Youth, Sports, and the Missing Adults

gymnast scoreboard-1My girls started playing soccer when they were five years old. My only goal for them was to have some easy fun.

As the years flew by, volleyball and basketball were thrown into the mix. The purpose of their participation in sports expanded. It involved lessons in commitment, triumph over adversity, experience in losing gracefully and winning humbly. They improved their skills, knowing that the team depended on them playing their best.

At no time then or now did I think a lesson learned should or would be that some adults are horrible. I am currently rethinking this.

Over one hundred and fifty women, mostly gymnasts, testified during the sentencing portion of Larry Nassar’s trial. Here was a respected doctor, one who could fix their broken backs, their pulled muscles, their sprained wrists and ankles. He could also molest them, over and over and over again and get away with it for more than thirty years.

From Vox: “As in other recent sexual abuse scandals (involving retired football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State and within the Catholic Church, among others), a big question is what the institutions involved knew and when they knew it.”

Accept this truth in a nutshell and then read the entire Vox article: many grown-ups, including persons operating or working for the USA Gymnastics organization, KNEW.

Like the former Penn State criminals and all the Catholic bishops and cardinals who moved pedophile priests around like chess pieces, these men had ample time and opportunity to see, learn, and/or hear about abuse taking place to stop it in its tracks.

They didn’t.

College football? Big business. USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic committee, the Catholic church – all large organizations with bank accounts that depend on a reputation of success. Now throw Michigan State into the mix. Children be damned.

What the hell is wrong with these people? Larry Nassar is going to jail for the rest of his life. Jerry Sandusky will die in prison. But punishment doesn’t remove the pain inflicted on the victims. But, but, but … there were games to be won, gold medals to go after, jobs to hang onto, reputations to protect, and wealth to preserve.

Too many adults involved in youth sports do not have the best interests of the players in mind.

AYSO soccer is an organization run mainly by parents and typically remains focused on enriching children’s lives. Their mission statement is thoughtful and carried out on a mostly consistent basis. It costs about a hundred bucks to get your kid signed up and is a non-profit organization. It’s not perfect, but thumbs up for AYSO.

And yet … certain parents in youth sports, including AYSO, can be atrocious. They forget they’re not playing the sport, their children are. I saw a dad ordered off the field during a game involving seven-year-olds. I’ve known moms who’ve thrown their children to the wolves in pursuit of a college scholarship.

There are sixteen-year-old boys with full facial hair playing high school basketball as freshman. Their school’s profile is elevated with NBA prospects. Money, money, money. Club soccer and volleyball, once reserved only for players with elevated skills, now dilutes the system by accepting checks from families whose children are average athletes, promising “development” and then forgetting to get the child off the bench. Money, money, money.

Now, like Penn State, Michigan State’s reputation will and should be tarnished. Nassar had worked there for years and though it’s not clear who knew what and when, a history of sexual assault allegations within the university’s football and basketball programs is now being revealed. But before he submitted his resignation last week, MSU’s athletic director, Mark Hollis, was considered one of the best in the country. Why? From the New York Times, January 26: “… annual department revenue jumped to $123 million from $81 million.” Money, money, money.

Middle school, high school, college—the Ivy League included—are all guilty on some level of putting their interests, whether it be reputation, finances, or both, before what’s best for the child, the teenager, the young adult. IT HAS TO STOP.

When you’re done laughing, I hope you’ll read on.

Grown-ups, be they coaches, administrators, trainers, doctors, or misguided parents, must be held accountable for actions detrimental to the well being of youth athletes. Sexual abuse is a no-brainer and the perpetrators and enablers should all rot in hell.

But parents who fear reprisal for speaking on behalf of their child suffering from verbal abuse or other inappropriate behavior that stymies the growth of the student as a human being must consider the bigger picture. What purpose does silence serve?

Go back to when your child first started playing sports. Why did you go to the park that Saturday in August and get little William signed up? Was it partly to have your child understand as early as possible that some adults are assholes? I don’t ever remember thinking that. Were you already anticipating college scholarships and the NFL? I know my main job when the girls were young was to keep them safe from harm. Has that changed? Define harm. Are we allowing our children to fight their own battles in situations for which they don’t yet have the necessary equipment? Are we at fault? Are we sticking our noses up the buttholes of coaches, athletic directors, college scouts, national organizations, et al. in pursuit of what we think is best for our children, or for what’s best and/or easiest for us? Are we scared? And if so, of what? Retribution? Is that why we stay silent? How’s that working out?

Tell a dozen of Larry Nassar’s victims that silence is reasonable. We’re more comfortable not getting involved. But are we? Is that how grown-ups are supposed to behave? Do we feel good at the end of the day, at the end of the game, at the end of the season? Was it worth it? Despite the gold medals, I’m pretty sure Aly Raisman would say “no.”

So yeah, I have a lot of questions and few answers. Our country (the world?) has set up a system with youth and sports where the end justifies the means. Except mostly, the end—the college commitment, the gold medal, the first-round draft pick—doesn’t materialize. The percentage of young athletes that continue to play and succeed beyond high school is miniscule. Even then, the average NFL career is three seasons.

A trendy new word in education these past years has been “mindfulness.” I think it’s just a fancy way to say “focus on the now.” It’s important to set goals and there’s nothing wrong with thinking about the future. But if the price society is willing to pay for athletic success is the well being of our children as they’re developing, I think it best we consider mindfulness instead and redefine the objective.

I want my daughters to become thoughtful, brave adults. That’s easier to achieve if they witness integrity and acts of courage on a regular basis, not just in sports but in every aspect of their day. Oh my, there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m going to have a cup of coffee first.


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  1. Mare says

    You’re such a good writer! Such a heavy topic and so much to learn. Keep the conversation going. The most important question in this blog piece “what purpose does silence serve?” Thank you for the reminder.

    • Mary Anne says

      Bravo! I agree with Mare. What purpose does silence serve? We had a family table discussion this weekend about secrets. It stemmed from a debate in my son’s theology class. His stance was that the only reason to keep a secret (other than the infrequent surprise party or gift) was to hide something that at best might be hurtful and at worst truly evil. This is my kid who his whole life felt he needed to point out when the emperor is naked. I am embarrassed to say how many times I have told him that sometimes you just need to get along, don’t always rock the boat or make waves. I am going to work on being a thoughtful brave adult too.

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