Ryan Chartrand

When I was 8, I joined the ranks of ball-mobbing, ponytail-clad soccer players on the “Grape Balls of Fire.” I proudly wore my purple cotton jersey tucked in to high-waisted shorts with tube socks. My dad was my coach and sometimes during practice he’d bring us wigs or substitute the soccer ball with a stuffed Barney that spoke when you kicked it. He made it exactly what it was: just a game.

I vividly remember seeing our sweeper Diana getting yelled at after a defeat. She’d let a couple goals go by and her dad had something to say about it. “Did you even TRY to get that last one? I didn’t see you running. C’mon, Diana!”

It was the first time I realized sports aren’t always fun. They could be scary and competitive, and we were only 8 years old.

Of course, healthy aggression is necessary in most competitive sports, but when did playing games become wrought with so much controversy? Turn on ESPN and listen to what John Sally and Rob Dibble are discussing on “The Best Damn Sports Show Period.” Here’s a hint: It’s not sports.

NBA referee Tim Donaghy made bets on games he officiated in alliance with organized crime, the Tour de France completely lost credibility this year due to doping allegations, the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons is implicated for his alleged involvement with a dog fighting ring – and don’t even get me started on Barry Bonds. Are there any newsworthy sports stories purely about sports? At some point the game stopped being a game and turned into an episode of “Law and Order.”

Where did this overly competitive, drug-induced world of athletics originate? Obviously, there are more enhancement drugs available today and more media hype given to outstanding performers, but in the early days, there was always another component: parents.

I can’t help remembering Diana’s dad yelling at her in front of the whole team. He took the fun away and made it scary. It was no longer a game, but a single-handed way to prove either weakness or strength. Everything was about winning.

Diana and I lost touch over the years, mainly because by high school she was too damn competitive.

The other day I learned that the fastest growing sport amongst kids today is lacrosse. My friend Janel learned that in one of her recreation classes. I asked her why kids would want to play lacrosse – I have no idea how you even play. Neither do their parents.

Apparently, in a sports arena where parents have become increasingly bloodthirsty for perfection, lacrosse is one sport they don’t yet understand and therefore cannot give “pointers.” It’s a breath of fresh air for kids who are put under the scrutiny of parents living vicariously through their sports achievements.

Whether the scandals involved in professional athleticism are directly related to pushy parents I do not know. I can say, however, with complete honesty that having my goofy dad as a coach in softball, basketball and soccer as a kid was one of the greatest blessings he has ever given me.

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