The Little League World Series is upon us. While we will have to wait until August 28th to find out who the champions of the sandlot are this summer, the qualifying games are already in full swing. But "little leaguers" have been busy all summer, participating in a variety of sporting activities around the globe. 1. Eight-year-old "Princess" Jasmine Parr faced a shrinking and pinking backlash after a June kickboxing fight against Georgina "Punchout" Barton. The seven- and eight-year-olds duked it out in Australia, where their fight was ruled a draw. They kicked and hit one another in front of nearly 500, some of whom gave them cash tips. Girls and competitive activities have created quite a furor in Australia this summer (see some of my coverage of this summer's child beauty pageant conflict in Australia). What's interesting is that many of the complaints between the two activities are similar-- claims of child abuse, along with concerns about physical and emotional harm (although the immediate physical danger of potential brain injury is clearly far greater in a kickboxing match). In both cases calls for government investigation and intervention were made; and, in both cases, the parents of the involved girls defended their decisions citing the child's enjoyment and preparation for the realities of life.
What's interesting to me is that I think there would have been an issue whether it was girls or boys participating in child beauty pageants in Australian. I'm not so sure the reaction would have been so similar if this was a bout between seven- and eight-year-old boys. Of course, many would have been appalled, but I don't think the reaction would have been as strong as young girls fighting, because "Princess" and "Punchout" trangress gender norms in a very different way than Eden Wood (child beauty pageants can be said to over-emphasize femininity).
Australia seems to be at the forefront of confronting issues of competitive childhoods. Many Aussie parents seem to be moving in a more "American-style" direction with structured childhoods, while others resist it. Case in point: I've been fascinated for some time that Peggy Liddick was brought to Australia from the US to run their women's artistic gymnastics program (Liddick had coached World Champion and Olympian Shannon Miller, among others). The US has famously made us of coaches from the former USSR, but now American coaches are being exported to help jumpstart aspiring programs. Will Australia tend to follow in competitive parenting traditions of the US, or establish her own patterns?
2. In an example of how even the most quotidian childhood game can turn competitive, look no further than reigning queen and king "mibsters" Bailey Narr and Brandon Matchett. After seeing their accomplishment written up in the August 8th Sports Illustrated, as part of "Faces in the Crowd," I had to look up the National Marbles Tournament. I discovered that those who are serious about competitive marbles are called "mibsters" and that these eleven- and twelve-year-old members of marbles royalty each won $2000 scholarships. The National Marbles Tournament has been held since 1922-- a time when many other competitive children's activities also got their start (like the National Spelling Bee, for example). Yet more evidence that the American tradition of transforming children's games into serious, money-making endeavors is nothing new.
3. It is Little League Baseball which has, arguably, most successfully transformed a youthful, summertime pastime into a highly competitive and lucrative enterprise. The Little League World Series (LLWS) is evidence of the spread of American-style youth competition across the globe. And it seems that the World Series does help identify future Major Leaguers. As a recent piece in the current SI Kids shows, professional athletes often get their first taste of high-stakes competition in Williamsport, including current Major Leaguers Jason Varitek (Red Sox catcher, LLWS 1984) and Colby Rasmus (Cardinals centerfielder, LLWS 1999). Most interesting is that Chris Drury played in the 1989 LLWS-- helping lead his US championship team from Connecticut to victory. Drury pitched and hit in the Series. Yet Drury is now a star in the NHL, playing center for the Rangers. Drury's success just goes to show that young athletes don't have to specialize so young. They can, and should, pursue multiple sports and activities in childhood-- including kickboxing and marbles, of course.