Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2001/ 17 Elul, 5761

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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If there is no honor in youth sports, it is because of the adults -- DANNY ALMONTE, the Bronx superstar of Little League is 14 years old, and he has been a dozen plus 2 while competing in a sport that puts the upper age limit at 12. The ringer truant, who has not been to school in a year, played America's sport all the way to the championship. Apparently the adults were not crackerjack observers. There was the Jolly Green Giant playing ball with chubby sixth graders and the obvious age disparity flew by the adults as quickly as Master Almonte's 70 mph pitches.

Everyone frets over explaining this cheating to the lads of Little League. Relax. Kids are used to bizarre adult behavior in sports. In 2000, Thomas Junta, a Massachusetts father, beat another father to death after their sons' hockey practice. A Hollywood, Florida coach broke an umpire's jaw over a call. The YMCA distributes a code of ethics for parents at the start of each season. The Josephson Institute is making bank with its program, "Pursuing Victory with Honor," complete with a code of ethics for coaches.

While vox populi has it that video games and Woody Harrelson movies spawned the Columbine killers, a more likely theory is that these young men went south after witnessing their parents' behavior at their soccer meets. Don't let the green socks and collegiate look fool you; soccer is deadly when it comes to sportsmanship.

There is no better entertainment for dollars invested in the shoes than youth sports. Four-year-olds playing baseball and basketball is like watching the Phoenix area trying to build a football stadium. Lack of experience and information provide faux pas after faux pas. A good baseball coach is one whose team members know that you run to first base, not third, when you get a hit. A stellar basketball coach is one whose team understands the complexities of switching baskets at half time.

But the adults continue to drive, literally and figuratively, their children to participate in sports because, they say, sports build character. Sports really do very little in that regard. Children are taught to take turns and share. Then we put them on the basketball court and tell them to steal the ball, be possessive and generally interfere with others' play.

Last year I watched a five-year old frustrated by an effective 42" guard with perpetual arms. This youngster stopped and shouted, "Do you mind? I am trying to make a basket here." Then he turned to ask his parents to intervene to halt this nasty practice of guarding. The father restrained the mother who was inclined to step in to create a kindler, gentler sport.

Most adults miss these charming moments because they stand along the sidelines yelling at their sons (there is a gender gap for little girls do not suffer through parental Knute Rocknes) to "get into the game." These children are miffed about missing Space Ghost and their parents are delusional about their NBA futures.

If there is no honor in youth sports it is because of the adults. There is a sports lottery culture. Parents, duped by the salaries of a Rodriguez and the endorsement fees of Mark McGwire, believe their children are their tickets to fame and fortune, although fortune, like the lottery, is the primary goal. The names Dennis Rodman or Daryl Strawberry never occur to them. Parents who haven't a clue about their child's reading ability or performance in school push mightily for sports achievement and never miss a game. These intense adults project life's frustrations onto that field. Kids are pushed, rules are bent and everyone learns rage, bullying and cheating.

As I left one basketball game in a Y league I will not permit my sons to participate in again, I walked alongside 3 boys who appeared to be 12 (truly) engaged in a swearing fest over their loss. I felt a need to boil my ears afterward. One kicked over a garbage can, denting it and strewing trash everywhere. He was the same young man who had been removed from the game for a brutish slam to the ribs of another player while his parents watched and then objected to his ouster. I dragged him back by the shirtsleeve to pick up the can and the trash. He threatened litigation. I gave him my card.

Everyone has expressed their disgust over the cheating adults in the Almonte case. Why is anyone who has been involved in youth sports surprised? There is only the new twist of importation of Little League players from other countries.

They miss the most troubling aspect of this case. Once the team and coach knew their pitcher was not as youthful as they believed, they waited for a decision on their fate and ranking in the Little League World Series. If sports build character, they should have voluntarily done what the Little League execs imposed. They should have relinquished their wins and withdrawn with honor. I'd be willing to bet the adults wouldn't let them.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings