High Kicks: The Latest in Competitive Dance and Soccer from Choreography Theft to Poaching to Year-round Commitments (and Injuries)

Lifetime's Season 2 of Dance Moms continues to get sillier and sillier as the contrivances spin out faster than a terrible fouetté turn.  What can you say when Kendall leaves Abby's studio and ends up at Candy Apples in Ohio besides, "Yeah, right! Producer interference!" in Episode 8, "The Runaway Mom?" And Abby's decision to have the girls compete as burlesque dancers in Episode 9's "Topless Showgirls" is so obviously meant to shock it's painful.  The show, unsurprisingly, made headlines after that tasteless move (even I admit to being mortified when Abby yelled out, "Crotch! Boobs!" in rehearsal).

[Not surprisingly, and somewhat reassuringly, Lifetime is not allowing any rebroadcasts of this episode. Pushed the envelope TOO far (toward pedophilia), clearly. Love the following line from this March 23rd article about the episode being pulled: "Coincidentally, the yanked episode contains a subplot in which a child is transformed into a literal piece of meat."]

But once in the while the show does manage to say something interesting about the state of competitive dance.  Previously they touched on the issue of parents lying about their children's age and age fallbacks. Runaway mom Jill's departure in Episode 8 allowed Abby to discuss a serious issue in dance: choreography theft. Sometimes studios steal choreography from others that they see at competitions, which has long been an issue on the competitive circuit, as I discovered during my research.  But dance isn't just about creativity and artistry-- it is also a business, especially for studio owners like Abby. That choreography is her work product, so when Kendall uses it to "win" for someone else that is a form of intellectual property theft.  (I found this interesting article about what whether or not dance teachers employed by a studio owner own their own choreography after they leave. The issue is similar to one scientists face while working for a university or corporation. The short answer is that, no, they do not own it when they have been paid by someone else to create it.)

The reason why Kendall's defection affected Abby so much though is that it appeared as if Kathy "poached" her-- though this wasn't really what happened.  Another thing I discovered during my research is that poaching (when a coach or organization "steals" a student away from another coach or program) is common in lots of competitive children's activities. But I heard about it most often in travel soccer. In some areas the problem had previously been so bad that leagues had developed rules that once a season started a player was not allowed to switch and play for another team.  Most of the poaching took place in the spring/summer, as team compositions could shift more easily.

Now, with new rules that talented soccer players won't be allowed to play for both a development academy club team (which are at an even higher level than competitive, travel teams) and their high school's team, I expect this to become an even more weighty issue for players. With a year-round season that demands so much commitment it will be interesting to see how American soccer develops and performs over the next decade.  This move seems to be an attempt to unify training procedures-- though we still haven't yet reached true national training programs for young kids, in the grand tradition of many Communist countries.

But this move does signal a hat tip to the ways in which many European soccer ("football") clubs operate. Last week's Times article reminded me of an excellent piece Michael Sokolove wrote in 2010 for The New York Times Magazine: "How A Soccer Star is Made."  Sokolove identified some telling differences in the ways that Americans and Europeans develop child soccer players. He wrote, "Americans like to put together teams, even at the Pee Wee level, that are meant to win...Americans place a higher value on competition than on practice, so the balance between games and practice in the U.S. is skewed when compared with the rest of the world. It’s not unusual for a teenager in the U.S. to play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training and little energy for it in the infrequent moments it occurs. A result is that the development of our best players is stunted."  We'll see if this shifts over time.

One likely negative outcome of this highly competitive year-round soccer season is an increase in injuries.  Youth sports injuries continue to garner a lot of attention and concern amongst both medical practitioners and parents. Check out this somewhat disturbing report sponsored by Little League Baseball now saying that they can't say for sure that throwing curveballs hurt young players.

So, what would you chose for your child? Curveballs, year-round seasons, or burlesque dance routines?

Should we pay Little Leaguers? (from orgtheory.net)

Second post over at orgtheory-- this on compensating players in the Little League World Series. Did you watch the Little League World Series last month? It’s possible you missed it in the wake of other news stories, like Hurricane Irene.  But this year’s winners (a team from Huntingdon Beach, California) were also overshadowed by coverage of their own game, as the state of competitive youth baseball and whether or not these “unpaid adolescents” were being exploited became the media’s focus.

Sportswriter Dan Wetzel made his case for compensating Little Leaguers in “Pay the Little League World Series Players.”  Wetzel writes: “Not every Little Leaguer, just the ones who play on television, where their innocence is packaged into a commodity. And, no, they shouldn’t make millions or even hundreds of thousands.  They should get something, maybe several hundred per television appearance. If it made people more comfortable that the money went to a college savings fund or maybe into a trust that becomes available when they’re 18 or 21, so be it.”

Any self-respecting economic sociologist, or sociologist of childhood, will immediately think of Viviana Zelizer’s classic Pricing the Priceless Child after reading this quote.  And you will also know that childhood innocence and compensation do not always mix so well.

I’ve written about how we should think of children’s participation in afterschool activities as a form of children’s work.  Afterschool activities can qualify as “work” both because of prizes won and because of the acquisition of cultural capital that will have a pay-off in the longer run.  I’ve also written about child performers, particularly children on reality television shows, and how they are compensated.  Child performers have always occupied a complicated space in child labor debates, partly because their “work” is often constructed as being “educational.” But I’m not aware of any serious scholarship (sociological, economic, or legal) on compensation of child athletes.


In my opinion compensating child athletes may sound logical on some level, but it is a complicated issue that poses a few problems that are likely insurmountable in today’s commodified world.  The most obvious practical complication has to do with NCAA regulations. If we compensate kids they almost certainly lose their NCAA eligibility.  Of course many of these kids won’t go on to play NCAA baseball, but they may play another NCAA sport.  Compensating them without proper protections in place jeopardizes those future opportunities. (Paying NCAA athletes is another issue that has been batted around for some time, though it also has been talked abouta lot more in the past few months).

Second, and even more complicated, is that if we compensate kids in a way consistent with them being classified as workers or performers (and limiting compensation to those who appear on television makes it more likely they would be classified as performers) that would also limit the number of hours they could “work” and the conditions under which they could labor.  This could impact practice times, length of games, and other parts of the sporting experience.

However, I do believe that kids should be compensated and rewarded for their hard work—particularly when it helps adults benefit financially. One model to look at would be the National Spelling Bee (which, incidentally, is now not only broadcast on ESPN, but also live on ABC in the final rounds).  Finalists receive prizes, like an encyclopedia, along with scholarships, bonds, and cash awards.  Other in-kind gifts like computers and trips are also possible (for example the National Geography Bee winner wins a trip to the Galapagos Islands). Perhaps elite child athletes could receive similar types of awards—like specialized training—that could protect them from NCAA violations.

In the meantime they have to settle for hometown parades and a DVD of their television appearances.  What do you think is fair?

Shrinking and Pinking: "Little" League Edition

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.

Shrinking and Pinking: Summer Round-Up

The summer brings warm weather (finally!), outdoor activities, and lots of sports news.  What's new in the world of shrinking of pinking since my last installment? Here are some female-centered sports stories that I've been thinking about this past month.

1) Did you see this excellent piece in The New York Times about Babe? No, not Babe Ruth-- Babe Didrikson Zaharias. I remember reading a biography of Babe as a young, unathletic girl and being amazed by her accomplishments.  Though she died young-- at age 45-- she accomplished much, including winning multiple Olympic golds in track and field, being an All-American basketball player, and a golf champion (she helped found the LPGA).  It's not an overstatement to say she may be the most well-rounded and accomplished female athlete of all time. But she's largely forgotten today, despite being a trailblazer. Today's female athletes should remember that Babe Didrikson Zaharias helped pave the way for all of them, long before Title IX came along.

2) Another story from the annals of sports history offers a slightly different lesson-- one young, female athletes today shouldn't imitate. Did you see the Sports Illustrated story on Kathryn Johnston Massar? Massar is credited as being the first girl to play Little League baseball. But there's one problem. She was actually too old to play Little League "legally" since she was fourteen at the time of her ground-breaking season in 1950 in upstate New York.  While it's clear to me Massar shouldn't be recognized as the first female to play Little League-- that the honor should go to Maria Pepe for pitching as a 12-year-old in 1972-- Massar's case raises interesting questions about when boys and girls play together and if the same rules should apply. Given that boys tend to be bigger than girls around puberty, should we allow "older" girls to play with "younger" boys?

3) Then again, Marti Semetelli shows that some girls can hang with the boys, regardless of age. This female pitching phenom will play on the boys' baseball team at Montreat College in North Carolina. At only 5'2" Marti is a force to be reckoned with while on the mound. It will be interesting to see how her collegiate career develops.  I think Babe (maybe both Babes?) would be happy to see a female collegiate pitcher take the mound.

4) While some girls can play with some boys, there's a move in Massachusetts to prevent too many boys from playing with the girls.  Because there simply aren't enough boys who play field hockey in high school, boys are allowed to play on girls' teams (the reverse of girls wrestling on boys' teams, which I've written about before).  But these boys tend to be bigger and play more aggressively. This article in The Boston Globe details the serious concussion one female player sustained at the hands of a male field hockey player.  After incidents like this one, coaches petitioned to prevent more than two boys at a time from playing on the field, playing in the area just around the goal, and from playing goalkeeper. Some oppose these changes, saying they discriminate against boys-- though I can see that they are meant to protect everyone on the field. Hopefully soon there will be enough boys interested in field hockey that all-male teams can be fielded.

5) Another rule change, though this one separates men from women. No longer will men and women (competitively) eat against one another. Now there will be separate competitions to crown male and female victors. As this article explains, "'Serena Williams didn’t have to beat Roger Federer to win the Wimbledon title, and we don’t think Sonya Thomas should have to beat Joey Chestnut,' said master of ceremonies George Shea." In case you don't know who Sonya Thomas is, she's "The Black Widow" of competitive eating (at only 105 pounds she once ate 41 hot dogs in 10 minutes); Joey Chestnut, also known as "Jaws," ate 54 hot dogs in 10 minutes.  While there is currently controversy over the men's competitive eating world champion, no one seems dismayed that women now get their own title and competition, as the move is expected to give women more attention.  Do you think having separate-sex championships (they do the same thing, somewhat controversially, for women in chess) will help women, or hurt them?

More importantly, what would the great Babe Didrikson Zaharias think of competitive eating as a sport?