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Under pressure


Arnold Palmer made an impassioned plea at last week's Press-Radio Club Day of Champions dinner. The legendary golfer urged parents not to push their kids into pro sports careers too early.

It's seems ridiculous that such advice even needs to be given. Most kids have practically no shot at becoming pro athletes. But parental hubris is a dangerous drug, convincing many moms and dads their kids are the shiznit if they score 14 points in a grade-school YMCA game.

Palmer turned pro when he was 25. Now, of course, if teenagers are good enough they can join the pro ranks whenever. After all, it would be tragic for them to waste a second of their talent waiting around for something like "emotional maturity."

But Palmer's point could be interpreted much more broadly. Parents shouldn't ram athletic activities down their kids' throats just because they think the structure and practice will produce another Tiger Woods, or even a college scholarship. Let the kids have their childhood.

John Tunis was a renowned sportswriter for the New Yorker, Harper's,and Atlantic Monthly. Shortly before he died in 1975 at age 85, he ripped little-league sports in interviews for Jerome Holtzman's book, No Cheering in the Press Box. Kids should play and organize games by themselves, he said, away from the parental pressure and coaching. They "can't grow up and understand the enjoyment of simply playing," he said. "There's too damn much organization. I think it's pretty well true in everything. We're overorganized in this country... When I was a boy we played in the backyard. I never felt any pressure. I never had a uniform, not of any kind."

Unfortunately, things are far more organized today than they've ever been. And there's no turning back. America is just too competitive.

That's why we have steroid scandals, NBA stars climbing in the stands to fight, athletes getting arrested for DWI, boorish celebrations on the football field, hockey players who viciously assault each other on the ice....

We're good at producing pressure. We aren't doing as well in producing well-adjusted pro athletes capable of handling that pressure. Consequently, we shouldn't be surprised they're doing whatever it takes to compete, to defend, to cope, to gain that extra edge. That's the way they've been taught to react, and they've been doing that all their lives: whatever it takes.

Youth athletics, particularly in high school, are serious business. Kids are expected to devote the entire year to one sport, training physically and mentally for the all-important two-to-three month school season.

The high-stakes environment we create in youth athletics must be held partly responsible for the terrible things we see in pro sports; it might be just as much to blame as the media and money.

I played soccer for McQuaid in the late '80s, and I wasn't totally dedicated to it, which explains why I was mostly a benchwarmer. However, I did manage to start at goal against our hated rival, Aquinas, in my senior year. We lost in overtime on a shot kicked from midfield that slipped right through my fingertips. I was embarrassed. If this happened in today's high-school sports scene, I'd still be running laps. And I might have been burned in effigy, particularly for screwing up against AQ.

I was most certainly not the shiznit, and you have to be all-shiznit to make varsity these days.