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Youth sports make memories, but they often fail to teach values

By the time you read this, I'll be waking up in Las Vegas and preparing to watch my son and his Armwood High football teammates take on Bishop Gorman, Nevada's defending Class 4A state champions.

I'm thrilled that Ethan and his friends get a chance to play in a nationally televised game (ESPN2, 9 p.m.), creating lifelong memories.

The cross-country trip also rewards coach Sean Callahan for the tireless efforts he has put in during a 22-year career that has yielded two state championships and four appearances in the title game.

Yet a greater concern tempers my enthusiasm, and I'm not singling out Armwood.

After all, Jefferson High travels to Ohio next month to face Lakewood St. Edward.

And Plant High will play Bergen (N.J.) Catholic in Bradenton as part of a Florida-New Jersey doubleheader that will draw national attention and possibly set the Panthers up to travel north next year.

Of course, Plant had two games on national TV last year, which was two more than the Tampa Bay Bucs enjoyed in 2010.

Clearly, the line separating prep and youth sports from the high-stakes college and pro game continues to be blurred, and I worry about the long-term repercussions.

When people ask if I miss covering the NFL, I typically tell them I miss the wide-eyed excitement of high schoolers more than the business-minded approach of pros.

Back then, getting their name in the local paper proved thrilling for kids. Their innocence charmed.

Today that innocence is on life support thanks to recruiting websites, talent scouts, overzealous parents and fanatical college fans.

Other sports have their own examples of hype run amok. Little League broadcasts once consisted of a single championship game on the old Wide World of Sports show.

Now ESPN begins its 18 days of coverage during the regionals, and 12-year-olds hear former major leaguers analyze their performance every night on SportsCenter.

Elsewhere, the push for youths to specialize in a single sport translates to grueling practices, daunting year-round schedules and mind-boggling travel for basketball, baseball, softball, soccer and volleyball hopefuls.

As the emphasis goes from fun and games to national rankings and scholarships, the potential for injury and burnout rises. The promise of a tuition-free trip to college often drives moms and dads to the financial brink.

But the harsh reality is that some parents receive an honest account when told their son or daughter can go big-time, and some are led astray just so their dollars can help cover a team's travel costs or line the pockets of a coach.

The chase for victory and the ego gratification of adults have always threatened the intangibles kids should get from sports. The threat looms larger now that the pedestal sits atop the World Wide Web and a 500-channel universe.

If it eclipses the innocence of youth, the games lose an appealing asset, and we set the kids up for future failures.

Honestly, how much longer can we act surprised when these kids, driven by a sense of entitlement, go off to college and violate rules? We've been filling their heads with grandeur since they were 8.

How much is too much?

Prep and youth sports still hold the power to teach life's lessons. I'm certain my son knows more about discipline, perseverance and teamwork.

But when I awake in a casino today, I'll wonder whether society is about to gamble away those awesome intangibles.

That's all I'm saying.

Youth sports make memories, but they often fail to teach values 08/26/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 26, 2011 2:38pm]
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