From its very modest beginnings in 1938, Little League grew to a national, and then international, phenomenon. It’s been an important part of growing up for several generations of youngsters now.
Little League has always tried to juggle different values. On the one hand, it’s a competitive sport, and it teaches children that in a competitive situation, it’s expected to play hard, to do your best, to push yourself and be pushed by your manager, to try to win, to care if you win, etc., as long as one does so in accordance with the rules and with basic principles of fair play. On the other hand, there are rules in place requiring that all players on a team get at least one at bat and play at least one inning in the field in every game, regardless of their ability and regardless of how that helps or hinders the team’s winning, because there is also a value placed on making every child feel included, and giving everyone a chance.
There were times in the past when the first value was predominant in society. It would be an overstatement to say kids were taught to “win at all costs,” but certainly the emphasis was on winning, while the “everybody gets to play” rule was abided by in perhaps a grudging way. In recent years, society has moved more in the direction of the second value, where it’s all about participation and having fun, and competitiveness is de-emphasized, if not looked on with suspicion for fear of what it’ll do to the psyches of the children who happen to lose. Many parents would probably prefer that no one even keep score in youth sports, and are pleased when their children don’t care which team wins and just are having fun.
Still, Little League tries to foster all these values. That makes the job of a Little League manager a decidedly difficult one. He’s trying to make the coaching decisions that will win ball games, while at the same time trying to keeps dozens of 9-12 year olds (and their parents) happy and feeling like they’re being treated fairly. Often managers are parents themselves, and have a son or daughter on the team. So they also have to deal with the issue of trying to avoid favoring their own child, or bending over backwards not to and thereby giving their own child fewer opportunities.
As a parent of a Little Leaguer, you may well believe some children on the team are being favored over others (with your child being unfairly disfavored of course).
And you may be right. Then again you may not. So the first thing you should do is step back and try to assess the manager’s actions without emotion.
Realize that you and your child are at least as likely to have a biased perception of the situation as the manager. If possible, if what you perceived as favoritism turns out to be at all in a gray area, consider cutting the manager some slack and holding your fire.
Perhaps you’re upset because your daughter, who’s clearly the best pitcher on the team, wasn’t chosen to start a big game with playoff implications. But remember, Little League isn’t a hundred percent about winning. Maybe if decisions were made solely on the basis of giving the team the best chance to win, your daughter should have been the one out there on the mound. But it could be that the manager decided on this occasion to value giving another player an opportunity who had worked hard all season and hadn’t yet had a chance to be a hero in a big game. That can be a legitimate call in Little League.
Or on the flip side, perhaps you’re upset because the manager seems too intent on winning, seems too apt to give his support and attention to the best players, while it seems like your son and some of the lesser players just get to pinch hit once in the game and then sit at the end of the bench and be forgotten. But it may be that you’re expecting a Little League manager to conform to your values of “winning doesn’t matter, let’s just let all the kids play equally and not make any distinctions of who’s better or worse” when the Little League rules don’t obligate him to do that.
Or sometimes a manager just doesn’t make the right call. You may be looking at it a hundred percent objectively, and the manager’s decision may simply not be justified according to the balancing of values of Little League. But if it’s not blatant, if it’s not a matter of systematically favoring or disfavoring certain players, if it’s not something that clearly comes from a discreditable motive-if it’s just an occasional random dubious but sincere decision that a person might make because they’re human-even here you really don’t need to raise a stink about it. Just as you wouldn’t want someone looking over your shoulder and jumping on you for every criticizable thing you do at work or in your life, there are times you should let minor things go.
But then again, not every manager is a good guy, sincerely doing his best, trying to be fair to everyone.
You get some duds. Even if you’re really trying to cut a guy some slack, and you’re sensitive to the fact that managing is a tough gig and you much prefer not to make it even tougher by second guessing, there are times the evidence is simply too strong that the manager is not doing a responsible job, is not abiding by Little League rules, is not treating his players with equal respect and consideration. What can one do in those cases?
1. Talk to other parents to see how they’re perceiving the situation. If you have to go it alone, so be it, but if you can form a united front with multiple other parents, all the better.
2. Discuss it directly with the manager. No matter what you think of him and his behavior, he deserves to be told if you have a problem with how he’s running his team. Don’t come at him with anger in an accusatory way, or try to show him up in front of others; lay out your case calmly and respectfully, and open mindedly listen to any defense he might offer, or any changes he promises moving forward.
3. If you do not achieve a satisfactory resolution with the manager, go over his head to league officials. Explain your complaint to them in terms of official Little League rules as well as the principles and values that are supposed to guide Little League.
4. If neither the manager nor the league sees fit to make the changes you believe are called for, you have a decision to make. Certainly if this has become a negative experience for your child, one reasonable option would be to pull your child out of the program entirely.
Another option, though, is to treat this as a chance to teach your child a life lesson. “Life isn’t fair” is the kind of tired cliché that’s cringe-worthy in most circumstances, but there is some truth to it. Your child needs to learn that in life there will be many, many times when they are not being treated wholly fairly, and their parents or other grown-ups aren’t going to be able to step in and change that. So it becomes a test of character to deal with such a situation.
OK, so the manager is a jerk. Maybe he praises other children more than your son because he and their parents are all part of the same clique. Maybe your son gets fewer at bats than he would under a fairer manager. Maybe he doesn’t get to play the infield position he desires because the manager’s less talented son has laid claim to it.
If your son chooses to, he can still become a better baseball player through the practices and games of Little League. He can still bond with his teammates. He can still experience what it’s like to give his all on the field in pursuit of victory. He can still have fun.
All that and more, even though the manager is a jerk who is guilty of favoritism.