For the love of the game

Did you read in the newspapers about the big flap over four young female soccer players? The girls tried out for a coed team but were rejected, even though several of them had scored higher during tryouts than most of the 18 boys on the team. In fact, one of the girls had scored second, ahead of 17 of the boys, and still had not been picked for the team.

On the face of it, it certainly looked like a case of discrimination. But as in most controversies, there was another side to the story. It turned out the girls had already been picked to play on an all-girls traveling team, and you can only play on one team at a time.

Quietly, after all the name-calling and public displays of anger the argument was resolved with the girls being switched over to the coed team.

I’m sitting here grinning because this is one of those issues that you find surfacing everywhere these days, including Barrington. During my years as a volunteer in the Barrington Youth Soccer League some of the thorniest issues revolved around the new generation of female athletes. Frankly, girls in this country today are being given a chance to show their athleticism and they are coming through in style.

My interest in the South County flap perked up when Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynolds vented his own frustration by blaming the problem on meddling adults. Reynolds wrote a column in which he lamented the intrusion of parents into kids’ games and waxed nostalgic for the old days when he was growing up as a youth in Barrington. Then, he says, all the guys played sports the way they were meant to be played – on sandlots and playgrounds, without such frills as uniforms, referees, and an organization run by adults (although he did go on to play varsity ball for dear old BHS).Reynolds asked the question: Are adults wrecking the game for kids?

It was a good question and it took me a few days to kick it around. There have been a lot of changes in the past 30 years and today’s games – and players – are markedly different from the kids of the 1960s, when Reynolds was shooting buckets for BHS. For one thing, there are fewer playground games and many more female athletes. I don’t see the intrusion of parents as necessarily a bad thing. Without parents a lot of youth games would collapse. Parents serve in all kinds of roles from coaches to referees to team managers to map-drawers, refreshments persons, chauffeurs, etc. They learn, enjoy and derive tremendous satisfaction from participating in a healthy activity with their children.

I’ve benefited from that experience myself.

Down through the years, I’ve seen the parents of Barrington build its youth leagues into the best in the state, sometimes the best in New England. I remember one day watching my daughter play a soccer game in Canada, where her team was representing Rhode Island. Our kids were playing a strong team from New York state. I don’t remember the final score but I do know that everyone – and that includes the kids — felt a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment that we were coming from such a small New England town and yet were on the same playing field, if you will, as a group from a much larger region with a professional coach.

Young people from Barrington are regularly named All-Americans, quite an achievement for a town of 15,000 people. Our young athletes have gone on to play for some of the best college teams in the nation, some of them on scholarships. This is bad?

How has this change affected the kids? You could argue that kids today aren’t playing for the love of it, but you would have a hard time proving that. My own daughter started playing sports in the various leagues in town when she was eight. Today she is playing two college varsity sports and dreading the day when she will have to hang up her sneakers and cleats.

She never played playground or sandlot ball, nor did any of the other girls she hung out with. But can you blame that on parents?

Today Barrington has some of the largest and most successful leagues in the state in soccer, as well as other sports. Something like 1,200 kids a year play soccer here. That means that considerably more young people are getting the experience than if everyone just stood around and waited for sandlot games to develop.

Many young people in this town continue to benefit from the efforts of parents whose names they never learned or whose faces they wouldn’t recognize.

So, I disagree with the idea that parents are ruining the game for the youngsters. Both are in it for the love of the game. Both participate in different roles.

Don’t knock it. The good old days may be dead, but the good new days are indeed here.

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