Thursday, August 27, 2009

Caring Too Much

The premise I write from is that athletics and athletic excellence is worthy of care and connecting with. But as I reflect upon the scandals associated with pre-college and AAU basketball, I realize that like all of life, this virtue can be carried too far. We can care too much about athletics and the often this victimizes our children.

I remember the first time I coached T ball for my kids. Someone would hit the whiffle ball off the T and eight kids would run and squeal towards the ball. Of course no one was guarding first and kids squabbled over who got the ball. It was chaotic and fun mayhem-it had little relation to baseball or softball. You could see the joy in the kids just like you sensed the joy when they first ran the field in soccer, learned to jump and summersault in gymnastics or heave the ball towards an oversized basket and watch it roll in.

Our kids connect to sport first from joy. Many love the feel and energy of the activity. MNY love basking in a parent's satisfaction at watching them play. Many love learning to actually master something and do it well. Slowly a culling and separating occurs, but it occurs earlier and earlier. Parents get impatient with "playing" and want to see "winning." Kids take their cues from parents and want to win too. As the initial differences in talent first play out, parents want their kids to play with like to like and get more challenges.

Things start to change for parents and kids. Kids slowly feel their identity and esteem tied up with how they do in sport. In some cases, it may be the only thing they are good at or the only place they can escape to. It may be what they feel their parents judge them by. What starts as joy and play soon evolve into competition and joy. Then it evolves into pleasing others, competition and duty.

Parents preside over this in most cases. Sometimes it is to enjoy seeing their kids excel. Sometimes it is fun to be with their kids on the road and to enjoy the company of other similarly crazed parents standing in the pouring rain sinking in mud as soccer players slide around in a mud bath. Somewhere along the line, it gets a little different. Parents start to identity with the kids or the kids start to play for the parent's ambitions, not their own. They internalize their parents desire for them to get a scholarship or become a pro or redeem their own frustrated athletic ambitions.

When we care too much, children become athletes too early and parents change into managers. These are not good for the kids or parents.

(photo courtesy of Photosearch)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Is a Basketball Scholarship Worth This: Coach Abuse

Everybody knew Triple Threat could boost your daughter's basketball future. Several friends sent their daughters down to Portland to be exposed to Howard Avery's disciplined methods. Parents knew Avery had contacts among coaches, and his word in an ear could get their daughter noticed by all level of college basketball coaches who swarm around his program.

Avery embodied how the the infection that festers in the pre-college world of boy's basketball had arrived big time in girl/women's basketball. Young girls now play basketball from the age of eight. Their middle class and working class parents invest money in camps and club teams from the age of ten. The girls travel on teams, often without parents, after the age of 12. By 13 college coaches are watching these teams and picking up name for their computerized mailing lists. Scouting web sites hype names for the great mentioner's radar.

AAU travelling teams and related camps are the real breeding ground for the fallen world of basketball scholarship recruting. High school ball is a sideshow for most kids. College coaches, with the budgets, swoop on the summer or holiday tournaments to be seen and see. Now they often pay fees for the opportunity to watch 13 year olds play. AAU coaches charge high fees for team membership and provide subsidized "scholarships" for high quality athletes who can't afford them. Lots of the travel and practice is subsidized by shoe companies.

This nether world is totally unregulated. It falls between college and high school. No conferences or state high school associations have jurisdiction. It spawns entrepeneurs, fixers, dreams and nightmares. Too many parents now see sports as an investment in college and beyond. For many kids locked into hopeless cycles, sports and the AAU world of travel, regular food and clothes offers a way out.

It's unregulated, driven by unrealistic dreams and money to be made. It also is rife with abuse of so many kinds it is impossible to touch on all of them. But this month Howard Avery was convicted of sexual abuse of one of the young women he taught. He'd been shadowed by years of rumors, but his kids stayed silenced, their parents defended him, and the shoe companies supported him.

Avery swears other coaches are doing the same. Too much is at stake to let this world continue without scrutiny or regulation.

(picture courtesy Clackamas County Sheriff)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pitino Should Resign-He Won't

Rick Pitino is the basketball coach at the University of Louisville. He should resign from his position. He won't. President Ramsey of the University of Louisville should fire him. The President won't. This is the dark side of how central sport becomes to our personal and institutional identies.

Rick Pitino makes more than the governor of Kentucky and the President of the University of Lousville combined. More people know his name than they know the governor or the senators and certainly not the president of Louisville. He is the public face of the University of Louisville and brought more visibility to the University than any other person or activity at the school As the head coach, he should represent the values of the university with its integrity dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and education students of knowledge and character.

As a coach Rick Pitino sits down in the living rooms of young college athletes and talks with their parents and guardians. He pledges they will get a chance to excel at their sport, and at Louisville, win a national championship. But he also promises them that he, as coach, will help them grow as human beings of integrity with an education and sense of commitment. Good coaches are role models. They serve as surrogate parents for many of their players who come from socially disorganized backgrounds. The uneasy case for college athletics depends heavily upon the claim that the coach and sport help develop character and vital attributes like teamwork, self-discipline and patterns recognition and judgement under stress.

Rick Pitino's actions destroy that fragile case. The story is a little mixed but as near as I can make out Pitino has admitted to having consensual sex with a woman on the table of a bar around six years ago. Later the woman married his friend and equipment managers. The story gets a little murky but it seems Pitino later paid her money to get medical insurance or an abortion or medical insurance to get an abortion. Prior to that it seems she and her husband, who are now getting divorced, demanded money from Pitino to keep silent about the tryst on the bar table. The story Pitino narratives to his President, the press and family changes a little each time.

It's all pretty sordid. But Pitino fails as a role model and representative of values of integrity character and commitment. I don't want to think of the cost of his family, but it gets absurd thinking of him promising to help young men develop as men of integrity when he meets with their parents. He should quit in shame. The university should fire him in embarrassment. Neither will happen. Pitino is standing firm that he is repentant and this "indiscretion" is all behind him. President Ramsey has called him "our guy" and wants to lay the whole sordid business behind him.

Pitino wins games. He brings visibility and fame to a midlevel university. The boosters would sooner dump the President or governor than the Coach. The President would be fired for similar actions. Pitino would kick kids off his team for similar actions.

This gives us a clear sad example of what happens to coaches when we value athletics too much. Winning trumps principle, winning trumps character and it certainly trumps education.

Photo courtesy athlonsports

Seasons of Sport

Football began all over the country this weekend. Not really, but on all the college campuses that have football teams, teams began practicing. Freshmen joined the teams and after a couple days of warming up, they graduate to wearing helmets and then after four or five days to full pads. That's it. College football has begun.

Actually this is the week for the beginning of college volleyball, men and women's soccer, and cross country. But for most fans and especially for TV stations, football begins the college sport season.

Not a game has been played, but that is a blessing, that is the point. My own school's team went 12-0 last year. So for one pristine moment, all the fans can hope and dream of a season where the players will win and the fans can enjoy the game and the extended sense of identity they draw from rooting for the team, even a 0-12 team.

Sports define their own seasons of mind and life. These seasons define the time line and weather for follows of a sport. It's not summer, it's not autumn, it's football season. The rhythm of their lives will be determined by the weekly play of their team on Saturday (or who knows what day now with ESPN stuffing college football into all its nightly TV windows). ESPN aside, time changes for a football fan.

The storms and sun of the weather of their lives will be determined by the Saturday game. Sunday is shaped by sunny elation or gloomy disappointment. Monday begins the rehashing what went wrong or right. The rankings come out which precipitates another set of arguments and discusions over who should be in the top ten and whether they should be a playoff. Tuesday they at look at the next opponent. Wednesday people drag up obscure facts about both teams and talk about game plans. Thursday and Friday simmer in anticipation of Saturday and then THE GAME.

The great thing is the cycle of expecations, discussion and play and reaction continues for fifteen weeks. It covers the end of summer, all of autumn and the beginning of winter!!! It has its own rhythm and space/time. It provides a consuming focus for talk, interest and a focal point for weathering real weather or real life. Sports create their own seasons where people can live and die and live their own lives through and with their teams. Who needs weather when we have sports?