Obsess much over sports?
Story by Chris Graham
Listen to today’s “SportsDominion Show,” featuring a discussion of sports in American society with Eastern Mennonite University athletics director Dave King. Show Length: 25:53.
You wouldn’t expect an athletics director at a university to be preaching the message that sports has become too much an obsession in today’s culture.
It’d be like hearing a movie director decrying the influence of Hollywoood, or somebody named Anheuser or Busch railing against the consumption of alcohol.
But give Eastern Mennonite University athletics director Dave King credit for saying something that desperately needs to be said.
“Sports isn’t for everybody, but for the majority of people, they play at some point in their life, whether it’s as a child in their backyard or whatever. And there are just so many life lessons that can be learned. And I realized how much I had gained through that experience. And when I left high school, I committed myself to work in the industry of athletics because I knew that there were other kids for whom athletics would be the avenue through which this growth took place,” said King, who has been at EMU since 2005 after serving as a teacher, coach athletics director and middle-school principal in Pennsylvania for 25 years prior to that.
We can say, then, that King has a unique perspective on the developments in the world of sports – from the youngest age levels all the way to college.
“And of course I can’t tell you, or you wouldn’t want to think about, how many games I’ve watched as an athletics director,” King said in an interview for today’s “SportsDominion Show.” “But what I began to recognize is that there are a lot of people not gaining those values that I have seen. And largely that came about because the youth-sports movement in particular is really designed to get the best to the top, and leave the rest to someone else.
“So it really came out of saying, Hey, kids are not gaining what they should out of athletics, because the purpose, in my mind, is maybe a little off-kilter,” King said.
It took King getting the job at EMU to help him see the light in this respect.
“When I got to the collegiate level here over the last three years, I think I began to realize that there were so many kids with these dreams that were way beyond what reality was even close to,” King said.
“As our coaches work to recruit kids, these kids have all these grandiose ideas about the Division I scholarship, and for some who did receive the scholarship, they get there and suddenly realize that it’s a business. And our coaches basically have to sit around and wait until all the Division Is are done and all the Division IIs are done, and then finally they get some kids who are finally waking up and realizing that they’re not that good. And for me, that started a long time ago,” King said.
One of my favorite sayings is the toothpaste is out of the tube, and you can’t just put it back in. We know the problem that’s in front of us. What can we do to get things back to where they need to be?
“I certainly don’t want to be one who sits here and says, Let’s go back to the way it used to be. That’s not going to happen, and that’s not what I advocate,” King said. “But it’s interesting when you mention what’s been happening within youth sports. I would like to think that unfortunately once the introduction of the athletic scholarship came into the college scene, it forever changed the landscape of the sports environment all the way down to the lowest levels.
“It’s no longer about everybody playing. It’s about the select team. And it’s about winning the game. And it’s no longer just staying in our community. Now we have to go and play another community, and that now suddenly becomes, Are we better than the other community? So it’s very subtle, but it very much shifts to the notion that we’re going to get the better people to play, and it’s supposed to be about everyone,” King said.
“It’s very subtle, but that’s where the subtlety gets difficult. We start off with everybody playing, and then suddenly, we move into this select situation. And we’re giving parents this false hope of who their kids will be athletically, and there isn’t any proven reality that would say, Just because you were selected for the travel team when you were 10 years old that you’re going to be selected for the varsity team in high school,” King said.
I can speak with some experience to the pressures that exist in youth sports. I served as a youth-basketball coach for a local YMCA program for four years – and heard more than I had expected from parents who disagreed with my coaching philosophies and how much I had their kids playing and the positions they were playing and anything and everything that I did in practice and in games and when I got out of bed in the morning.
Note how I report that I served as a coach in the local Y program – past tense. I found myself the last few months of that stint thinking back to when I was a kid learning basketball, and how I felt like I learned a heckuva lot more just playing for hours on end with no adults in sight than I ever learned from structured youth leagues.
“You have to look at the organization of youth sports. That’s where part of the problem comes in,” King said. “You talk about getting together in the backyard or in the playground, and you’re playing together. Somewhere along the line, we decided that we had to organize it, and when we organized it, the only people who were there to run it were the adults. And the only thing that we as adults know is what we remember of high-school and college organizations, not children, because most of us didn’t play in the youth-sports movement. So we’re designing programs from an adult perspective rather than from a kids’ perspective. And that right away throws something into it.
“I really wish parents would stay away,” King said. “There is this very subtle move that as long as mom and dad come to every event, it comes to be about mom and dad, not about the kids. They don’t intend it to be – they intend it to be support. I understand that. I had three kids who were all athletes, and I wanted them to be the best they could be.
“You as a parent might be concerned about why Johnny didn’t get to play as much, or why this person was playing that position, or why didn’t they spread out, or does the coach really know what they’re talking about. Your son was just having fun with his friends,” King said.
Another piece of advice from King – “I tell parents, Don’t sign up for that six-week indoor session. What are you going to do, maybe practice one night a week and play one night a week indoor soccer? Take one of those nights, and you and your whole go work in the soup kitchen somewhere. Or if it’s nice weather, take three families from your neighborhood and play intergenerational wiffle ball,” King said.
“You will not convince me that they’re going to be a worse soccer player because they skipped six weeks of indoor soccer,” King said. “Somewhere along the line we get this myth that if I don’t play with the best on the select team, and don’t play year-round, I’m not going to make it. I can tell you story after story of kids who had this dream, and it doesn’t work out. And then what are we left with? We’re going to be people a lot longer than we’re going to be an ice-hockey player or basketball player. And which is more important to develop? And the way you’re going to develop the peoplehood is through a variety of activities.”
Which brings us back to the messenger. King is a university athletics director. He has coaches scouring the countryside in search of talent. And he thinks we’re doing too much in terms of the attention that we give to sports?
“A lot of people have asked me whether it’s counterproductive to my work at Eastern Mennonite University in recruiting student-athletes here,” King said. “I have a hunch that there are quite a few people in our dormitories and in dormitories across the country who are kids who are burned out. And they are kids who could be playing here at EMU – and they aren’t because they’ve had enough of it. We find that quite a bit. We’re recruiting kids, and they’re like, Oh, I don’t know, I’ve had enough of it, I don’t want to do that in college. So to some degree, what I’m trying to do is help bring enough of a balance that maybe these kids will want to play and be ready to play at the collegiate level for us.
“So it may actually turn around and help us in the long run. Maybe that’s a dream.”
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.