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The sporting life

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How out of control are youth sports? Out of control to the tune of $15 billion a year. That’s the recent estimate of how much American parents spend on all manner of athletic activities on their superstars of the future every year.

And yes, things were better when I was kid and lectured by my dad that playing Little League was more about the dads than it was for the kids. Of course, I didn’t listen and wanted to play on our parish league and my parents relented. Parish leagues existed in my day because it was a time in Catholic life in Los Angeles when geographically close parishes could field several teams each. Though we prayed before each game and every game came to a grinding halt when the Angelus bells rang, it might as well have been Little League because we had plenty of parents arguing and coaches’ kids always seemed to play the most sought after positions regardless of talent level.

When my own children were of age for organized sports we experienced plenty of delusional parents who had very high expectations of their children’s talent. There will always be parents with stars in their eyes and some inner need to achieve through their children.

Then my sons entered high school and wanted to play football and I was in for more education myself. We liked our boys’ high school. It struggled to maintain its Catholic identity and did a pretty good job of it. But wow, was there a subculture there where football had become a god. When they installed a diamond vision screen on the field and gave a coach a six-figure income, I actually made a visit to the president’s office. I was calm, polite and professional. He was calm, polite and professional. At the end of this meeting I was convinced that football had become a kind of golden idol.

Still, my sons wanted to play so I relented. I’ll never forget the first meeting with the freshman football coach, who proudly proclaimed the school had a “no-cut” policy. This sounded so modern and humane, but when I saw the freshman football team take the field — about 76 kids dressed in ill-fitting pads and saggy uniforms — I started doing the math on the $600 “athletic fee.” I wouldn’t cut anybody either.

It got worse. The school, like a lot of Catholic high schools, gave “scholarships” to kids from all other the Southland — as long as they could play football, of course. They were like hired guns. I don’t think they had the same scholarship system for kids who couldn’t afford the extremely expensive tuitions if they couldn’t play ball.

But that is nothing compared to what parents spend on hoop dreams, gridiron dreams and diamond dreams today. People actually make a good living being private pitching instructors and batting coaches, and there are even guys who act almost as “agents” for high school students making sure their “film” gets in front of the right college recruiters.

Everything takes a back seat to the quest of athletic achievement and possible college scholarships. And I mean everything. Sometimes it is the less athletic siblings who must recede into the shade when it comes time for travel ball in the summer.

Beside skewing family dynamics away from more important things and concentrating instead on one child’s pursuit of a solitary goal to the detriment of all others, the biggest loser in the whole industrial sports complex is Sunday. So many tournaments, so much travel, so many games and events take place on the weekend and it takes both days of the weekend to squeeze them all in. It’s one thing for parents to be so dedicated to the proposition that their son or daughter become a college level (or higher) elite athlete that they sacrifice their own time to such pursuits, but it’s another thing altogether if they sacrifice God’s time. If the volleyball travel team triple header happens on a Sunday, well, then Mass will just have to wait.

Again, this is a case where it was better when I was young enough (but not athletically gifted enough) to even be considered for such attention. And even if I had been talented enough, somehow I think a grocer’s salary and multiple children would not have had room in the family budget to further my athletic career, no matter how spoiled my older brothers and sisters believed I was.

Our dad loved baseball and football as much as the next guy, and he certainly passed that heritage on to most of his children, but he always kept things in perspective. And even if he had owned the grocery store he worked in and one of his 10 children had shown enormous potential athletically (none of us did), he would have drawn the line on playing on Sundays. That was God’s day.

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