Bulldog Breakdown

My family creeps through one of the lamer autumns in memory. Bit by bit, I'm trying to process it all as I'm able to articulate it. I'm completely burned out, and the joyful splendor of holiday travel has only begun.

All of us managed to forget about my son's little league incident that I wrote about here. I got a lot of positive support, but I never posted how everything finally resolved. Recently, all the business about the Jonathan Martin/Miami Dolphins bullying/harassment developments shook me back into thinking about it.

To recap, my son was on a team with a consistently verbally abusive assistant coach, who I call "Bulldog." One evening I let the coaches know about my feelings on the matter, and Bulldog suggested that this was an issue of my son not being able to handle the "level" of coaching he was giving. I right then requested a transfer to a team that didn't tolerate verbal abuse from the coaching staff. The board member I asked for the transfer responded swiftly and compassionately. She knelt and talked to him directly, explaining that this kind of thing was not ok, that it's not how we do things at this league, and that she'd make calls right away to start the change. The story continues.

Over the couple of days that followed, I worked on a letter explaining the details of the event to the league's board of directors, since we had a lot of affection for the organization and wanted it to be as much of constructive experience as possible. Before I sent the letter, I got a phone call from the league's Vice President of Minors (the age level where my son played). Veep let me know that he had talked to the coach and heard about what had happened (not the assistant coach though, because there's "just too many assistant coaches"). This oh-so-thorough investigation led Veep to the decision that they would not be moving my son to another team because it would be too disruptive to the positions and rotation on another team. They just couldn't grant the request because it would open up the door to all kinds of team-switching chaos. Like I was some yuppie shopping for coaches. He went on to explain how high pressure situations sometimes led to teachable moments for the coaches, and that was important, too.

I'm not sure how this was teachable for the assistant coach who Veep hadn't even talked to, and I explained that we weren't reacting to a single moment at a single game, but a season-long pattern that wasn't acceptable, and that if this was the decision of the board then we wouldn't come back.

"Well, I certainly respect your decision," he said. Oh, really? Gee, thanks for blessing me with your respect. How magnanimous of you.

I re-drafted my letter, as one of regret, making a final appeal to the league president to move my son so he could finish the season. The president called me. He's a lawyer. Probably a skill they need given some of the people they let onto the field. Congenial guy. Big voice. 

Just can't do it. Only so many kids in a team rotation, moving just one really affects the playing time, too bad it went this way, respect your decision. One more voice toeing the party line, protecting their own.

We just vanished. It was swift and complete closure. Our minds raced, imagining how skillfully larger organizations must have moved to protect their sacred structures against accusations of truly heinous things. How skillfully they must have used bureaucracy and procedure to deflect. How disturbing this was, over something as small as a verbally abusive adult on a youth sports team. How small, yet how large and how telling.

Not one of these sons-of-bitches offered a single word acknowledging my son's experience. Not one word. Circle the fucking wagons. Gotta get the word from the head coach on what he thinks the assistant coach's actions were. Well, it's complicated and and Coach X probably going to be elected to the league board himself, so we think he's a good guy ya know. You have to do what you think is right, we understand. The head coach himself never sent one single goddamn email, not a call to see how the kid was doing, let alone a single word of regret from anyone at all who transgressed. One kid just disappeared from the league, and what a relief it must have been for the coach.

After it was all over, my son's coach from the previous two seasons, an extraordinary person and exemplary sport role model, called me. Not as a coach, or a league board member, just parent to parent, to tell me how badly he felt about how it all went down and how it was handled. That was quite a comfort, because here was the man who basically taught our whole family to love baseball, someone who truly understood how to craft a great-spirited team through goodwill and respect, confirming that yep, this was a pretty fucked up experience. But he was clearly only one person in a machine tuned to work one way.

Sport culture does not have to be toxic or abusive. Contamination starts in youth sports and is perpetuated because parents accept it, and because organizations are more interested in preserving their precious order than listening to children and holding the coaching staff responsible. Parents, when we put up with toxic behavior, we tell our kids that they should accept that kind of treatment. It's wrong, deep down our kids know it's wrong, and if we let it go unchallenged it'll never change.

As for us, there's enough little leagues in the area that we don't have to patronize one that puts up with this.