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...

Friday Night Tykes: The Male Version of Toddlers & Tiaras

I've often said that in many ways the hyper-masculinity of youth (tackle) football-- especially in the South-- is the analog to the hyper-femininity of child beauty pageants. Esquire TV's controversial series Friday Night Tykes proves it. The 10-episode series, plus a review and discussion show called Tackling Tykes that does a great job summarizing the season and discussing the serious issues it raised, follows five teams of 8-9-year-old boys in Texas. The boys are taught to swear, to injure others, to work so hard they vomit. We see disturbing images of kids unconscious on the field. These children are clearly susceptible to both long-term physical and psychological damage. Much more damage than what a spray tan causes I might add (not that I'm condoning that, just pointing out the reality). Friday Night Tykes

The show has rightly caused a firestorm, which already resulted in the suspension of two coaches, one of whom was suspended for a whole season. That coach, Charles Chavarria, is one of the most disturbing people portrayed on the show-- and basically that I've seen who works with kids. I think the man actually thinks he is coaching an NFL team. He sacrificed his family (and sometimes it seemed his sanity and happiness) to coach kids who he thought were "losers." This man is one reason why those who work with children need to be certified.

Chavarria accuses TYFA (the league that organizes competition for independently owned and operated football clubs) of not offering enough coach training. I was surprised how many of the head and assistant coaches were parents because in my research I found that many serious pay-to-play leagues have moved away from this model to avoid conflict of interest and establish some credibility with respect to coaching and training methods. It's unclear, but seems to be the case, that these are actually volunteer positions-- which makes Chavarria, who doesn't even have kids this age playing, all the more dumbfounding. Parents are clearly getting involved in the hopes of encouraging coaches to play their own child more, explicitly the case with the momager of Chavarria's team, basically the only women in any position of "authority" shown on the program.

Many of the issues that are highlighted in the show are ones I discuss in Playing to Win, especially in Chapter 5 on the business of competitive afterschool activities. These include parents/coaches lying about the age of children leading to verification sessions, recruiting violations by coaches, and disputes over participation trophies. Even statements made by parents and coaches on the show echo direct quotes from the book-- like if you want to raise kids to be winners or losers. So if you want more on how and why we got to this system, please read the book.

The best episode was by far the reunion, mainly because (and I say this as someone who watches every reality show and doc on subjects like this), the series was poorly produced. Many episodes were repetitive, some concentrated too much on tangential issues and not enough on the main story arc. Too many teams and "characters" were introduced and they were was almost too much crazy and not enough fun, sane families (basically only one was shown giving their child, who is clearly talented, any sense of balance in terms of school and family). The reunion highlighted major issues like injuries, identity formation, and long-term prospects for these kids. I loved that they brought in experts and successful NFL coaches and players to say that this system is pretty broken and doesn't even necessarily produce successful high school, college, or pro players.

The sociologist in me does think that missing from the reunion show was a discussion of race, class, and gender. The class issue was referred to once during the regular series, saying the kids on a particular team didn't live in the "soft" gated communities. Some of the coaches talk about previous brushes with the law, which was another oblique reference. Most of the kids and coaches shown are African-American. And they basically only show men. I'd love to see more of these issues addressed and hear what people on the ground think of them and how football is segregating people by positions, sport, and future development in the U.S. today.

Since there will be a Season 2, there's still time to explore these complicated but important angles. I do think there is something different about youth tackle football than many other activities at this age, but the broader issues are emblematic of what is going on not only in youth sports but also in afterschool activities. So, for instance, if you're looking to get your extreme parenting fix now that Toddlers & Tiaras has been cancelled, look out for the next season of Friday Night Tykes...

Books Are Living Things: Playing to Win continues to spark conversation

As my friend and scholar/writer Margarita Mooney likes to say, "Books have long lives." While Playing to Win is still less than a year old, I can see how this is true as the book continues to inspire questions, dialogue, and conversations in a variety of settings. In the past two months I've been lucky to speak (in person, in writing, virtually, and in the media) to a range of people who are interested in the topic of kids and competition including parents, students (undergraduate and graduate), and professors. Book cover

One of the questions brought up by almost every audience I address is the issue of inequality-- a hot topic these days beyond Piketty's recent work. The issue of educational inequality and how afterschool activities can lead to the unequal distribution of competitive/cultural capital among kids is one I have talked about before. These activities can be transformative for kids in multiple ways, and class is one of them. They can also offer opportunities to be exposed to new people and experiences.

This is one of the reasons I fell in love with scholastic chess while researching Playing to Win. Chess is diverse, as close to democratic as an activity can get, and a challenge. It promotes sportsmanship, logic, and long-term thinking. What is not to love? While I still can't really play, I got into the world of chess, even reading Chess Life and Chess Life for Kids each month, so having a two-page review of the book in Chess Life was a real thrill. The reviewer brought up some excellent points, but I had to take issue with the presentation of some of the numbers and explain that I absolutely value chess' diversity. Thankfully, the editors published my full response in a recent issue-- proof that dialogue continues and conversations on these important topics are ongoing!

Now I just need to get Carston playing with the pawns soon, hopefully in the next few months...



Teaching for a LIFETIME: My thoughts on Dance Moms, Bring It!, and Kim of Queens

Welcome to the world of Anti-Abby Lee Millers... Ironically brought to you by the network that made her famous, Lifetime. Building off the success (or infamy) of Dance Moms (a show I've written about quite a bit), the network debuted two new series this year: Kim of Queens and Bring It! Given the descent of Dance Moms into madness (it's one of the few "reality" shows where I believe some of the cast members truly hate one another, as evidenced by the arrest of Kelly Hyland), I guess it makes sense that someone had to be waiting in the wings and the network doesn't want to come off like Bravo, only creating drama-filled shows to make people famous. Dance Moms has become so divorced from reality with parents engaging in such egregious behavior that you have to think their contracts are so lucrative/ironclad that it's not worth stopping, or the only way to get off the show is to commit assault. In any case, I can't believe the show has made the players into stars,  as opposed to the negative backlash caused by Toddlers & Tiaras for many families. I mean, they now show the Dance moms (even relatively sane Holly!) painting on abs and arm muscles on their girls-- how is this any different from spray tans? I've asked this before because there are so many similarities between dance competitions and child beauty pageants for young girls, but so many more do dance that by sheer numbers it's not as marginalized as kiddie pageants. On top of the musculature-enhancing make-up, this year/season the girls often wear costumes with enhanced bust (though some are hitting puberty), which is also uncomfortable to watch at times. Also, the fact that sisters Maddie and Mackenzie (oh, excuse me, Mack Z!) are now homeschooled shows how far off the priorities have become and they are truly not kids living a competitive life, but performers 24/7. Despite all this drama, the show has managed to become boring because it's so formulaic. I for one would never want to go to a competition where the show is filming (for fear of rigging, delays, privacy issues, etc.); although I will admit that the show did give me a glimpse of one of my dance crushes, Blake McGrath, even if he did take a presumably large paycheck to work for Crazy Cathy, so I'm grateful for that

When Kim of Queens started I was initially a bit turned off-- and assumed they were looking to create a new Abby (and to fill the void creating by the cancelled Toddlers & Tiaras). With Kim Gravel portraying herself as country I thought she was trying to horn in on the Honey Boo Boo crowd as well. If that angle drew viewers initially though, it wasn't what made them (or me) stay because despite having contrived story lines and bring a bit silly at times, it became extremely clear that Coach Kim loves all her Pageant Place girls and truly wants the best for them. Her big heart (and voice and personality) and tears made for compelling viewing and her emphasis on growth, loss, and the long-term goal/win as opposed to the short-term win/title/crown was a refreshing message.  I of course know the show was staged-- especially so many of the gags with her own family-- and I disliked the way Kin of Queens brought in new girls all the time because the recruits didn't stick around often and it created extra drama when the natural story was more interesting. But overall it was a nice message, and for that reason the series hasn't been as big of a hit. I know Kim isn't always PC, but her comment about clogging being "tapping with hooves," made me laugh. Her aversion to clogging (even trying to transform it into Irish dance) is one example of her outsize personality and wackiness coming from a place of helpfulness and not pure egotism.


Dianna Williams of Lifetime's other new series, which has done well enough to warrant to additional episodes at the end of its run, including a sit-down reunion special, is similar. She is much tougher and even less diplomatic than Kim Gravel, but her students, the Dancing Dolls, face even bigger challenges (the fact that one of the girls' moms became a grandmother at 28 gives you a sense of the challenges in this community). I love that Dianna says she is preparing her "girls" for life and trying to teach them life lessons, which as you know I believe is possible through competitive activities and competitive dance, if done in a healthy way. Bring It! features a hop hop majorette team, which is a style of dance associated with the African-American community and affiliated with many Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The producers often defined dance terms and moves, which even differ from more "traditional" dance. At times I thought talk of "technique" was a bit of a stretch but chalked it up to a different style; but in the finale when a dance team aficionado who was judging complained about the lack of pointed toes I realized the Dancing Dolls were a bit lacking. That said, it was interesting to learn about a new type of dance and all the different categories of competition. The "stand battle" was the biggest component, but there were field dances, captain's dances, burlesque, character, etc. I am sure it is much more complicated than the show let on even so I'd love an insider's perspective! The other refreshing thing about the show was that the body was portrayed in a much less self-conscious way. Compared to the thin Dance Moms girls who paint on muscles, the Bring It! girls embrace their bodies whatever their size and dance with energy and enthusiasm as well (note that this is well known to be more common in the African-American community and black girls/women have fewer incidences of eating disorders and body image problems). I didn't always understand the costume selections, but there is clearly a tradition there. However, my biggest pet peeve was the ripped fishnet stockings and the dance tights showing over the top of the costume pants. That said, the fact many of the girls had to wear "nude" stockings for a different skin tone shows that dance companies should make colors in a wider variety of shades.

While Dance Moms is now so popular it is basically never on hiatus-- constantly doing clips specials and now creating a second team, and a THIRD series starring Abby!-- I'll be tuning in to the shows that feature more positive performance coaches with a more realistic and valuable message. Be sure to check them out, especially if you don't like Dance Moms!

Competition, Competition, Competition: Sibling, or Otherwise

This may be my last regular post for some time. I'm preparing for the arrival of my second son next month and want to enjoy the holidays, Carston's second birthday, and the end of this pregnancy (as much as that is possible!)-- especially before potential sibling rivalry/competition appears in my home! 7.

In the competitive spirit I want to highlight a few recent writings I have done on competition, particularly as I wrap up my work related to this fall's release of PLAYING TO WIN.

1) The Wild, Unregulated Business of After-School Programs at The New Republic- I think this is one of the most important pieces I have ever done, and it is about an issue I feel VERY strongly about. Parents often don't know who is teaching their kids-- and at stake are injuries, psychological well-being, and significant investments of familial time and money. Please read and pass it on! Note there is more on this topic in Chapter 5 and the Conclusion of the book.

2) Is Competition for Kids Healthy-Yes! in Brain, ChildI'm the affirmative side of the debate (though I share much in common with the "negative" side, written by the super smart Sarah Buttenwieser). A good summary of what I took away from my research and how it applies to my parenting today.

3) Children and Competitiveness in Oxford Bibliography of Childhood Studies- While this is for students and a a more academic audience, it's a great resource for those of you interested in learning more about what's been done on kids and competition. It's always nice to be recognized as the expert in your field too...

I was also very gratified that Brain, Child's blog Brain, Mother ran such a nice review of Playing to Win (written by Lauren Apfel). I especially loved her description of the book: "Playing to Win is, at heart, a sociological study. It is a laying bare of a cultural phenomenon—its history and its infrastructure—not a judgment on that phenomenon. “Are these parents crazy?” Levey Friedman asks. “Have they lost their grip?” Her definitive answer to these questions is “no” and she walks the line between showing us why and telling us why with admirable grace. On the one hand, she lets the data and the people involved speak for themselves: interviews with both parents and children are a hallmark of the book. On the other hand, she is a careful, explicit and non-biased interpreter of her fieldwork."

As I get ready to explore for myself more issues of parental craziness, competition, and family dynamics, I will try to remain a non-biased observer of my own life and decisions. I'll keep you posted!