An unusual sporting event starts in Williamsport, Virginia. It is the Little league World Series a baseball tournament for 11-13 year olds. The unusual thing about it is it is live on ESPN Television in the USA and has been on American TV since 1953. It used to be on TV in the UK too but not now. I could never watch it anyway – partly because Little League’s record on gender equality is awful* but mainly because in my opinion treating children like professional athletes is just wrong.
You think I’m exaggerating? This appeared in the Boston Globe in 2004 (reprinted in Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano’s excellent “Playing With the Boys” (page 242) and is about the response to a team of Little Leaguers from Saugus, Massachusetts in 2003:
Highlights from their Little League games were even shown on the jumbotron at Fenway Park. When the team returned home and the bus pulled into the high school parking lot on Aug 25, the players were greeted by 200 fans. As the police held the crowd back, the Little leaguers signed T-shirts, baseballs and hats on the back of a pick up truck that said “Saugus Americans, New England regional champs”.The team was also honoured by the Red Sox, and with a motorcade through Saugus”.
And this for a team of children – who weren’t even American champions. For the team that did win the US Championship – from East Boynton Beach Florida – “recognition came during Game 3 of the Major League World Series between the New York Yankees and the Florida (now Miami) Marlins. The boys met President George W Bush and Florida governor Jeb Bush and were recognised at a Miami Dolphins (American) football game. As McDonagh and Pappano say (page 242-3) this reveals a system seriously out of kilter. It will be virtually impossible for those Little League players to do anything in the future without it being noted they were members of that team. That is true even if they make it to the majors. Todd Frazier of the Cincinnati Reds is an all star and runner-up in the 2014 Home Run Derby. And still they mention the fact he was a member of the Toms River New Jersey team that won the 1998 Little League World Series.
Of course this does not just apply to baseball. Women’s tennis used to be full of 14-year-old whizzkids – Austin, Jaeger, Hingis, Seles, Capriati – but most of them burned out too young. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) quite rightly introduced a rule that stops anyone under 15 from playing at all and limits the events 15 to 17-year-olds can play. The result? Fewer cases of burnout and 20 is considered young to be a Grand Slam finalist these days.
Not that we in Britain can gloat. Anyone who attends a boys’ football match in Britain can hear parents shouting at young children while living out their fantasies and pretending to be Mourinho or Wenger. It is an obscene spectacle and quite rightly the FA are trying to stop it.
Nor is this unique to sport. In 1974 a 10-year-old called Lena Zavaroni won Opportunity Knocks (think Britain’s Got Talent) for five weeks in a row. But the fame destroyed her. By 13 she was anorexic, and by 15 she was clinically depressed. It is at least possible her early fame was a factor.
And we haven’t learned the lesson, even today. Just last week Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole had a row over 14-year olds in the X Factor (he was for she was against). Cheryl is right. The age limit should be 16.
The point I am making – wither in sport or show business – is just let children be children. Don’t treat them like professional performers until they are ready. Let them enjoy their sport or their signing. There is plenty of time for money and fame when they are old enough to cope with it. And Little League should not be televised. Let the children enjoy themselves. Free from TV cameras and media hype.
*In 1951 Little League Baseball(LLB) introduced a rule saying “girls are not eligible under any conditions”. In 1974 they had to admit girls after they lost a New Jersey court case and the US government passed legislation allowing girls to play. Their response was to set up Little League Softball for girls on the basis that girls (aged 11-13!) could not play baseball with boys. According to John Kovach (“Where’s the Ponytail?” 2007)”At almost every Little League season sign up if you are female you are sent to the softball line and not told you have a choice. The choice is made for you”. Since 1974 only 18 girls have played in the Little League World Series – the 17th and 18th are playing this year. It could be said LLB lost the battle in 1974 but won the war. And to think this organisation has a Federal charter from the US government – meaning that “its mission and values should support those of the United States government”. I did not know it was US government policy to deny girls freedom of choice. LLB, in my opinion, must be the most sexist sports organisation in the world.