The greatest crisis facing our youth today is not bullying. Nor is it the No Child Left Behind Act, Miley Cyrus or Grand Theft Auto.
No, it's something that we—and by we, I mean adults—have done ignorantly. We have taken away something so invaluable to child development that it should be a crime. We have infiltrated one of the few oases children have left, an island that should be completely governed by creativity, fun and friendship.
We have poisoned youth sports with poor sportsmanship.
I've been around sports my entire life. I can still remember my brother and I, before we were even old enough to ride a bike, playing football against my dad in the middle of our living room. We would go flying into the couch, bounce off the back cushion and land flat on our backs on the floor in a blaze of glory. Touchdown!
In those days, the word "sport" was synonymous with "game" (hence the name Olympic Games)—not competition, not battle. Kids played on the same team as their best friends from T-ball throughout high school. There was no need for a calendar. We just had to look in the laundry basket to see which uniform had just been washed. Every kid played every sport. Basketball season turned into baseball season, which morphed into football season. Parents and grandparents laughed, kids smiled, and the concession stand was more important than the scoreboard. It was pure. It was entertaining. And most important, it was fun.
Unfortunately, over the years, adults have transformed what was once a game into a business. Children went from participants to investments. Parents are no longer fans but agents. And the only thing that matters is the scoreboard. Fun, which was the foundation upon which sports were built, has been almost completely squeezed out.
Yet, as adults, we blame the lack of participation in high school sports on kids. We say, "What's wrong with kids these days? Why can we only get 10 kids on the basketball team? They must be lazy."
Wrong! Adults are the problem. Kids aren't lazy. They have plenty of energy. They also happen to be pretty intelligent. Instead of gravitating toward "work," which is what the major sports have become, they've gravitated toward activities that are still oozing with fun, excitement and competition. They play hours upon hours of video games because they're fun. They can laugh, hang out with their best friends and still get a taste of competition. The explosion of extreme sports like snowboarding and skateboarding is also a part of this seismic shift. These are worlds parents haven't invaded yet, and because of that, kids are flocking to them.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of refereeing a dodgeball tournament at my gym. If I hadn't been there, I wouldn't have believed it. I saw a kid barrel roll not once, not twice, but three times as he dodged an onslaught of incoming balls. And just when I thought the moment had reached its pinnacle, this kid, the last remaining member of his team, rose up from the ashes, calmly picked up a dodgeball, stared down his opponents, ignored the decibel-piercing screams of the crowd and did the impossible: he banked the ball into the basket from halfcourt, allowing his entire team to re-enter the game and make an improbable comeback.
But the truly beautiful moment happened right as the ball fell through the basket. It was the cheers, the smiles and the unadulterated joy that swept through the children in the crowd. At that moment in time, for a split second, all in the world was right because they were all playing a game. It was pure. It was innocent. It was beautiful. And guess what? It was created by kids.
Just imagine how many of those moments, and how much joy, we have stolen from our children. I've seen parents scream at their kids during games. I've seen parents scream at coaches during games. I've even seen parents scream at kids who aren't their children during games. I'm not even going to mention the abuse poor referees receive.
At what point in time did the price of admission include the right to publicly denigrate and humiliate a human being (most of them under 18 years of age)? When did jeering replace cheering? Most importantly, when did sports lose their fun?
So where do we go from here? Hopefully, as adults, we smarten up and hand the reins back to their rightful owners—the kids. We let the coaches coach, the referees officiate and the kids play. We cheer. We laugh. We smile. We tell our kids how much we love watching them play. Heck, we even tell kids who aren't our own how much we love watching them play. We give high fives and hugs after games, no matter what the scoreboard says. And most importantly, we only give advice if our child asks for it. Otherwise, we're smiling spectators watching a beautiful game called sport.
And if you're void of emotion, if your soul is a dark abyss, here is shocking statistic that will make sense to even the most analytical mind. The odds of little Johnny playing professional sports are 1 in 16,000. Ninety-eight out of 100 high school students won't even play a varsity sport at the collegiate level. We can only hope they will play intramural sports for fun.
So, genius, if you still consider Johnny an investment, you are actually as dumb as you look during his basketball games while you scream at him, his team, his coach and probably his opponents on the other team.
Please, for the sake of sport, sit down, shut up and enjoy your popcorn.