Parents all over the world are teaching their children to grow into adults by treating them like kids.
It's a bizarre and befuddling tactic, the popularity of which came into focus this week as the Little League World Series of Softball found itself embroiled in controversy.
In case you missed it, this is what happened. A team from Snohomish, Washington intentionally lost their final pool play game on Monday, reportedly to avoid a rematch with a tough Central-Iowa team that would get trapped in a three-way tie and be eliminated pending a Snohomish loss.
Snohomish coach Fred Miller instructed players to bunt and rested his starters against North Carolina who, as a result of their 8-0, no-hitter win against Snohomish, advanced to the semifinal. Reports of Iowa players watching the game and crying as they realized what was happening attracted national attention.
Iowa protested the loss, convinced Little League officials that Washington "did not play fair" and as opposed to disqualifying the team got officials to issue a one-game playoff between Snohomish and Iowa. Washington went on to lose to Iowa 3-2, proving their coach's concern that they couldn't get past the Iowa squad.
Local news was quick to pounce on the story.
Parents, coaches, Iowans and sports commentators everywhere lambasted the coach for his decision to put his team in the best position to win the tournament by throwing the game. National opinion quickly swung against Miller, and the criticism and character bashing were relentless.
"You look at the poor girls from Washington. They're suffering now because of a decision made by their coach," Central Iowa Little League president Chris Chadd told ESPN after Iowa won the one-game playoff. "I just feel for those girls. It makes me sad to know that those girls' hearts are breaking because of this.”
Coaches, fans and parents should be intellectually honest with their children and encourage them to think outside the box.
Chris Chadd, who pleaded for Washington to be disqualified after their loss eliminated Iowa, later said it was a “cop out” that Washington wasn’t tossed from the tournament, proving he too cares little about the girls or the game — and only about winning.
Mike Young, a league President of Walnut Creek Baseball, hopped on the Miller bashing bandwagon.
"You see in any youth sport plenty of people that are genuine, good-hearted, wonderful people, and then you put the coaching shoes on and they turn into a totally different person, completely unrecognizable,” he said. "The great thing about all this exposure is that maybe it lets coaches in any sport do a double-check and see that maybe it isn't as important to be competitive in every game as it is to do it the right way.”
And what exactly is the right way? SB Nation author Alysha Tsuji congratulated the Iowa team on their win, saying, “Wipe away the tears, Central Iowa, because you're moving on! The good guys don't always finish last.”
Am I missing something? The object of a game is to win. And the best way to do that in a bracket is to play teams that you know you'd fair well against. Teaching our kids that it's wrong to throw a game they earned the right to lose is disingenuous and antithetical to the goal of turning them into rational, emotionally resilient adults.
Coaches, fans and parents should be intellectually honest with their children and encourage them to think outside the box. Sometimes that's what is needed to accomplish a task — and no one should feel guilty about it.
If central-Iowa wanted to advance to the semifinal, maybe they shouldn't have lost a game in pool play. On the national stage, coaches, parents and league officials had an opportunity to teach kids that sometimes winning involves another layer of strategy and creativity. Instead they taught them that popular opinion and soft parents can block a well-earned path to success.
Athletes like James Harrison don't bother with "participation trophies" for their kids because our children deserve to be taught how to win, not just how to play a game. Whether we're prepared to admit it, winning frequently involves exploiting shortcuts and employing strategy, adaptability and foresight. All of those things were present in Miller's decision to rest his stars and bunt through their final game.
If I were a parent, I'd be happy to have Coach Miller instruct my children. I'd be glad to know they were learning from someone who understood how to work the system and gain an upper hand when you have an opportunity, provided it doesn't "violate the letter of the rules," as Snohomish Little League President Jeff Taylor assured the Everett Herald Miller's decision did not. Because if being spirited or honoring the game is about giving your best, then you should truly do everything you can to come out on top.