SPORTSMANSHIP: Should All Coaches and Kids Be Forced to Speak English?
Celebrating Diversity in Youth Sports
By Doug Abrams
On December 8, two referees in Cooper City, Florida ejected a volunteer youth soccer coach from a game for instructing some of his 14-18-year-old players in Spanish. The coach had refused to heed the refs’ instructions to speak only English. The ejected coach later said that various referees had also tried to discourage players from speaking Spanish to one another during games.
The Cooper City story recalls a similar incident that took place in 2005 during a Little League state tournament game in Lakeville, Massachusetts. In the third inning of the semifinals, a Methuen assistant coach instructed his 14-year-old pitcher in Spanish to try to pick off a runner at second base. The press reported that Methuen’s pitcher and catcher did not speak English fluently.
The umpire in Lakeville stopped the game, instructed the assistant coach to speak only English, and threatened to eject any player or coach heard speaking Spanish. Methuen manager Chris Mosher called the umpire’s instruction “sickening,” but he continued the game when the tournament director on the scene backed the umpire.
“It appears,” a Little League spokesman said afterwards, that “the umpire was concerned that the coach or manager may have been using a language other than English . . . to communicate potentially ‘illegal’ instructions to his players.” The umpire reportedly also thought that speaking a foreign language might give Methuen an unfair advantage.
In both Cooper City and Lakeville, embarrassed officials disavowed any English-only rule within a few days. Little League International, which publishes its rule book in both English and Spanish, also instructed state officials to remove the Lakeville umpire from further games in the state tournament.
Participating in Mainstream American Culture
According to press reports, most of the Cooper City and Methuen youth leaguers spoke English, a few were bi-lingual, and a few recent arrivals relied on Spanish as they were learning English. This breakdown is exactly what we would expect in towns with relatively small immigrant communities.
Disturbing incidents like the warnings in Cooper City and Lakeville likely happen rarely. But they remind us about how youth sports can provide unique opportunities for youngsters of various backgrounds and life experiences to participate in mainstream American culture.
Just last week, for example, Jim Fennell wrote an excellent column in the New Hampshire Union Leader about Manchester Memorial High School’s basketball team, which includes players who emigrated to the United States as refugees from distressed African nations. In May, CNN reported about a thoughtful San Diego youth soccer program whose players include refugees who have escaped strife in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, including children who (like some of the Methuen and Cooper City players) do not speak fluent English yet.
Forcing children to speak a language that they do not yet speak fluently — or else to risk exclusion from wholesome activities common to American childhood — serves no worthwhile purpose. When children from diverse cultures play clean and follow the rules of the game, the nation wins when local sports programs enable them to participate with other children.
The Value of Inclusion
In a column last month, I encouraged leagues and teams to enroll children with disabilities. “To the maximum extent possible,” I said, programs “should permit children with disabilities to participate in sports with other children if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise other players’ safety.” http://askcoachwolff.com/2012/12/21/coaching-tips-thinking-ahead-when-one-of-your-players-has-a-disability/
Disabilities and language barriers surely raise several distinct issues, but they also share these common themes grounded in mutual respect for individual differences: Children facing either barrier deserve a fair chance to play sports in accordance with their abilities, desires, and willingness to contribute to the team. Because sports is rightfully called “a microcosm of American society” and “one of the most powerful social forces in our country,” youth sports should look like America. The impulse to include, rather than exclude, children marks youth sports at its finest in the United States, whose national educational policy vows to “leave no child behind.”
Assessing the “Adultification” of Youth Sports
The broader question emerging from the Cooper City and Lakeville controversies is whether the “adultification” of youth sports sometimes hurts kids rather than helps them. Until a few decades ago, children generally conducted their own games on local sandlots or playgrounds without adults calling the shots. Today, of course, the landscape has changed and most sports for children is conducted by adults who create, incorporate, administer, outfit, coach and officiate “organized” leagues.
If the Cooper City soccer players and the Lakeville Little Leaguers were playing their own sandlot games rather than games conducted by adults, I doubt that any of the youngsters would have cared whether a few players spoke Spanish. News reports do not suggest that any of the Cooper City or Lakeville kids cared. Only some people over 18 cared, and they cared so much that they threatened to banish some children.
Multi-lingual games are as old as American youth sports. Only the foreign languages have changed from generation to generation. The Cooper City and Lakeville stories remind me of an amusing story often told by Ralph Guzewicz, a popular history teacher at W. Tresper Clarke High School in Westbury, New York when I attended in the 1960s. He told us that when he was a kid playing sandlot football (probably in the 1930s or 1940s), he and his neighborhood teammates would often call plays in Polish, knowing that the opposition would not understand what they were saying. “Mr. Guz” told the story with a smile and great relish — and in perfect English.
Different times. Different foreign language. Same story.
[Sources: Aurelio Moreno, Coach Speaks Spanish, Is Tossed: Cooper City Soccer League Says It Has No Such Rule, Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Dec. 21, 2012; Assoc. Press, Ump Bans Mass. Team From Speaking Spanish, USA Today, July 29, 2005; Mark Zeigler, Ump Out – Told Massachusetts Little Leaguers: English Only, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 30, 2005; Jim Fennell, Memorial Hoop Is On a Crusade, New Hampshire Union Leader, Jan. 6, 2013; Kathleen Toner, Soccer Helping Young Refugees Find Footing in U.S., http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/03/us/cnnheroes-kabban-child-refugees/index.html?hpt=hp_bn1 ]; Kenneth L. Shropshire, In Black and White: Race and Sports In America 16-19 (1996); Brian Lampman, Sport, Society, and Social Justice, in Learning Culture Through Sports 255, 257 (Sandra Spickard Prettyman & Brian Lampman eds., 2006); No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425]