Youth sports: Less violence, more offerings

by Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel - TAKING NAMES
2:50 p.m. EDT, July 27, 2013

Last weekend, things turned ugly at the happiest place on earth.

A soccer tournament at Disney's Wide World of Sports ended with a near-riot among teenage players and their parents.

One teen went to the hospital with a concussion. Someone slugged a grandfather in the chest, disrupting his pacemaker. Parents looked on as kids kicked a downed goalie in the head teams said the scene "while unacceptable, is understandable."

On what planet?

Unsportsmanlike conduct has become a disturbing norm, thanks to a win-at-any-cost mentality, parents who act more immature than their kids — and fewer sports offerings at public schools, where we see less of this behavior.

Don't just take it from me. Take it from David Holbrook, a top-notch baseball coach here in Orlando who coaches in both school and club leagues.

As soon as Holbrook heard about last weekend's brawl, he knew it was a private travel team. "These were high-school-aged kids whose parents would have never acted this way at a high-school game," he said.

There are several reasons for that.

For one, parents who pay for upper-echelon leagues sometimes get ticked when they don't see the success they think they purchased.

But school sports can also better discipline their athletes — often because they have a better toolbox of consequences at their disposal, including everything from suspension to expulsion.

"The question is: 'What are the consequences?'" said Roger Dearing, executive director of Florida High School Athletic Association. "Schools have a lot of them they can dish out. And most of them do a good job of it."

Unfortunately, school-sports offerings are a shadow of what they used to be for kids who are coming of age — specifically in middle school.

When I was growing up, sports were a key part of junior high. I played football. I swam.

Today, middle-schoolers can do neither — unless they go to a private club.

In fact, most middle schools in Florida offer only a scattering of sports. Orange, for instance, offers just four sports, nine weeks at a time. Last year, Seminole offered only three.

The demand is so great that you sometimes have 100 kids trying out for 10 spots.

And that's a shame, because sports can be a great part of kids' lives.

Study after study shows that kids who participate in sports have better grades, are more plugged into their communities and generally have a better sense of something bigger than themselves.

It's the same way with arts and music.

A well-rounded curriculum makes for well-rounded humans.

But we don't do well-rounded like we used to — especially in Florida. Partly because of budget cuts. And partly because we're obsessed with standardized testing at the expense of everything else.

Many parents find ways to enlist their kids in sports that aren't offered at school. That's what my wife and I do. And we've experienced some awesome coaches and well-run leagues.

But you know what? My wife and I can afford to do this. Not just because we have the money, but because we have the time to drive them all over tarnation for practices, games and more.

Many families can't.

And we are reaping the consequences. We cut sports offerings and then wonder why kids today are inactive, obese and undisciplined.

Fortunately, we are beginning to wake up.

Seminole County, for instance, is bringing basketball back to middle schools this year after a decade-long hiatus. And Dearing said his association is working to bring more sports to middle schools across the state.

Still, the politicians aren't helping. (They rarely do.)

Not only have state legislators long underfunded schools, prompting skimpy athletic offerings, there's a growing political effort to neuter the High School Athletic Association.

Some of that is done under the brain-dead mantra of "de-regulation." We don't need no stinking top-down rules running our sports.

No, you don't. Not if you don't mind melees like we saw at Disney last weekend.

Don't get me wrong. Club sports can be a great thing. Holbrook, who's a friend and neighbor of mine, has long coached at both schools (Bishop Moore and Boone High School) and in club leagues because he loves the kids, the game and the way clubs offer various levels of skill and competition.

Still, Holbrook said that, with travel leagues, you always know that, "at the top of the food chain is a business. And when you take away the school element, many of these kids are no longer playing for a team, they're playing for themselves."

We need to talk more about curbing violence in youth sports — starting with the idiot parents. In the real world, you go to jail if you assault someone. That shouldn't change just because you're standing on a sideline.

But we also need to get back to the days where sports offerings — the kind with firm rules, inspiring coaches and which teaches teamwork — are standard and plentiful in our middle schools.

All kids deserve that chance. And, frankly, a lot of them need it.

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