COLUMBIA, MO. — With the fall sports season fast approaching, tryouts, a rite of passage for boys and girls from coast to coast, are under way. And, unfortunately, it's also a time when favoritism can rule out fair judgment.
In a nearby town last winter, 32 teenage boys tried out for hockey. As tryouts began, the coaches pinned a number to the back of each 14-year-old's jersey. When tryouts ended a week later, players wearing numbers 1 to 16 made the top team, and those wearing numbers 17 to 32 made the second team. A mathematician tells me that the odds against the teams shaking out this way randomly are more than 600 million to 1.
Powerball players faced much better odds in last month's jackpot, but the hockey program's board of directors went home happy because boys with a parent on the board made the top team. So did sons of the directors' close friends.
In too many sports programs today, winning a board position is the easiest way to land your child on the right team. Board members' children see plenty of playing time, and their teams get choice hours for games and practices. Families angered by favoritism learn to keep quiet. Why bother complaining to those who created the inequity in the first place, particularly when your child might suffer retaliation?
With so many sports programs shortchanging so many children, communities need programs that give a strong voice to adults who have no children enrolled in the programs they oversee. As National Football League Hall of Famer Howie Long says, "We have to get youth sports out of the hands of parents, and ... put it in the control of people who are unbiased."
When unbiased adults hold positions of authority, sports programs - and kids - thrive. Most communities have plenty of energetic adults ready to serve. Boards can include people like volunteers at public schools who don't expect special privileges in return. Some of these men and women might not grasp the finer points of the game, but neither do many of the parents now dominating sports programs' boards.
Favoritism will continue to prevail unless strong voices advocate fairness. When boards include directors drawn to serving all children, there's less worry that some children will receive special treatment. Yes, parents do play a central role in their children's sports, but America's 30 million youth leaguers need programs with more adults committed to public service, rather than personal gain.
• Douglas E. Abrams, a University of Missouri law professor, has been a youth hockey coach for 35 years. He writes frequently about youth-sports issues.