One of the many benefits of working at a newspaper is that expert advice is never far away.
When my younger boy decided to play football in the 7th grade, I was concerned. He had played other sports — basketball, baseball. But football seemed not just difficult, but dangerous.
As I was brooding on this I noticed my colleague Rick Telander, nearby at a desk — not his desk, since he was never in the newsroom long enough to need one, instead traveling the world covering sports. He was once a star cornerback at Northwestern and drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. He knows this stuff.
I told him my kid was starting football and asked if he had any sage advice. He replied immediately with one sentence:
“When he gets his first concussion, make him quit.”
Right, Rick was also in the forefront of moving the concussion disaster from guilty NFL secret to general public knowledge. I promised him I would.
But most people don’t work at a newspaper. Which is why my attention was caught by a bright, newly published volume called “#HeySportsParents! An Essential Guide for Any Parent With a Child in Sports” by Sharkie Zartman and Dr. Robert Weil. The former, a five-time All American volleyball champion at UCLA; the latter, a Chicago podiatrist with a radio show, “The Sports Doctor.”
Youth sports covers a huge spectrum, from toddlers having fun in park-district leagues to hot professional prospects being groomed for future stardom, and #HeySportsParents covers it all in 160 chatty pages.
The first section, written by Zartman, deals with topics like finding the right program and managing college recruitment and stress; the second part, written by Weil, is about preventing injuries, avoiding drugs and choosing shoes, with a chapter on tackle football, while the third is turned over to a variety of experts writing about everything from nutrition to dealing with overzealous sports parents.
Weil doesn’t mince words regarding the concern that sent me to Rick.
“Tackle football is unsafe at any age — period,” he writes.
Weil doesn’t quite tell parents not to let their kids play tackle football. But he doesn’t give them much wiggle room, either.
“Young players who exhibit headaches, memory problems, sleep problems, and personality changes, among other problems, are far more common than anyone imagined,” Weil writes. “Do we really want to put our child’s future health at risk because of a game?”
I phoned Weil.
“The bottom line is, there is an epidemic in youth sports injuries, whether physically or mentally,” he said. “You’ve got these pressures on these kids. When you talk to school psychologists, you have no idea some of the problems they’re having.”
Parents of athletes struggle to find the right balance. A Northbrook neighbor, who had one son go to college on a volleyball scholarship and a high schooler in line to do the same with soccer, sees both sides.
“I love sports, love all the life lessons, love the competition, the joy, and I want to honor that and, nurture that,” said Carla Slawson Martens. “It’s unbelievable how normal people turn into crazy people watching youth sports.”
She has seen soccer matches where “the ref called the game because the parents went berserk.” She’s also seen fistfights between parents.
Martens is a big fan of Positive Coaching Alliance, a group stressing that youth sports is not professional sports.
“Let’s bring back the youth part of youth sports,” she said. “The nature of sports is to compete and win and do your best, but reemphasize youth. These are children, and teaching and learning has to be part of it. Our goal is to raise good human beings. Bring back the concept of sportsmanship. Honor the game.”
That sounds like a plan.
My own kid, by the way, ended up playing on the special-teams unit, meaning he was only on the field for punts and kickoffs, a situation that seemed to suit him fine. If he ever tackled another player or got tackled himself, I never saw it, despite watching every game. The next year he shifted to tennis, a sport that required incredibly expensive shoes, racquets and lessons, and forced a parent, often me, to sit among other tennis parents, listening to their conversation while waiting for his class to end. Here I found earbuds useful.