Bob Padecky: How much should we protect our young athletes?

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

This column is about protecting kids, specifically the kids who play high school sports, protecting them from unnecessary harm and emotional turmoil.

As a journalist I once thought I knew the answer.

Once I totally believed and agreed with what Lynn Meister is about to say.

“I would never have revealed his name,” said the man who coaches Cardinal Newman’s long snapper.

Meister was referring to a play on Nov. 1. It was late in the game when Rancho Cotate scored a touchdown to move the Cougars to within one point of Newman, 42-41. New ImageThe extra point would have tied the game. The snap from center sailed over Rancho’s holder and kicker. Game over.

After the game I went to Rancho coach Ed Conroy to ask for the snapper’s name. Conroy was polite but evasive. Under deadline I didn’t have time to identify the kid. Meister was glad I didn’t.

“I don’t think that would have been fair to the kid,” Meister said. “I went up to him after the game. He was in tears. These are just kids. They are out there voluntarily. Coaches are like parents. We want to protect our kids. It should be nothing but positive.”

It says something about Meister that he went over to an opposing player to console him. At this coaching thing since 1971, Meister is one of the most well-respected men in his field in the Empire. Yes, mom and dad could rest comfortably if Lynn Meister were coaching their kid.

And who would disagree with Meister, that kids need protecting? The world can be a nasty place, full of unwanted surprises. Parents, at least the good ones, are the gatekeepers.

But here’s my problem with protecting high school athletes, in this case football players: They have their names and numbers on the backs of their jerseys. They do not perform in isolation: People are in the stands, including family and friends. If there is a protective bubble around them, I can’t see it.

So how much damage would I do if I identified Rancho’s long snapper? I would write his name, mention the bad snap and the consequences. I would write facts. While a column gives me license to opinion, I would not trash the kid, call him a bozo, saying he lost every friend he ever had, and how could he show up at school the next Monday.

The kid made a physical mistake. I’d leave it at that.

Still, because I have so much respect for Meister and Conroy, I asked around. I asked Petaluma head coach Rick Krist his opinion if his kicker suffered the same fate.

“I would have no problem with it as long as you would report as you said you would,” Krist said. “Yes, we need to protect our kids but sometimes I think we go a little overboard. After every game I sit down with my team and we watch every piece of game film. We go over mistakes and what to do about them. I start with myself.”

Does putting a name in the paper make the mistake that much more egregious? Would it destroy a kid? Emotionally cripple him? Krist didn’t think so.

“How one handles a mistake, that’s a teachable moment,” he said. “How do you handle adversity? You make a mistake and you own it. You aren’t going to get better unless you address it. To recognize a problem and then deal with it, kids will need to do that as adults. That’s why high school sports are so valuable. They prepare you to make those life decisions.”

The concept of protecting high school athletes in print from the slings and arrows of misfortune has existed for as long as I can remember, and I will have been in the newspaper business 50 years next month. But the world has changed much in those 50 years. Kids read, see and hear things today that never existed in the ’60s.

Such as social media comments that can belittle, even destroy a teenager. Such as the violence on television and at the movie theater, a PG-13 rating isn’t what it once was.

So, when it comes to protecting our children, the real world is attacking them on all fronts, too many times beyond parents’ control.

Still, because I have so much respect for Meister and Conroy, I asked around further. I spoke to Kathy Atkinson, head of the counseling department at St. Vincent High School. Atkinson has been with the school 17 years and in private practice before that.

Would Atkinson approve the releasing of the name of Rancho’s long snapper?

“If you phrase it factually,” Atkinson said, “I don’t see any legitimate objection. I think what you are writing will give some people food for thought. Yes, I admit, it’s really tricky how we protect our young people. It’s tough today for parents to act supportive and yet keep things in perspective.

“In this area, we have parents deciding what school their kid will attend based on an athletic team. Oh, they might say it’s for academics but we all know it’s for sports. Parents have written essays for their kids’ college application letter.”

Two phrases now appear frequently in the Empire when school personnel speak of parental influence: “Helicopter parents” and “snowplow parents.” The first phrase refers to a parent who hovers over every moment or decision that could impact their kid. The second phrase has a parent pushing aside every possible negative consequence that might confront their child.

Said Atkinson: Both actions, however well-intentioned, create additional and unwanted pressures on a teenager.

“We have kids and parents show up at our school,” Atkinson said, “believing the kids can get a college athletic scholarship. You never want to crush anyone’s dreams but in reality it happens so rarely.”

Point: High school athletes don’t live in a bubble anymore. Maybe they never did. Their real-time experience of AP courses, scouting colleges when they are only freshmen, feeling the natural desire to please their parents, pressure is everywhere for our young people.

They are growing up faster, feeling more responsible and forced to make life decisions at an age earlier than most educators have ever seen. It doesn’t feel healthy.

So when kids step on the football field they come with more than their name and number on their backs. They are carrying the weight of many things with them, some light, some heavy.

If they sail a snap from center I would like to believe they’ll be equipped to handle it. They’ll have their coaches, like Meister. They have their teammates, their friends and their family. That Rancho snapper didn’t recover in a vacuum. He had support.

As long as I report what happened factually. I am a father, too, you know.

“But what would you write,” Meister asked, “if it was your kid who made that snap?”

Good question.

“If I knew I had taught him to be responsible for his actions, if I knew I taught him that we learn more through our mistakes than our successes, I would use his name.”

I guess that’s when it hit me.

This column is not about journalism. It’s about parents, performing the most difficult of tasks. And it ain’t teaching someone how to snap the football on an extra point.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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