Opinion

Krause: Where have all the kids gone? Inside.

This isn’t going to make the people who have been trying — for a half century — to bring the United States into the world of the “Beautiful Game” very happy, but statistics by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association show that soccer is lagging behind other American sports when it comes to early participation. And lagging significantly.

Before anyone sees this as an excuse to launch an all-out frontal assault on the sport (I can do that all by myself), it should be noted that baseball and basketball have actually begun to rise again. And at least in the case of baseball, that runs counter to conventional wisdom — which says the sport’s lack of continuous action hurts it.

The New York Times reported, the same day France played Croatia in the World Cup final, that the number of 6-12-year-olds regularly playing soccer dropped nearly 14 percent while basketball and baseball have begun to rise. Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program says that soccer has lost more participants than any other sport in the U.S.

This would indicate the U.S. is failing in its efforts to become competitive with the rest of the world in a sport that seems to thrive everywhere else except here (note the U.S. didn’t even qualify for this year’s World Cup).

Is this because of the plethora of other distractions available for kids? You can’t deny there are much more, and much more varied, activities for kids today.

It’s an easy cop-out to blame the proliferation of video games and other technology, but look deeper. Personal computers and the games kids can play on them leave children, for the most part, to their own devices (for better or worse). They don’t have to deal with the bullies on a basketball court or uber-driven adults if they don’t want to.

Moreover, soccer has had to elbow its way into the inner sanctum of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, and has had to deal with decades of established traditions and prejudices.

We have never had a chance to understand soccer’s unique rhythms on our own terms. Our sports are action-oriented and, despite exhortations by well-meaning coaches, individual. Soccer is more of a group effort.

It may take teamwork to pass the basketball down the floor, but when all else fails, there’s LeBron James to slam down a dunk and bring the crowd to its feet. And don’t discount the fact that “Mr. Team Player” is, in most cases, making a fraction of what LeBron is pulling down. We work at cross-purposes, but most sports fans accept this, and the National Basketball Association even promotes it. Stars sell.

Soccer, on the other hand, is the one sport that actually does require teamwork. Even LeBron would have a tough time going 1-on-11. As it is often a plodding, methodical game, it’s totally at odds with our Teddy Roosevelt-inspired lust for action and adventure. We Americans like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, right?

The third reason should also be easy to understand. Soccer, more than most sports in the U.S., suffers from the burden of over-organization. How often have you driven past a park, and seen kids on the basketball courts playing pickup? Do you ever see kids playing soccer just because? Or for that matter baseball (anymore)?

Basketball, baseball and football are sports we’ve learned to accept in our own way. I played baseball endlessly as a child, and in as many variations as my imagination would allow. Home run derby, outs, wiffle ball … you name it, I played it and, more importantly, bonded with my father through it. I learned how to bat, throw, and catch before I even began the organization phase of the game.

Ditto football. I learned how to pass and catch the ball and how to block before I was out of grammar school. Similarly, I knew before I was in high school that I couldn’t put a basketball in the ocean if I was standing next to it (a lifetime of playing HORSE in Dickie Mariano’s driveway taught me that). I didn’t need an organized youth league to learn these things.

And therein lies the problem behind all of these troubling statistics: excessive organization. The idea of kids going to parks in groups to kick the ball around, or throw it around, just doesn’t exist on a grand scale anymore.

On the other hand, baseball, football and basketball (and to a lesser extent hockey)  have been passed down from generation to generation, and all of us — even the ones who weren’t always good at them  — want our kids to learn how to play. Little League baseball (1939) is the granddaddy of all organized youth sports, but these days they’re all strictly regimented and controlled by adults (maybe basketball to a lesser degree). And sad to say, not all of these adults have the best interests of the children close to their hearts.

Soccer suffers more than most from this problem because, unlike traditional U.S. sports, it never had that period early-on where kids just played it for the simple enjoyment of it. It has always been forced on us. And for far too long, forced on us by people who haven’t had the innate knowledge to teach it properly. I don’t see that changing.

So it would appear that soccer has crested and begun to recede before it ever really took hold. And I predict that unless and until adults back off and let kids learn to play these games on their own, and without anal-retentive supervision by adults, all sports are going to end up in the same boat.

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