According to the old adage, it isn't whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game. That's a lesson that seems increasingly lost on the kids, fans, and parents who participate in competitive youth sports leagues in Utah and elsewhere, where winning the game is the only thing that matters, even if it means children get hurt in the process.
In Fillmore last weekend, a little league football playoff game had to be canceled in the fourth quarter when a series of brutal hits against quarterbacks led to injury and outrage. One quarterback is still recovering from a concussion, and another was laid flat twice, which caused parents and fans to heckle the opposing team's coaches and compelled the referees to call the game to ensure the safety of the kids.
Unfortunately, we've come to expect this kind of bad behavior in the big leagues, with the New Orleans "bounty" scandal making headlines this past year. In this instance, there seems to be no coordinated effort to mimic the Saints' alleged slush fund to reward the defense for deliberately injuring the offense. Both coaches of the teams playing in the Fillmore game insist they have never coached their kids to play dirty. But little leaguers have always looked to the pros for their examples, even when those examples are less than stellar.
Just ask the Tustin Pee-Wee Cobras, a California little league football team rocked by scandal as kids were allegedly paid $50 to knock other players out of the game. These aren't burly NFL linebackers; these are 10- and 11-year old kids.
Something is seriously wrong here, and parents are not without blame. Reports from Fillmore said fans, which we assume were mostly parents, shouted insults at coaches after the team that was ahead attempted an onside kick. Adults ought to set a more dignified tone for behavior in the heat of battle. Organized sports are supposed to teach life lessons about handling adversity with physical and emotional discipline, teamwork and integrity.
Long gone are the days when athletes could be considered moral role models for the nation's youth. Even in those days, sports had elaborate PR campaigns to gloss over the exploits of Babe Ruth and others. The misbehavior of the pros didn't undermine the integrity of the game. That's changing now, as some athletes seem brazen about behaving badly, and it seems little league versions are learning to follow suit.
Kids growing up playing competitive sports should be learning teamwork and developing athletic skill. Instead, we believe many parents will become increasingly wary of exposing their children to the new environment where fair play takes a back seat to "win-at-all-costs."
Of course, not all parents will feel that way. Some are perfectly comfortably shouting from the sidelines and behaving far worse than the kids they're trying to raise. And a handful are providing encouragement and resources to support teaching their kids the same terrible habits that have infested the NFL.
That's absolutely unacceptable, and it needs to stop.