Why would any cautious parents allow their child to play youth tackle football at the tender age of 9, 10 or 11? Football is the collision sport that carries the highest risk of injury to every bodily joint. Played long enough, it methodically destroys the knee, shoulder, hip, elbows and back of active participants. The young body is still in the process of development and growth, and the wrong injury can retard or permanently alter the growth curve.
Why let kids play? Because football can build character and teach invaluable life skills and build self esteem. At least until the wrong parents bring the ugliest of real world forces into play to ruin it.
Football can teach valuable virtues. It promotes self-discipline and postponement of current pleasure for future success. It builds incredible team chemistry and camaraderie and helps players function within a cooperative unit to achieve a group goal. It promotes clear decision-making under pressure, resilience when adversity strikes, and courage under pressure. Honesty, accountability, respect for others, fair play -- all qualities that can be immensely valuable in the classroom and on the playground. These are skills that can last a lifetime.
But consider what we are teaching young people from the following cases involving Pop Warner football, which have arisen lately.
In Florida nine men were arrested last week on charges of running a gambling ring centering on youth football. The arrests came after an 18-month investigation and the findings were shocking. Authorities learned that South Florida Football League coaches and team affiliates would set bets before the games. The ages of the players range from 5 to 15 in leagues that have 30,000 kids. When the "Super Bowl" for this youth league was played, the pot was more than $100,000. They were betting in the open, exchanging money in the stands, clearly visible by other parents, coaches, the kids, and police officers working the events who did nothing. They bet on individual plays, developing scores, and dozens of other side bets. An ESPN "Outside the Lines" undercover crew caught it all on tape.
How did bettors attempt to influence the outcome? By bribing and paying the young players. Players would paid thousands of dollars after a particularly pleasing game. I saw one young player interviewed who described a gambling coach walking up to him on the sideline before a kickoff return telling him what he could earn for a touchdown return, and then paid him on the sideline when he broke free for 99 yards. The gamblers were often coaches, mentors to the young players, and a number of them had criminal records. And this is how they were teaching the youthful players good values?
The 2011 Tustin Red Cobras, in suburban Orange County, one of America's elite youth football teams put bounties on the heads of opposing players. Four players and one assistant coach told the Orange County Register that they witnessed payments.
They talked of how the head coach, Darren Crawford described the program at a practice and at a film session along with defensive coordinator. Players described receiving money for hard hits. When the Orange Empire Conference, the governing body for the team involved, investigated, it conveniently disregarded the evidence and found no wrongdoing occurred. It is one thing for a rogue group of coaches to run out of control. It is another for the governing body to sweep it under the rug. Who are parents and players to look to for relief? When the National Football League New Orleans Saints coaching staff sanctioned such a bountygate, Commissioner Roger Goodell issued sweeping sanctions against coaches, the organization, and players to send a clear message about how outrageous the behavior was.
The cardinal rule involving youth sports is to make the experience about the kids. Not about frustrated Type A parents or coaches playing out their own frustrations and dreams of faded glory through destroying the youthful experience. Think how young these children were and the corruption of values that bribing entails. Think about the vulnerability of those youthful bodies exposed to targeting. Be careful, and do due diligence before putting your young children's welfare and future in the hands of others.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.