Posted: Wednesday August 16, 2006 3:48PM; Updated: Wednesday August 16, 2006 5:10PM
It seems as if every year the TV coverage of Little League gets more extensive.
Phil Taylor will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
Youth sports are in the news again, which is almost never a good thing. The games that little boys and girls play should be followed closely only by their family and friends, so when it leaks out into the mainstream press, it's usually because something has gone remarkably wrong.
More to the point, it's almost always because the grown-ups are at it again, poisoning the games with a win-at-all-costs mentality or treating a ball game between neighborhood kids like the seventh game of the World Series.
There has been a spate of depressing stories lately, including the Pony League game in Utah between nine- and 10-year-olds that Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly wrote about, in which the coach of one team intentionally walked the opponent's slugger with two outs in the last inning of the championship game. The coach preferred to pitch to the next hitter, a little boy who was battling cancer and had a shunt in his head.
The boy struck out, and the coach won his championship. No word on whether the coach can sleep at night.
It doesn't stop there. From The Dallas Morning News comes word of Kenny Troutt, a Texas billionaire who is bankrolling his two sons' AAU basketball teams. The players and their families travel to tournaments around the country by private plane and stay in luxury hotels, all paid for by Troutt. The teams also have a full-time paid coach, along with several assistant coaches and a nutritionist, all of whom draw a paycheck from Troutt.
By the way, one team is made up of third-graders, and the other fifth-graders. Seriously.
Whenever a pro or college athlete exhibits arrogance and sense of entitlement, we lament the coddling and preferential treatment from an early age that produced his attitude. Don't be surprised, then, if some future self-absorbed Terrell Owens clone comes out of that Texas AAU program, or one like it.
Troutt's heart may be in the right place, but he obviously doesn't see that treating little boys like they're LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can drastically skew their value system. Good luck to the high school coach who has to deal with these kids after they've been pampered like kings throughout their childhood on the basis of their basketball ability.
The Pony League coach, the Texas billionaire and lots of other adults have fallen into the same trap -- applying a big-time sports model to games that should be gloriously, refreshingly small-time. The argument that the Pony League coach did nothing wrong because he made a completely legal move in an effort to win only works if you believe that winning should be just as much a priority in Pony League as it is in the major leagues. If you do, please do everyone a favor and stay out of youth coaching.
The Texas sugar daddy's case is similar. He seems to have lost the ability to differentiate between the pros and the kids. The San Antonio Spurs travel in luxury, with no expense spared, right? So why shouldn't top-notch children's teams do the same? If NBA players can be attended by a fleet of coaches and trainers, why shouldn't his sons' teams get the same treatment?
It's no wonder the line between youth sports and pro sports is blurring. Turn on the television and you can find the Little League World Series on ESPN, complete with play-by-play men and analysts to tell you that some 12-year-old's four-seam fastball has great late movement.
Check that, it's not the Little League World Series -- it's the tournament that leads to the Little League World Series. It seems that every year the television coverage of Little League gets more extensive. Before long ESPN will probably televise the seeding of the teams like the NCAA tournament selection show.
The more we watch, the easier it is to forget that these are just children we're talking about. We are often reminded that a minuscule percentage of these kids will ever become pro athletes. So why do we insist on treating them as if they already are?