Football is really in trouble.
Do an informal sideline census during the upcoming Section 1 playoffs. The number of participants is clearly in decline. Even our longtime traditional powers are thinning out.
I take no delight in mentioning this.
Football has a growing list of issues that regularly and rightly land in the headlines, and the problems are clouding the sport’s future.
The upside cannot be overlooked.
“Football has been unfairly villainized,” Yorktown head coach Mike Rescigno said. “We have problems in every sport. It’s not just football. There is a youth sports problem. … I think we need to be careful about how the blame game is played. I think we have to get back to the basics.”
“Now more than ever, the microscope is on,” Rescigno added.
I happened to spend part of a chilly weekend in a folding chair within earshot of spirited Pop Warner games.
And what did I hear?
“God, dammit! We’ve been going over this play since the beginning of the season. What’s the matter with you?”
The remark was delivered up close in a pregame walk-through.
“No more. I’m taking my kid and going home. Find another coach.”
It was only halftime.
Here’s the problem, while a vast majority of the dialogue was encouraging, those words fell on deaf ears. Each time a volunteer football coach got loud, parents 30 or 40 yards away shook their heads in disbelief.
Word of mouth can inflict permanent damage.
Let’s face it, Vince Lombardi wouldn’t last more than a week at the grass roots level. Way too intense. Way too loud.
“What the hell’s going on out here?”
A little emotion underlines the importance of virtues like accountability, discipline and teamwork. Sometimes we all need a proverbial kick in the pants.
“It’s a demanding sport and you have to be stern at times,” Pearl River head coach Mike Oliva said. “We have some pretty harsh film sessions on Mondays, win or lose. There are serious mistakes that have to be corrected, so we always let them know it’s never personal. And when it’s over, we still love them.”
Those sessions take place behind a closed door for a reason.
“Every kid is different,” Oliva added. “You have to have time in order to get to know each of them. Some kids react well when you get on them. Others, you have to speak to differently. And you have to find out early who is who. It’s really important to know what makes each one tick.”
The approach works with grade schoolers and middle schoolers, too.
“In my gut I know football is an experience that kids shouldn’t miss out on,” Rescigno said. “It’s one of the few sports left where we can expose kids to adversity and hold them to a high standard and still have our arm around them.”
So here’s an idea.
Let’s recognize that even the well-intentioned fire and brimstone creates a stir and risks being taken completely out of context. Let’s make Sundays a celebration of the kids.
Yell once in a while at practice. Cheer at games.
Parents who are reluctant to leave the sidelines need to get involved. Most coaches are overwhelmed and would accept help with tasks like corralling the wandering minds. Parents with agendas need to see the big picture. Nobody benefits when coaches and teammates are ridiculed on the ride home.
Why can’t we all get along?
“There’s no excuse when kids are not treated well,” Rescigno said. “But for the most part, I see a lot of good things, but nobody is perfect, especially in a volunteer system.”
Whatever it takes, kids have to enjoy the experience of playing football or the game will never grow back.