My little boy is seven years old. He is playing baseball in a league of seven to nine year olds. If you want to see both the best and worst of humanity, I invite you to watch a few games of youth baseball in a small southern town.
First the good. Almost without exception, the kids are great. They play with a real joy that is great to watch. They're having fun playing the game, being with their friends, wearing their uniforms, and all the other things that go with baseball. And for little boys (and this league is mostly boys) 7, 8 and 9 is a great age. They are old enough to basically understand the game, but they have yet to be infected with the attitudes of poor sportsmanship shown by many of the adults in their lives. And for a small, southern town that still has its share of racial divisions, it's nice to see white and black kids playing together. It gives me hope for the future.
In short, youth sports would be wonderful except for one thing, the adults. Why do grown men (and sometimes women) seem to invest so much of their self worth in a game played by kids? I have seen grown men yell at umpires. I have watched coaches verbally abusing kids (almost always their own child) to the point I felt sick. A couple of weeks ago I saw two adults almost come to blows over what one said to the other's child about a play on the field. There was an incident in the league below us (5 and 6 year olds, believe it or not) that resulted in the police being called to escort a parent from the area. What in the world is wrong with these people? And why doesn't it seem that more people besides me are appalled?
Look, I'm not one of those namby pamby guys that think we shouldn't even keep score. I think winning and losing and dealing with success and failure are important things for kids to learn about. But do coaches really need to approach every game like it's the World Series? Here is an example: Our league usually doesn't play games on Wednesday evenings because many people in my small southern town have church on Wednesday night. But a few weeks ago one of my son's games scheduled for Tuesday was rained out and the make-up game was scheduled for Wednesday. A kid on the other team played about half the game and then his mother took him to church. When his spot in the batting order came up, our coaches went to the umpire and invoked a rule that if he didn't bat it should count as an out. (In this league every child bats regardless of whether he is playing in the field or not and I guess the rule is to prevent coaches from having the poorer players skip an at bat.) Anyway, the umps enforced the rule and counted an out against the other team. What a wonderful lesson for the kids.
The frightening thing is that despite the incident I just related, we've probably got some of the better coaches in the league. I've seen behavior from some of the other coaches that would have made me take my son off their team. At least our coaches don't yell at the kids too much.
There is a lot of talk about how money has ruined professional sports and I have no doubt that is partially true. But the boorish behavior by professional athletes is due to more than just money. I think it is a symptom of a coarsening of our culture. When little kids witness adults behaving like I just described, is it any surprise that they turn out to be spoiled misbehaving professionals? My little boy loves sports and I want him to keep playing, but I'm going to have to be a lot more involved in seeing what teams he gets on and who his coaches are. Wish me luck.