Well, at least it got people to stop talking about deflated footballs for a few minutes, so . . . there’s that.
By now, you’re undoubtedly aware of the biggest little scandal in sports. If not, quick recap:
Washington team meets North Carolina team in the Little League Softball World Series (players ages 11 & 12).
Washington team, having already qualified for the next round, takes a dive (benching starters, consistently bunting with two strikes, swinging at pitches in the dirt, etc.) in order to eliminate a tough Iowa team (who they narrowly beat in pool play) and avoid having to play them in the next round.
Allegations fly, Iowa team files protest, Little League officials get involved.
Officials decide Washington team should be forced to play Iowa team as a result. Iowa team ends up beating Washington team (and its best pitcher).
And that’s how Little League Softball came to be front page news, and a volunteer coach the latest target of that special brand of online species who hit the caps key before mashing their keyboard in a self-righteous fit over “WHATS WRONG WITH YOUTH SP0RTS THE3SE DAYSS!!!111111”.
Sure we could all pile on Snohomish, Washington, coach Fred Miller for taking a dive. For teaching his kids to work the system in an effort to find the easiest path to success. For robbing them of the thrill of competing – really competing – on the biggest stage of their lives, and leaving some in tears because of it.
But then, we’d all be guilty of taking the easy way out, too, wouldn’t we?
These are kids. No endorsements or multi-million dollar contracts at stake. Their big payoff is in the friendships, the health benefits, the fun (hopefully) and most importantly, the lessons that will follow them (hopefully) into adulthood. Shouldn’t it be in that spirit that Miller’s actions are analyzed?
Our job as parents and coaches isn’t to help kids avoid failure, but to constructively deal with its inevitability."
What are we teaching kids by cutting this guy down from the ESPN bully pulpit with the same fervor reserved for the misbehaving paid professionals of sport? Why not instead focus on the lessons that we – parents, coaches, athletes – can take away from this moment?
At this point, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who won’t agree that, even if he didn’t technically violate any rules, Miller certainly violated a code. A code in youth sports that says you compete no matter what. South Snohomish Little League president admits this much in his official statement:
Our coach was faced with a decision that, in the bubble of intense competition, appeared to him to be in the best interest of our team. In hindsight, it is very likely he would have made a different choice. Though the decision that Coach [Fred] Miller made did not violate the letter of the rules, I can see abundant evidence that it was not in line with the spirit of the game.
The Little League Pledge
Appeared to him to be in the best interest of our team. Important. Let’s not forget this is a man who, presumably, sacrificed plenty and devoted countless hours as a volunteer – in the interest of those young athletes. We can only assume that “interest” naturally included a will to see them succeed. And perhaps in the bubble of intense competition that definition of success became inextricably tied to winning, instead of the character building moments that truly define what youth sports are all about.
Character-building moments like learning how to graciously accept defeat and grow from it.
By setting his girls up to play what he perceived as a weaker team in the next round – and, in turn, attempting to protect them from failure – Miller lost sight of this: Our job as parents and coaches isn’t to help kids avoid failure, but to constructively deal with its inevitability.
Yes, Miller is an adult who made a mistake that should be punished. And you can argue whether Little League’s decision was more a punishment for the kids than him. (Of course, you can also question the wisdom of a tournament format in which a team can benefit from losing, but that’s another blog post altogether.)
But when we get caught up in the hyperbole, when we treat Miller like a conspiring member of the Black Sox, when we make him Topic A of “Shouting Sports Guys in Suits”, we just further trample on the spirit of youth sports, and, more importantly, we lose the lessons the game is played for in the first place.