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Square One Publishers
Why Johnny Hates Sports: Why Organized Youth Sports Are Failing Our Children / Edition 1

Why Johnny Hates Sports: Why Organized Youth Sports Are Failing Our Children / Edition 1

by Fred Engh
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900757000415
Publisher: Square One Publishers
Publication date: 01/28/2002
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Fred Engh has been involved in youth sports for over thirty years—as a coach, athletic director, and sports educator. In 1981, he founded a program that evolved into The National Alliance For Youth Sports (NAYS), a nonprofit organization that works to provide safe sports for America’s youth. As president

of the Alliance, Engh has appeared on numerous television shows, including Dateline NBC and 20/20.

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Copyright © 2002 Square One Publishers
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7570-0041-X

Chapter One

The Sad State of Sports in America

Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice once wrote, "When the Great Scribe comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game." Those eloquent words have endured for nearly a century as a monument to the true ideals of sport. But in recent years, they have been replaced by a different ethic. Legendary professional coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." So now the mentality is not "how you played the game," but whether you won or not.

You see, the ideals of sportsmanship, fair play, and simply doing your best have been traded in for the far less noble pursuits of today's ultra-competitive, high-pressure, do-anything-it-takes-to-win world of athletics. Accompanying these dangerous attitudes has been the physical and emotional abuse of children, violence, cheating, and the total disrespect for the opposition. It is these disgraceful behaviors that have polluted the youth sports landscape, poisoned the fun, distorted child development, and left behind a legacy of children with broken hearts, crushed dreams, and shattered psyches.

Sadly, simply doing your best is no longer good enough. The Vince Lombardiphilosophy reigns supreme in the sports world. The result? A few years ago a New York Times article proclaimed the death of sports, as Robert Lipsyte wrote: "Sports are over because they no longer have any moral resonance."


America has plenty of good sports to play, but we don't have nearly enough good sports to play them. Over the last decade, there has been a serious deterioration in the conduct of athletes, both on and off the field. We've certainly moved a long way in the wrong direction since the days of Christy Mathewson, the star pitcher of the New York Giants back in the early 1900s and the unofficial "Father of Sportsmanship."

Mathewson arrived on the professional baseball scene from Bucknell College, and he was soon embraced by the public as a true gentleman of the game. Umpires so strongly believed in his integrity that if they missed a play, they would ask the Giants' pitcher what the call should have been. Umpires throughout the league had full trust that Mathewson would call it like he saw it, even if the call would go against his own team. His teammates and devoted followers of the Giants not only tolerated his behavior but accepted it because it had value in his era.

Let's look at some other role models. Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, led their baseball team during a period of intense racial disharmony. Robinson is legendary for his ability to endure racial taunts, derogatory comments, and death threats from opposing players and fans, and still continue to play the game superbly. But people forget his teammate, Reese, who was also a true gentleman. One day when the Dodgers were playing in Chicago, Robinson was being abused unmercifully by the Cubs and their fans. Pee Wee Reese, nicknamed "The Kentucky Colonel," asked for time, trotted over to first base from his shortstop position, placed his arm around Robinson's shoulder, and quietly said a few words of encouragement to him. The crowd was quieted by this display of sportsmanship by the man from Kentucky, and the game continued without incident.

There are other examples. Althea Gibson wore her Wimbledon tennis championship with class. Bob Cousy, of the Boston Celtics, would rather get an assist than a basket and led his team to five championships. Gordie Howe, the legendary Detroit Red Wing star, played into his forties simply because he loved the game. Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts quarterback, was always known as a gentleman, a sportsman, and a champion. Babe Didrickson-Zaharius was an Olympic champion who excelled in three sports in an era when women champions were the exception, but she played sports the way they were meant to be played.

Speaking of the Olympics, let us look for a moment at the Olympic ideal. Pierre de Fredi, Baron de Coubertin, the "Father of the Modern Olympics," described the Games this way: "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part. The important thing in life is not to triumph but to have fought well." There is an echo of Grantland Rice in that ideal, is there not? Also note that he makes the connection between what happens in sport and what happens in life, a connection not always made these days, unfortunately.

The Baron, Mathewson, Reese, Robinson, and Didrickson-Zaharius would certainly be out of place these days where sportsmanship has become an off-the-wall concept. The Simon and Garfunkel verse that wonders where Joe DiMaggio has gone, seems fitting. Where have all the true heroes of sports gone? What has happened to the ideal of sportsmanship?


The seeds of poor sportsmanship were planted early on in professional sports and have flourished ever since. In fact, if you look closely at the history of sports, it's overflowing with legends who have made an indelible imprint on the American consciousness despite a penchant for unsportsmanlike words and actions. Knute Rockne is one of football's most revered coaches, but his infamous line, "Show me a gracious loser and I'll show you a failure," has turned out to be the warped measuring stick for the way games are played today. And guard Jerry Kramer said of Vince Lombardi, "He treats us all the same way-like animals," establishing the true nature of the Lombardi ethic.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, prowled the base paths. He was one of the five original inductees to the baseball Hall of Fame, but "The Georgia Peach" may also have been the worst sport to ever play professional baseball. Cobb was well-known for flaunting his ego, taunting his opponents, threatening them with his bat and fists, sharpening his spikes, and intentionally sliding into bases looking to hurt anyone who got in his way. He had a well-deserved reputation as a bigot and a hothead. Were it not for his extraordinary talent, Cobb would have been run out of baseball. He was everything Christy Mathewson was not.

Throughout the century, unsportsmanlike behavior has been a fixture of sports; it's just that it has been camouflaged by different athletes or ignored by the media. Athletes of various eras have always "talked trash," but back then, it was disguised as charisma. A cultural icon like Muhammad Ali entertained the public with his flashy words and engaging personality as much as he did with his left hook. While his habit of taunting and embarrassing opponents in the ring entertained fans, it hardly qualified as the epitome of sportsmanship.

It's apparent that by the time we reached the 1970s, this type of unsportsmanlike behavior was slowly carving out its own niche in nearly every sport except golf, which has remained virtually unblemished throughout history.

Tennis is a perfect example of how professional sports can be led astray. The mid-1970s and 1980s marked the arrival of the "bad boys" of tennis. Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe ushered in a new era with their court antics of swearing at opponents, yelling at linesmen, and throwing rackets. Amazingly, this type of behavior actually sparked the public's interest in the sport of tennis. These players were viewed as personalities who brought a face-lift to a sport that, prior to this, was seldom covered on the front page of sports sections across the country. Sports fans suddenly flocked to events in the hopes of seeing a profanity-laced tirade against a linesman. A McEnroe temper tantrum became even more appreciated than a backhand winner. The public was entertained by these sorts of behaviors, taking another chunk out of what had been a solid foundation of American sportsmanship.

The past few years alone have provided enough evidence of how sports, the people who play them, and the public that watches them have all changed for the worse. We could spend a lifetime running down the list of professional football and hockey players who would do literally anything to win a game. Even trying to injure an opposing player was never out of the question. In 1965, for example, Juan Marichal turned around in the batter's box and attacked catcher John Roseboro with a bat. It was a reprehensible act that may well have been a warning flare that the behavior of athletes was beginning to take a turn for the worse. Since then, we've watched as basketball player Kermit Washington shattered the face of Rudy Tomjonovich; Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes slugged an opposing player who had intercepted a pass; Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear; Latrell Sprewell attacked his coach, P.J. Carlisimo; Michael Westbrook beat up a teammate; and Lawrence Phillips beat up his girlfriend. The list goes on; we need only mention the names of players Albert Belle, Bryan Cox, Charles Barkley, Bobby Knight, and Dennis Rodman to recall unpleasant incidents that hit the headlines. We have seen overseas soccer matches turn into deathtraps for fans; each team in the National Hockey League needs to have at least one "enforcer" to match the other team's bully; and even the national pastime now has "basebrawls."

Good sportsmanship may actually be a contradiction in terms. It may not have played as significant a role as we'd like to think it did, and it may not have ever been an influential part of sports to begin with. For example, the outrageous actions of Roberto Alomar spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck, and Bill Romanowski spitting in the face of San Francisco wide receiver J.J. Stokes were crude and unacceptable, but they're no more vile than many of the behaviors that have become a fixture in competitive sports through the years. The only difference is that with the proliferation of media today, the actions of Alomar and Romanowski were captured on tape and have been branded into our memory banks as we've been bombarded with replays over and over again.


These sad distortions of sportsmanship did not happen in a vacuum. A great deal of the blame must be put at the door of the media for popularizing such actions. And we the public must also take some blame because we have not always condemned such behaviors. Let us take a look at the role of the media in this area, especially in recent years.

Before World War II, radio was just beginning to fill the airwaves, and television was still a few years away. Consequently, the men who wrote for newspapers played a very influential role. They were the only link the American public had to its sports heroes and the games they played. Writers revered the athletes they wrote about, and much of the fame and popularity that continues to surround legends such as Babe Ruth or Jesse Owens today endures in large part to the newspapermen who documented their exploits. Athletes were looked up to and admired by the public, and writers of that time contributed to those feelings by extolling their on-field performances. Nevertheless, they largely ignored the private lives of the athletes they covered.

As radio emerged during the 1940s, listening to ballgames on a summer night or football games on a Saturday afternoon became a popular form of entertainment. For example, in her memoir, Wait 'Til Next Year, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalls walking down the streets of her Rockville Centre hometown, listening to the Dodger game and not missing a pitch because every home was tuned to the game, and every window was open. The names of Red Barber, Curt Gowdy, Vin Scully, Keith Jackson, Mel Allen, and Harry Caray found their way into the national vocabulary. Ronald "Dutch" Reagan got his first paying job as a teletype operator and announcer for a broadcast baseball game.

Later, as television inched its way into America's living rooms, the way sports are played and watched slowly began to change. The fights and arguments that had infiltrated sports were being seen for the first time on television screens across the country, and they raised the public's interest in seeing the unusual. It was different, it was exciting, and it added a new flavor to sports.

Of course, during the days of Mickey Mantle, Bobby Orr, Dick Butkus, and Bill Russell, there were only three television networks. Cable stations, sports highlight shows, and twenty-four-hour sports programming were non-existent. ESPN was nowhere to be found. The radio dial featured the "big band sound," not sports talk shows. If a football player bit someone under a pile or spit in an opposing player's face, there was little chance the incident would even be reported, let alone endlessly replayed and talked about the remainder of the season. The nation was stunned to learn how New York Giant linebacker Sam Huff actually made his living when his story was broadcast, complete with blood, violence, and sound effects. The ratings soared, and television executives took note.

Nowadays, this violent behavior has filtered into the public's mindset, and the visual images flashed in front of them every day have had a desensitizing effect. Violent behavior is all around us. It's ingrained in society; it's just another part of sports. Bloody fights in hockey move us; bench-clearing brawls in basketball excite us; and vicious, bone-rattling hits in football draw our loudest cheers.

Many broadcasters have fallen into the trap of believing that the only worthy performance is the one given by the winning team, whether or not they abided by the rules. For example, broadcasters openly admire the cleverness of a team that is able to confuse an official and send a better free-throw shooter to the line instead of the player who was actually fouled. They praise the players who get away with an illegal push, block, or elbow. They glamorize coaches known for skillfully "working" an official in an effort to get favorable calls. These days, disrespectful behaviors receive a shrug, a smirk, and a wink of the eye. It's all part of the game, they say. And the youngsters take notice.

Certainly, there have been numerous athletes who have been models of sportsmanship throughout history, but the media magnet seems to be attracted to the ego the size of Montana, the nasty action, and the bizarre behavior. Especially in this era driven by ratings, the story has become not about who hit a ninth-inning homer last night, but who purposely hit another player with a pitch to ignite a bench-clearing brawl. Most sports do involve varying degrees of violence, and the media are frequently attracted to the physical conflicts inherent in the games people play. Sports stories and color commentary contain metaphorical language that glorifies and promotes physical contact. The result is that the viewing public has, over time, became enamored with the violence.

"If it bleeds, it leads," says the old television adage. The media are often criticized for leading their telecasts with footage of the latest fight, argument, or scandal. But aren't they providing the public with what it desires? So these broadcasts have become a double-edged sword: The more the public embraces this violent behavior, the more the media reciprocates by showing it. The media moguls argue, "We're just giving America what it craves. If they didn't want it, they wouldn't watch it. But look at the ratings." And they are right.

Today, we live in a world of instant information. Television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet intensely scrutinize games and the athletes who play them. Everything gets reported. Athletes' lives are dissected and laid out at the public's doorstep for careful examination. There is no longer a right to privacy for the athlete in the modern fishbowl.

It's ironic that competition among the media for stories is as fierce as the games they cover. And to insure the ratings or the readership, the stories seem to gravitate toward the most violent, the most salacious, the most outrageous. In that sense, "the good old days" are gone.


Excerpted from WHY JOHNNY HATES SPORTS by FRED ENGH Copyright © 2002 by Square One Publishers . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents





1. The Sad State of Sports in America  

2. The Evolution of Kids’ Sports in America   

3. Parents   

4. The Youth Coach   

5. Administrators—The Key to It All  

6. Return the Game to the Children  

7. Solutions  


To Get Involved  

About the Author



Have you ever looked into the eyes of a child who has been yelled at for simply dropping a ball or missing a tackle? Have you seen his pain? Have you ever watched a child berated by a coach? Have you seen children frozen by the fear of making a mistake and hearing about it from the adults? Have you seen a child reduced to tears by a stinging criticism from a parent or a coach? Have you ever watched as a child begged to quit a sport because the pressure was just too unbearable and playing was no longer any fun? I have seen all of that, and more, and after thirty years of observing sports for children from every angle, I am convinced there is a growing problem in this country, and it must be addressed—now.

            It’s also important to point out to readers of this book that, throughout my career, I have met hundreds of parents who exemplify model behavior in the treatment of children and demonstrate genuine understanding in how to be a supportive parent.

            I’ve also worked with wonderful league administrators who’ve volunteered untold hours in organizing sports programs for children, with one thing in mind—making it fun for the kids. And having seven children of my own, I can’t begin to tell you how comforting it was to know that so many of their coaches truly cared about them and the others entrusted to their care.

            Kids. Which kids are we talking about? When talking about youth sports, perhaps one of the most misunderstood areas is the age level we are addressing. I should make clear at the beginning that this book is focused primarily on the child who may enter the world of organized sports as young as age four and play up to perhaps age thirteen, at which time, statistics show, most will have dropped out. It is mainly within these years that children are learning about themselves psychologically, physically, emotionally, and socially. Their personalities are being molded. Their minds are forming lasting impressions as to the importance of sports in their lives. It is at this level that we, as parents, coaches, and administrators, will play the greatest role in making the sports experience positive, healthy, and safe. We can see that the results of our children’s experiences during these years are crucial, especially when we consider the positive role sports can play in their overall development.

            We hope our kids’ experiences will be positive, but I must acknowledge that many organized youth sports programs in America today are not so good. Some have been transformed into combat zones where violent behavior is just another part of the game. Parents argue with coaches, abuse officials, and confront parents from opposing teams—often with bloody results. Violence, brawls, fist-fights, and post-game tirades have become an epidemic in youth sports, and it is spilling over into our everyday society, contributing to an increasing display of gangs, violence, drug abuse, and a lack of respect for property and ­people.


Recently, in Salt Lake City, Utah, two women assaulted a mother following a youth baseball championship game, leaving the mother unconscious. In Manitoba, Canada, an assistant coach allegedly jumped over the boards and grabbed the referee during a tournament game for thirteen-year-olds. In Whitewater, Wisconsin, a baseball coach for children ages twelve and thirteen was taken into custody on accusations that he had grabbed an umpire, wrestling him to the ground. In Rockaway, New Jersey, a baseball coach was hit with a $1,000 fine and five days in the sheriff’s work program for assaulting a thirteen-year-old player during practice. In Los Angeles, more than thirty adults brawled at the conclusion of an under-fourteen soccer tournament game, leading to the arrest of three parents, including one on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. In Hazlet, New Jersey, an umpire and parent were called into police headquarters after exchanging blows at a baseball game among grade schoolers. In Man­al­apan, New Jersey, police investigated an incident in which a youth baseball coach claimed to have been attacked by a father who was upset because his child had not played in a game. And the list goes on and on.

            Sure, there are many adults who do a wonderful job helping youngsters have positive experiences in sports. But the age-old ideal that children’s participation in games should be fun, and should contribute to physical development and social skills has been buried amid a plethora of police reports, hospital emergency room visits, and arrest warrants. An ever-increasing number of coaches and parents—the most important role models in a young athlete’s life—pay lip service to the importance of sportsmanship, fair play, and fun in youth sports. It’s all too clear that their real focus is on winning—whatever the cost—and their actions at games are speaking a lot louder than any empty words.


Studies show that an alarming 70 percent of the approximately 20 million children who participate in organized out-of-school athletic programs will quit by the age of thirteen because of unpleasant sports experiences. That’s 17.5 million unhappy, dispirited children. It’s a frightening statistic that paints a rather bleak picture of organized sports in America today. The culprits are the adults who, in their roles as coaches, administrators, and parents, have misguided motives and ideals of what youth sports are all about.

The Win-at-All-Cost Coaches

Win-at-all-cost coaches who are obsessed with winning games and championships plague too many youth sports programs. We have all seen these adults—blinded by visions of first-place trophies, playoffs, and post-season glory—prowling the sidelines, yelling at children, and insulting officials. Even worse, many coaches lose total control and get physical—grabbing, hitting, and throwing things—all horrifying examples of what can happen when the adults take over the child’s game.

The Overzealous Parents

Scoreboards, standings, and championships also bring out the very worst in many parents, who undergo an amazing transformation once they arrive at the playing field. They yell at their child, criticize coaches, and degrade officials who make calls against “their” team. These parents are loud, negative, and disruptive, a terrible influence to every child playing the game. The parents’ perspective can become easily distorted when it comes to the exciting world of youth sports, and their poorly chosen words and actions can cause irreparable harm to children. They have failed to recognize that many of the things that they do to children in the name of sports can actually be considered child abuse.

The Untrained Administrators

Our sports programs are also overflowing with administrators who have had no training whatsoever in how programs should be conducted for children. For the most part, they’ve been unable to make informed decisions or implement standards and policies that cater to the needs of the young participants. They are one reason why the ridiculous behaviors we see on our playing fields every day have become an almost-accepted part of the programs.

            A study by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission reported that 45.3 percent of the children surveyed said adults had called them names, yelled at them, and insulted them while the youngsters played in a sports contest. It also revealed that 21.5 percent had been pressured to play with an injury. Shockingly, 17.5 percent even reported that an adult had hit, kicked, and slapped them while participating in sports. Much of the blame for such conditions must be attached to the youth sports administrators who allegedly set the standards for conduct, fail to recognize when those standards have been breached, and neglect their duty to discipline appropriately those responsible.


Why are youth sports in such a state of disarray? Why in the so-called name of fun do we continue to do things to children that chase them away from the games they once loved to play?

            During the last couple of decades, professional, collegiate, and even high school sports have undergone a remarkable transformation. Sportsmanship and fair play have become virtually nonexistent, while incidents of cheating, taunting, attacking officials, and running up the score have increased drastically. The attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that surround sports at these levels have trickled down into youth athletics and spread like a deadly virus across its landscape.  Has anyone noticed what’s happening?


This book will examine the cultural phenomena we’re experiencing in organized youth sports. No other book exists today that examines in such detail these problems, why they’re occurring, and what can be done about them.  It is based on more than thirty years of experience as athlete, administrator, coach, and parent.

            As you read, it’s important to understand that there are workable solutions available, ones that can be implemented at every level, in every community.

            We begin with an overview of sports during the last century and how we’ve arrived at the way games are played by athletes and watched by fans today. We’ll look at the behaviors that dominate professional sports as well as issues such as fair play, ethics, and sportsmanship, and how they influence the manner in which youth sports programs are conducted.

            We’ll take an in-depth look at parents with children involved in organized sports. We’ll discuss their motivations for enrolling their child, examine their roles and responsibilities, explain when they should cheer or “chill out,” and offer suggestions on how they can ensure a fun and memorable experience for their child. We’ll delve into the whole issue of coaching youth sports and cover the characteristics that all good coaches possess, why they often cross the line from stressing fun to winning, and the vital role they play in each child’s life.

            Then we will look at the children who play these games. We’ll look at what they want from their sports experiences, why they’re dropping out of sports in ever-increasing numbers, and what effect pressure and stress from adults have on their physical and emotional development.

            We’ll confront the issues that have been a part of organized youth sports since their inception. Particularly for those children younger than ten or twelve years old, what role does winning really play? How can we emphasize play rather than competition, especially for those younger children? How can we avoid pitting the early maturer against the late maturer? Why do children get involved in sports to begin with?

            The administration of youth sports is often an overlooked aspect, but these behind-the-scenes adults play a significant role in what types of experiences everyone will have. They control the reins regarding policies, procedures, and rulings, all of which impact on the programs we offer our youngsters.

            Finally, we will offer concrete, realistic solutions that have proven to be successful in communities across the country. At this important juncture in youth sports, too many children are being deprived of fun-filled and rewarding experiences. It’s time to change because we cannot afford to destroy any more young lives. It’s time to put the fun back in sports for kids. For all of us.



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