge of honor for any competitor.
Across the United States and around the globe, sports can serve as an indicator of our social climate. I find those stories fascinating because they highlight our deepest desires and our basest behaviors. Keep your eyes and ears open because sports isn’t just about scores and statistics. Sports, especially youth sports, can be a barometer by which we measure many of our moral and social issues. Sports can produce some lively discussions that range well beyond the field or the court.