Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
One cannot participate in youth sports without hearing, "It's about the kids" --- a sentiment so common that one might expect to see it on T-shirts. Sadly, in many instances, it's not about the kids. It's about parents convinced their 6-year-old is D1 material; coaches whose self-worth is solely a function of their win-loss record; and league officials who enjoy power and financial resources not available to them in their working lives.
Once a relatively innocent low-stakes activity for children, youth sports today increasingly resemble their collegiate and professional counterparts. Like sports among older peers, youth sports are plagued with problems, such as on- and off-field violence, performance-enhancing drugs, and pay-for-play.
According to Safe Kids, a nonprofit injury organization, at least 2.6 million children ages 19 and under visited the emergency room for injuries related to sports and recreation in 2012. Sadly, we really do not know how many children suffer catastrophic injuries (such as paralysis) or fatalities as the result of sports participation.
Although child trauma is never pretty and always tragic, injury prevention has not received nearly the attention that performance has in youth sports. We've been far more concerned with commenting on a first-grader's highlight video than on making sure coaches can provide basic first aid.
Two major factors are responsible. First, the vast majority of youth sports have been taken out of the public sector and put in the hands of nonprofit groups with varying agendas. Unlike the public sector, private entities, such as recreational football leagues, owe little or no accountability to public officials or regulatory groups.
Second, youth sports administrators and coaches lack the requisite skills and training to protect young participants. While they may be great at their respective occupations, restaurant managers, insurance brokers and transmission salesmen are not competent to make clinical decisions about children in emergency situations. But they are called on to do so several times throughout a season.
Few leagues require members of a coaching staff to have minimal credentials (for instance, American Red Cross first responder or CPR certification). If a coach is unable or unwilling to be certified, why should that person be given a position of authority over children? Other civic groups, such as the Boy Scouts, have made emergency care credentials a requirement for leaders.
The lack of coaching staff training is disconcerting, since players spend most of their time in practice when no emergency personnel are nearby to provide clinical assessment or, if needed, basic life support. That task is left to the coaches or a trainer with minimal --- less than an hour --- emergency training. As a coach and parent, I must admit my own complicity in the youth sport enterprise. As such, I have found myself succumbing to peer pressure. Like a recovering addict, my condemnation of those who misbehave in this context is equally hypocritical and uniquely insightful. In the midst of competition, it is far too easy to lose proper perspective.
Cognitive dissonance aside, as a child health advocate and researcher, it's my responsibility to respond to this problem. Parents, public health officials, policymakers and clinicians must prevent rogue organizations from hijacking the agenda of youth sports. Our children deserve better.
The agenda of youth sports is to provide experiences that serve the needs of children. One way to support this agenda would be to have public schools take youth sports back into the fold. School-based primary and middle school athletic programs thrive in many communities and private schools. While not perfect, public schools provide a much better infrastructure for the administration of youth sports. Unlike most nonprofit organizations, schools are uniformly accountable to governing bodies (school boards) and policies.
Nonprofit organizations are only accountable to a pro forma set of bylaws and advisory boards of like-minded individuals. Teachers are accountable to state-level professional standards commissions, local school boards and their respective administrators. Former generations were coached by teachers --- professional educators who entered their profession because of their genuine interest in helping children learn.
While most elementary teachers do not understand the complexities of a spread offense or Cover 2 defense, they presumably know how to teach a child basic concepts. We need to put our children back into the hands of those who are properly trained and accountable for protecting and educating children.
Emory professor Bryan Williams is an epidemiologist whose research has focused in the areas of perinatal, pediatric and environmental epidemiology and policy.