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General Sports

The Problem of THAT DAD

By Ryan McGowan

Every kid who grew up playing sports knew at least one of them, if not more.  They are all over youth sports, as much a part of the landscape as concession stands and old men with fungo bats wearing tight sweatpants.  They might be a bigger threat to amateur sports than drugs, steroids, participation fees, and youth soccer combined.  One of them who achieved prominence this week turned out to be a rather famous athlete in his own right.  When I was growing up in North Attleboro, if you were one of these people, you were known simply as "THAT DAD."Time for some reader-writer interaction, Cosmo-style.  How do you know if you are THAT DAD?  Answering a few quick questions might give you a better idea if you fall into this sub-category of losers.

1. Have you ever pitched batting practice to your son or daughter’s Little League team, and done so in a flame-throwing manner which would have made Danny Almonte proud?

IF YES: Did you take pride in making a bunch of 9-year-olds swing and miss at your (should have been) major league fastball?

2. Have you ever been coaching your son or daughter’s basketball team, and when an odd number of players showed up for practice, found yourself playing to even up the teams, ending up swatting shots, stealing the ball from all unsuspecting kids who dribbled with their heads down, and dunked on the other team Chip Douglas-style, shattering the backboard in the process? ("Hey Rick, thanks for the lift.  I never made a slam dunk before.")

IF YES: Were you wearing a headband, wristband, a pair of sweet Daisy Dukes, and an old varsity tank top while playing?

3. Have you ever been ejected from your son or daughter’s youth league game, possibly for yelling at an umpire and subsequently spitting a sunflower seed on his shoes?

IF YES: Is your name Roger Clemens, future Hall of Fame pitcher (and my former baseball idol from my youth)?

SCORING: If you answered YES to any one of the above questions, then rest assured… you are THAT DAD.

By now, Clemens’ story has become pretty well-known across the country.  On his off day from the Astros, Clemens was at his son Kacy’s 10-year-old baseball regional tournament in Craig, Colorado, and was allegedly ejected from the game after spitting on the umpire`s shoes.  First of all, any commentary on this issue must start with the fact that all of the Rocket’s kids have names that start with "K", the scoring symbol for his trademark strikeout, of which he`s racked up over 4,000 in his distinguished career.  Perhaps for humor’s sake, he should have named one with a backwards K (for a called third strike).   Why not?  It’s not like it would be any less egomaniacal and contrived than to intertwine all of his children’s identities with his life accomplishments, effectively ruining any chance they will ever have to be known as something other than "Roger Clemens’ kid."  These subtle psychological statements by Clemens is the first sign that he is THAT DAD.  THAT DAD tends to see his kids merely as extensions of his own personality and ego rather than as individual human beings in their own right.  It is worth noting that Clemens’ wife, Debbie, has been allowed to retain her original identity and has not been forced to change her name to Kdebbie, or even Debbie Klemens.  At least Roger knew to draw the line somewhere.

Secondly, why do these big "regional tournaments" even exist for 10-year-olds?  Shouldn’t kids of that age be home swimming, playing Manhunt, riding their bikes, and playing healthy games of Ding-Dong-Ditch with their friends on their summer vacations?  I’ve always thought the Little League World Series is enough of a dubious organized sport pressure for kids.  Who wants to win the LLWS, playing in front of millions of fans, your sense of athletic accomplishment forever tied to how you fared against some 6’1 Taiwanese pitcher when you were twelve years old?  Sure, it’s a worthwhile experience for the kids, and for many the LLWS represents their first trip outside of their hometowns to a place other than Disneyworld.  For the fortunate few to make the final game and maybe even win, it must have been a positive, uplifting thrill of a lifetime.  I didn’t play in the LLWS, so I can’t comment specifically on the long-term psychological ramifications of the experience.  I can guess, however, that for ever Sean Burroughs, Chris Drury, and Jason Varitek that makes the big leagues (in Drury’s case, the big league in question is the NHL) there are God knows how many children who struck out or grounded into a double play in Williamsport, and who consequently might spend years of their lives thinking about how humiliated they were on worldwide television when they were in seventh grade.

Before some true American, red-blooded, patriotic reader takes me to task for suggesting such soft, pseudo-Communist, blasphemous rhetoric, let’s make sure we understand what I’m saying.  I am not advocating abolishing the Little League World Series, or reducing youth sports to participatory-based games where no one keeps score, all teams play merely to have fun, and everyone gets ice cream and a trophy at the end of the game.  That’s not what I am saying at all.  What I am pointing out is that youth sports are a difficult river to navigate, one that is fraught with fragile psyches of kids who are developing physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and whose personalities and adult lives will be shaped by their experiences in their childhoods.  It’s not that we shouldn’t have youth sports; it’s just that youth sports need to be done RIGHT.

Organized sports can be great learning experiences for kids.  Kids can learn about teamwork, self-discipline, and the value of committing to something over a period of time, rather than the cafeteria-style, blasé manner in which many kids go through their young lives.  They can learn about the sports themselves and the value of both competition and life-long physical exercise.  Perhaps most importantly, they can learn to CARE about something other than themselves.  For a society which has recently produced the most angst-ridden, self-absorbed, egotistical generations in human history, it is a big deal that a young person learns to care about something and not simply turn an all-too-often apathetic eye to the challenges and pitfalls of life, retreating to a completely self-centered and ultimately unfulfilling existence.

But the increasing apathy, carelessness, and disconnected nature of America’s youth is a column for another time.  I have seen enough of it in my four-year tenure as a high school English teacher, and that is not what Clemens’ story is about.  The tale of Clemens getting kicked out of his son’s 10-year-old baseball game (however ambiguous the details might be, as Clemens vehemently denies being ejected, blaming the whole thing on, of course, the liberal bias of the media) is a tale of youth sports gone wild.  However bland and boring this may seem compared to college girls at Mardi Gras going wild, it is sadly more emblematic of a larger societal problem of THAT DAD.  THAT DAD is everywhere.  He was at my brother’s Pop Warner football game in 1996, standing in the end zone, hurling obscenities at volunteer referees for miscalculating the spot of the ball on a crucial fourth down play, and eventually told to leave.  He was at my own Little League games, throwing batting practice at roughly 80 miles an hour in an attempt to "challenge" the kids and "teach them how to hit a fastball" (for after hitting against that cheese, anything thrown by a legitimate 12-year-old in the league looked like Wakefield-esque slop).  THAT DAD was at my alma mater’s high school football game a few years back, screaming at the coach as he ran into the locker room at halftime as to why HIS son wasn’t playing.  (Turns out his son had missed an unacceptable number of practices, but apparently THAT DAD takes a very Iversonian approach to "practice…. We talking about practice… not a game…. We talking about practice…")

I am not saying that parents should not care about their children on the field.  They should care about their children on the athletic fields as much as they should care about them in the classroom, at home, playing with their friends, doing their homework, etc.  I have no problem with parents caring about their children on the athletic field; hey, it sure beats the alternative.  However, overzealous parents cause problems for players, coaches, and officials alike.  These fanatical parents tend to be caught in a fantasy world which revolves around them.  To them, everything involving their children is an extension of themselves; not only that, but every incident involving their children is seen as a (direct or indirect) commentary on themselves as people in general and parents in particular.

Is it any wonder why so many of our kids grow up so self-absorbed and obnoxious?  It’s because their parents (and probably their parents before them) are also self-important, narcissistic clods.  I have seen it happen too many times.  Some father refuses to accept that his son is chronically misbehaving and disrupting his class.  In the father’s mind, the fact of the son’s misbehavior is a slap in the face to the dad himself (a reflection of his supposed poor worth as a parent), and he immediately goes on the defensive, blaming his teachers, his friends, his Little League coach, his ADHD… all convenient excuses which often exist simply to make the father feel better about his own self-worth.  There are some instances where some of those "excuses" may be valid, but too often they are crutches on which to conveniently place blame.  God forbid ever consider the fact that his son has free will and (we hope) a conscience to make decisions for himself!  It happens in other cases, too.  A freshman baseball player of marginal talent gets cut from the team.  The parent instinctively blames the coach for "screwing" his son out of his rightful place on the team in favor of obviously less qualified individuals who must have some relationship, be it as a personal friend or business benefactor, with the coach.  (Most coaches I know got into coaching for the express purposes of enacting vengeance on people, screwing them out of their lifelong athletic dreams, and collecting bribery money in the process.  Note the sarcasm.  I am sure a lot of coaches purposely select an inferior team just to screw the better players who didn’t make it.)  Kacy Clemens gets out at second base?  Roger may or may not have spat on the umpire’s shoes, but whether he really did is irrelevant to this topic.  Whether Roger Clemens is THAT DAD or not, the truth of the matter is that the archetype of THAT DAD certainly exists in reality, and he is a dangerous character.

(Perhaps I am being sexist in singling out fathers over mothers.  There are quite a few of THAT MOM out there as well.  But in the interest of continuity and of perpetuating gender stereotypes, let’s just continue to call this sub-species THAT DAD.)

Again, do not misread this column.  These are NOT my points:

1. Parents should get out of youth sports.

2. Youth sports should be banished, replaced by jumping rope without the rope and games of musical chairs where everyone wins.

3. Youth sports should never keep score, have All-Star teams, sell programs, have fundraisers, or have fun of any kind.

4. Parents should blindly trust their children’s teachers and coaches, who are always 100% right while the parents are wrong.

I am merely pointing out the dangers of losing PERSPECTIVE in youth sports.  I have seen too closely the damage one man (a former varsity football coach of a high school program, under whom I served as the head freshman coach for two seasons) can do to a program when he runs a team too much as a pro squad or a boot camp, rather than in an appropriate manner for that level of play.  Does this mean that you don’t take the games seriously, unless you are a pro?  Of course not.  If you don’t want to play to win, you shouldn’t play at all.   The problem, as stated above, is in maintaining proper perspective, balancing the desire to win with the real-life lessons that can be appreciated best through sports.

Failure to have the proper perspective of the true reasons for athletic competition can be rather injurious to all involved.  There will be plenty of time for kids to play more competitive sports, where the stakes are higher and the competition level is higher.  Parents and coaches alike who lose a sense of perspective and priority aren’t doing anyone a favor, least of all their own children about whom they profess to care so much.  And as soon as Roger Clemens changes his kids’ names to something more normal, maybe he will understand that, too.

By BostonMac

Ryan is a teacher, writer, journalist, basketball coach, sports aficionado, occasional real estate agent, and political junkie. He graduated from both the College of the Holy Cross (bachelor's) and Boston College (Master's), and knows anyone who has never heard of Holy Cross probably would never have gotten in there anyway. He is an unabashed Boston sports fan and homer who, according to lore, once picked the Patriots to win for 25 straight weeks on the "NFL Picks Show," which he co-hosts with Vin Diec, R.J. Warner, and Burton DeWitt. He is also an original co-host of SportsColumn's "Poor Man's PTI." He is married, lame, and a lifelong Massachusetts resident (except for a brief sojourn into the wilds of Raleigh, NC) who grew up in North Attleboro and currently lives and works in Everett.

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