Tuesday, January 16, 2018
News Roundup

When it comes to youth sports leagues, doing it 'for the kids' can be challenging

Stringent rules, contentious meetings, red-faced league officials, belligerent parents, teary-eyed kids, allegations and rumors that occasionally cross personal boundaries.

This unsavory mix doesn't define youth sports organizations, but the emotional combination is not uncommon to those who have assumed leadership roles in leagues.

Years ago, I invested two years of mixed emotions as a board member of a youth football and cheerleading organization in Brandon. I enjoyed some moments, but more often regretted volunteering.

Since that time, nearly every parent I talk to about the ups and downs of board membership shared the same perspective about getting a group of adults to pull in the same direction and "do it for the kids."

Seldom has such an innocent concept proved so challenging.

At its best, a league offers children a chance to join an effort bigger than themselves and more meaningful than success with a video game. If they walk away more familiar with the most valuable intangibles of sports — teamwork, leadership, exercise and fun — winning is just a bonus.

At its worst, clashes between overzealous adults remove all the joy the children hope to achieve. Coaches who fail to adhere to rules collide with league officials trying to maintain accountability and the kids end up hurt.

The scene played out again this week between the Brandon Bears and the Tri-County Youth Football and Cheerleading Conference. The simple story: The league ousted the five Brandon Bears cheerleading squads and two of its football teams from the season-ending championships this month because seven girls from a 34-member squad performed a routine in the living room of a coach's home, where they were attending a picnic.

But it's never that simple.

The bigger picture involves the league's never-ending quest to maintain competitive balance. To outsiders, rehearsing the routine at a picnic seems innocent, but those involved in youth football know that trying to ensure teams practice the same amount — three two-hour sessions a week — is a longtime source of controversy.

In fact, a cheer squad was punished during my tenure for a similar infraction. The cheer routines are judged in part on synchronicity, so practice truly makes perfect.

As parents strive to stop "some other team" from cheating their kids, rules grow more exacting and penalties become more severe.

In this case, however, it's difficult to believe the Bears intentionally conducted an illegal practice, because they posted online the video of the girls performing the routine. Still, most involved will insist "rules are rules."

On Tuesday, the league voted to allow the football teams to compete in the Nov. 23 championship but refused to lift the ban on the cheer squads.

I don't have enough detailed knowledge about the case to judge the decision, but I know that as long as the rulings come from a board made up of other league members, unhappiness will reign.

Their intentions may be honorable, but the perception that the governing board punishes one squad so its teams can benefit looms over every major decision.

So the most controversial rulings need to come from an independent arbitrator. The one-rule-fits-all approach fails to address the specifics of individual cases.

It may seem like a laborious change for a game played by kids, but if you think this is just child's play, you've never been involved in a league.

That's all I'm saying.

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