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Playground Basketball Dying… and so is Childhood

July 28, 2014

Two article recently drove home the point that my experiences as a child have gone the way of defined benefit pensions and full paid health care.

A few days ago I read “Playground Basketball is Dying” a multi-part ESPN article written by Myron Medcalf and Dana O’Neill. I spent the greater part of two years playing outdoor basketball in West Chester PA in the mid 1960s, sometimes with young adults and “wannabes” and sometimes with members of the varsity high school team. The games had no referees and were “make-it-take-it” games that you HAD to win if you wanted to stay on the court. Growing up as a college and professional basketball follower I read about the various urban basketball playground meccas in the 1970s described in this ESPN article and was saddened to read that fewer and fewer youngsters are playing pick-up games outdoors in part because the “elite players”, including high school athletes, are being siphoned off to play indoor AAU basketball. Why? Because they want to avoid the possibility of getting injured on the court and jeopardizing their college opportunities. With no local pick up games happening, marginal athletes, like me, have no hope of playing with “elite” athletes… and in cities, where the crowds drawn to pick-up games made the courts safe havens, the lack of these games makes the courts part of gang turf.

All Played Out” orthopedic surgeon/parent Ron Turker’s Sunday NYTimes, illustrates how the death of playground basketball is playing out in the more affluent communities. Turker describes the situation in suburban America:

The landscape of youth sports has changed markedly in the last 20 years. Free play, where children gather after school, pick a game and play until called in for dinner, is almost extinct. Highly organized and stratified sports have become the norm. Time, place and rules are now dictated to our kids rather than organized by the kids.

And as adults interpose themselves into athletics, pressure to succeed becomes higher and higher and Turker sees mental stress as well as physical stress in his practice as an orthopedist. Like the urban athletes, the suburban athletes are increasingly motivated by the almighty dollar:

As parents, we want what’s best for our kids but we’ve abdicated our parental rights and duties to the new societal norm. Youth sports have become big business. Millions of dollars flow to coaches, leagues, equipment, road trips, motels, tournament fees — and the list goes on. We give in to the herd mentality along with our confounded friends so that our kids won’t be seen as outliers.

So instead of a bunch of kids playing half-court basketball on asphalt courts we have a small group of “youth athletes” playing in arenas on corporate sponsored teams. Instead of town recreation leagues (“Wreck Leagues” to use the disparaging term cited in Turker’s article) children are expected to select one sport to play and make a “traveling team”. The result: more and more kids are using out of team sports altogether and playing video games… and we are losing the cohesion that comes from playing on a team and the self-regulation that is developed when adults are not available to intermediate… and turning back is going to be a daunting challenge.

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