Youth sports at its worst: Tennis, anyone?

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Parents berating parents. Teenagers taunting one another. Parents taunting teenagers. Rampant cheating, dishonesty and an environment so putrefied and toxic it could breed a fish with three eyeballs before the end of the first set.

Tennis, anyone?

More specifically, youth tennis, the Thunderdome of youth sports, where adolescents and younger are expected to enforce the rules themselves and the behavior of parents makes Fight Club look like choir practice.

Being new to youth tennis, here’s a little tidbit of which I became aware only recently. For the most part there are no line judges, no officials. The players are left to their own devices when it comes to calling balls in or out. Imagine eight and nine-year-olds calling their own lines and having to keep track of their own scores.

As I say, I’m no tennis expert, but I played a lot of pickup basketball when I was a kid. We called our own fouls and kept track of our own scores. That didn’t go particularly well on a Philadelphia playground, and we didn’t have to deal with parents. If you’ve never seen a youth tennis match, you might wonder how similar self-governance works. (See paragraph 1.)

Within the past week, in Lexington, I have been privy to the following at a high school tennis tournament – parents yelling at and coaching their own children from the stands, players cheating and acting out on the court, and the coup de gras, a tearful teen escorted from the court prior to a match because the player’s parent was involved in a dispute with the owner of the venue.

Why parents act the way they do is an issue to be unpacked at another time and in another place, perhaps at the Get-a-Grip clinic in Berlin or Singapore where such psychosis can be thoroughly studied.

For now, let’s just deal with the rules, which, objectively enforced, would go a long way to mitigating bad behavior.

Tennis has long been thought of as the so-called “gentleman’s game.” Maybe in a bygone era when men played in slacks and women in high-collared dresses. Maybe, but certainly not now. Now, not only is it naïve to think children are capable of enforcing rules themselves, but it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.

It has long been thought by those that govern youth tennis that allowing children to enforce the rules themselves fosters sportsmanship and fairness. It does exactly the opposite. It encourages cheating and leads to chaos. (See paragraph 1, again.)

In an article in Long Island Tennis Magazine in 2019, former pro Chris Lewit made the point that not only is rampant cheating unfair and not new, it’s also discouraging young people from playing the sport.

“It’s a well-known fact in the industry that many kids play only one competitive tournament and never return to the circuit,” Lewit wrote.

Five years of additional discord later and still, nothing has been done. It seems the simplest solution would be to employ judges or solicit some volunteers to monitor matches. Every other organized sport on the planet, from Little League to the NFL, relies on officials to enforce the rules. For some reason, youth tennis believes itself exempt from taking steps to head off anarchy.

If those who govern youth tennis, from the school level to the USTA, are serious about curbing cheating and restoring order, on the court and in the stands, they will wake up and realize that the status quo is a long-standing and ongoing disaster. Because what you have now isn’t a “gentleman’s game” or an exercise in sportsmanship – it’s chaos. It’s unnecessary, embarrassing, and worse, it’s teaching children the most destructive lesson possible – the one who breaks the rules and yells the loudest, wins.

Copyright 2024 Rich Manieri, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at [email protected].

Rich Manieri is a journalism professor at Asbury University in Kentucky. He spent some 30 years as a television and print journalist, speech writer, government spokesman, communications consultant, essayist and columnist. Rich’s first book, “We Burn on Friday: A Memoir of My Father and Me,” was published in 2015. He has won both Associated Press and Emmy awards for television news reporting as well as a Keystone Award in Pennsylvania for column writing.