The Similar Worlds of Mutton Busting and AAU Basketball

In addition to reading a lot of books, I read a lot of magazines. Sometimes it takes me awhile to get through the stack on my nightstand, but I always do. I recently read two articles in my "regulars" (New Yorker and Sports Illustrated) that spoke to one another in important ways-- even if no one else sees it but me! The first is "The Ride of Their Lives: Children prepare for the world's most dangerous organized sport" by Burkhard Bilger in last month's New Yorker and the second is "Out of Power" by Pete Thamel in the August 25th issue of SI about Curtis Malone, a convicted drug dealer who ran one of the most influential AAU basketball programs in the country. I've written a bit about mutton busting before, and the circuit has only intensified since I last wrote (kids with stage names, customized clothes, bling, etc.). Here are the ways in which these article reveal these two very different youth sports are similar to one another, and the constellation of other competitive youth activities. These are both worlds where kids get nicknames (see also the recent NYT piece on girls in a boys' basketball league, which is full of stereotypes), can earn gear and swag, and potential earn money (a lot of it in fact).

Image by Jonno Rattman for New Yorker, Jadeyn Lara and Shayne Spain

The line that resonated most with my Playing to Win research, and my beauty pageant research, from the Bilger article is, "Around here, the notion of childhood as a safe, protected place—a benign bubble—seemed like poor training for life." Bilger is a gorgeous writer-- his prose is evocative, the details truly evocative and illustrative. But this sentence captures the hardscrabble hopes so many parents have for their children, and the ways in which activities outside of school can lead to other opportunities. IN both Oklahoma and Texas and DC, basketball and rodeo offer real benefits, despite the risks (whether they be injuries or drugs).

In both activities the authors discuss the intensification over the past decades-- more people, more money, more business opportunities. As the stakes get higher in childhood in general, we see what I refer to as cottage industries spring up that enable adults, who may be helping children at first (and some continue to, but not all), make more and more money. As Thamel writes, "Malone quickly grasped that in the essentially unregulated youth basketball world, the key is to acquire talent." Thamel finds that the same skills that make someone successful as a drug dealer work when it comes to youth basketball: charisma, street savvy, discretion, and organization. I can assure you that this is also true when it comes to kids' chess, dance, soccer, beauty pageants, afterschool math classes, etc. So long as the realms remain unregulated, this will remain true.

One of my favorite lines from the Bilger piece was a line uttered by a parent about his son trying to stay on a calf for 8 seconds. His son fell off but the dad remarked, "He hit the ground trying." This is both a great lesson kids can gain from participating in activities like these, but it also suggests the potential pitfalls for so many adults, including parents, involved. If the focus stays more on the kids' learning, and less on profit, hopefully this can be true for all kids...

The Mutton Busting Circuit for Kids

General George Patton often declared in his speeches to troops during World War II, “When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time.” Now, if you like to ride sheep, aspire to be a bull rider, and are at least three-years-old, I have a new sport for you to play to win: Mutton busting.  This week The New York Times ran an article on the kids’ mutton busting circuit in Colorado. Kids, aged three to six, compete to see who can stay on the back of a lamb for the longest amount of time.  As with so many other kids’ activities that used to take place without any adult supervision, mutton busting has, “begun to move from horseplay, and the occasional rodeo halftime show, to wider, sometimes suburban, audiences and competitors, toward becoming a codified sport with its own gear and championships.”

This is what mutton busting looks like in action:

(I can’t help but comment on this little girl’s fabulous pink cowboy boots. She clearly knows how to blend a competitive streak with a flair of femininity.)

In contemporary American society everything does seem to be competitive.  Organized, tournament-like competitions are held for the seemingly mundane, the inane, and the arcane.  We have competitive eating contests, beauty pageants, bodybuilding competitions, spelling bees, video game tournaments, and the list goes on—not to mention any competitive sporting event you can imagine, from soccer on inline skates to childhood games like dodgeball.  Unlike the rest of the world we have more games than practices when it comes to athletic events because Americans tend to place a higher value on competitions than on practices.  And all these competitive trends are magnified in childhood.

Why? In my work I draw a connection between the way college admissions works in this country (it’s not purely based on numerical assessments like test scores and GPA—taking into account activities and leadership as well).  This system rewards what I call “competitive kid capital,” which kid acquire through participation in competitive afterschool activities.  I also argue that the development of formal, organized for-profit competitions, run by adults who make their living off of kids and competition, has helped solidify this system.

In short, it doesn’t surprise me that there is now a circuit for mutton busting. What will they think of next? And, what do you think about this trend?