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ON DEALING WITH FACES THAT EMERGE FROM THE CROWD
In a letter published two weeks ago in 19TH HOLE, a reader named Kent Rasmussen, of Van Nuys, Calif., complained about a 6-year-old boy who scored 83 goals in a 12-game season of youth soccer, including 14 goals in one game. The boy had been featured in FACES IN THE CROWD (Jan. 19), and Rasmussen criticized SI for publicizing "such a one-sided display." Arguing that domination of games by "a 6-year-old scoring machine" could hurt the youngster, his teammates and his opponents, Rasmussen challenged us to check on how many of the boy's humiliated opponents were still playing soccer a year from now and on how the youth himself was faring in another decade or so "when the goals and glory don't come so easily."
The issues raised by Rasmussen are important ones. Sport suffers when one player or one team is vastly superior to another, which explains why, when fans say "it was a good game," they invariably mean it was a close game. Mismatches are abhorrent, and people with true sporting instincts recoil from them. Thus, after Canada thrashed South Korea 31-0 in ice hockey two weeks ago in the World University Winter Games in Spain, there was no jubilation among the embarrassed Canadian players, one of whom, Chris Helland, called the game "a sad, sad experience."
In the case of younger athletes, winning too easily may, as Rasmussen suggests, cause long-term ill effects. In 1971, 8-year-old Gene Mirkin of Rockville, Md. ran a 5:40.8 mile and earned national attention (including a mention in FACES IN THE CROWD), and it was said that his father, Gabe Mirkin, a University of Maryland allergist, author and running enthusiast, had plotted a training regimen intended to gain Gene a berth in the 1980 Olympics. But when he was 11, Gene Mirkin lost interest in competitive running. Now 18 and a freshman at Guilford College in North Carolina, he says of his days as an athletic prodigy, "I just wanted to be a kid."
To be sure, there will always be some athletes who stand head and shoulders above others, a fact that isn't necessarily bad. Dr. Stanley Cheren, a Boston psychiatrist who writes on sports, says, "A kid should be allowed to achieve great things and to have the joy of his achievement." But Cheren also warns that if a gifted athlete is treated as "something apart from the human race, he'll be made a lesser person in the process. A parent or coach must instill a sense of limits or proportion to the athlete's accomplishment." As Cheren's words suggest, there's only so much that can—and should—be done to clip the precocious athlete's wings. Benching him for too long a period would amount to penalizing him for being talented. Going to undue lengths to hold down the score demeans opponents, cheats fans and breeds bad habits for future games. Nor is it always desirable to arrange to have young world-beaters play against older kids. "I'd do that only if the youngster is stable and anchored to his peer group in other ways," says Dr. Morris S. Lasson, a clinical psychologist in Baltimore. "Just because he's advanced as an athlete does not mean he'll be that far advanced socially."
Little League parents sometimes get carried away in encouraging excellence, as do the likes of Clarence Turner, the basketball coach at Camden (N.J.) High School, which has averaged 103 points a game en route to a 25-0 record this season. Despite beating opponents by scores like 122-51 and 115-57, Camden has often played its first-stringers and maintained a full-court press until the waning seconds, a practice that so infuriated Ira Levine, the coach of Brooklyn's Lafayette High, which lost to Camden 122-59, that he ordered his players to hand Turner's hotshots the ball and let them score. Shrugs a notably unrepentant Turner, "If you get a chance to beat the hell out of somebody, you beat them."
SI is in the practice of reporting on outstanding athletes. Thus, for better or worse, we write about Linda Page, a basketball star at Philadelphia's Dobbins Tech High who recently scored 100 points in a 131-38 win over Mastbaum. Linda played 30 of the game's 32 minutes, and her coach, Tony Coma, who used to be the men's coach at Cornell, virtually admitted building up Linda's scoring statistics to get himself "back in the limelight." Linda appeared in FACES IN THE CROWD (Feb. 9), a feature—one of the magazine's most popular—that recognizes lesser known athletes, both old and young. Of the latter, some, like Gene Mirkin, never fulfill their potential, often because they are pushed too hard by their elders. But FACES IN THE CROWD has also highlighted such early bloomers as 12-year-old Nancy Lopez, 14-year-old Chris Evert and 17-year-old Lew Alcindor, all of whom went on to much bigger things. The recognition of achievement, even when it involves the very young, is a worthy journalistic endeavor.
The 6-year-old lad who was the subject of Rasmussen's letter, Matt Garrett of Solana Beach, Calif., developed into a one-boy gang under the tutelage of his father, Mike, a lawyer, who coaches his son's soccer team. Whatever the future may hold for Matt, for now anyway he genuinely loves soccer. Although parents of rival players grumble about Matt's prodigious scoring, the elder Garrett can't be accused of pouring it on. Before the season, he suggested that the boy play with older kids but was told by league officials that this wasn't "a good idea." He then tried Matt at different positions, but Matt continued to dominate play. Mike also occasionally benched his son but admits, "It hurt him to be on the sidelines." Somehow Matt's scoring prowess becomes more palatable when the elder Garrett tells of the time the team's goaltender let in a cheap goal, and Matt went up to him and said, "Don't worry about it, it's just a game." Putting his son's goal-scoring exploits in just the right perspective, Mike says that this gesture toward the beaten goaltender "made me feel the proudest of anything Matt did all year."
THE BEST, DAY IN & DAY OUT
A year ago we reported that Jed Brickner, then a Columbia University law student, had drawn up a list of the top track and field performances according to the days of the week on which they occurred and found that only one athlete held the "records" in his specialty for all seven days—Edwin Moses in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles (SCORECARD, March 17, 1980). Now a lawyer in Los Angeles, Brickner has just updated his research and reports that last summer Moses not only broke his world record with a 47.13 performance in Milan on July 3—a Thursday—but also improved his marks for Monday (47.90), Wednesday (47.81) and Friday (47.17). Unbroken were Moses' records for the other three days of the week.