Apodaca: Threats against NHHS coach illustrative of bigger issues

Sometimes an unsavory news event gives us the opportunity to peel back a layer on an issue that deserves scrutiny.

Such is the case with the disturbing reports that Larry Hirst, Newport Harbor High School's longtime boys' basketball coach, has been the subject of violent threats.

Although police are still investigating, school officials have temporarily suspended the basketball program, and have indicated that parents or students associated with the team might have been the source of the threats. Hirst, who also teaches at Newport Harbor, has resigned his coaching post.

However the case is resolved, it's unfortunately all too easy to believe that parents or kids are capable of such ugly behavior revolving around youth sports.

Call me blasphemous, call me un-American, but when it comes to sports, I think we've lost our collective minds.

From dads who start planning their children's athletic careers while they're still in utero to a professional football program that paid players to injure opponents to the jaw-dropping $2.15 billion that Magic Johnson and other investors agreed to pay for the Dodgers, sports-induced insanity is as embedded in our culture as hot dogs and lemonade stands.

But what's really perplexing is the outrageous behavior of parents when it comes to youth sports.

You'd think that activities involving kids would bring out the best in us. Instead, many of us morph into demanding, petulant, excuse-making lunatics when children's athletics are concerned.

To be sure, youth sports, from AYSO to club teams to high-school programs, can provide a wonderfully positive experience for kids and their parents. At their best, they impart self-esteem, camaraderie and good citizenship, as well as foster values of perseverance and teamwork.

It doesn't always work out that way, though. Too often, sports are a catalyst for unseemly behavior, unrealistic expectations and ruthlessness masquerading as competitiveness.

We push our kids to perform, scream at referees and chastise coaches for perceived slights. We counsel our children to respect authority while betraying our own contempt, and handle defeat like 5-year-olds.

Most of the time, this behavior doesn't rise above the level of boorishness. But sometimes it escalates into violent, criminal behavior, and then we all wonder how things went so horribly astray.

Just to be straight, when I refer to "we," I'm looking straight in the mirror.

While I've never yelled at or threatened a coach, I can't excuse myself from getting my priorities out of whack or acting ungraciously at times. And as much as I love my husband, there have been moments at our sons' games when I've imagined stuffing a sock in his mouth.

Of course, some people are already unhinged, with or without sports. But why do usually rational people go completely bonkers when it comes to youth athletics?

"I see this literally every day in my office," said Dr. Casey Cooper, a sports psychologist based in Lake Forest. "Well-intentioned, well-educated, law-abiding people that get so impassioned by their kids' activities" that they act inappropriately.

Such behavior tends to escalate when sports are involved, she said, partly due to the physical component, which fuels aggressiveness. But Cooper suggested that it's also because of the societal pass given to improper behavior concerning athletics, as if we believe conduct related to sports should be judged separately and more leniently than in another context.

Indeed, we parents get plenty of reinforcement from a culture that worships sports beyond reason and treats professional athletes as demigods, even when they misbehave.

With apologies to my esteemed colleagues, even this newspaper is guilty of feeding the frenzy. We are treated to copious news stories about local sports, and an "Athlete of the Week," chosen from Newport-Mesa schools. Do we have a "Scholar of the Week?" An "Artist of the Week?"

Some blame must also go to schools, which play a part in elevating sports and athletes to an exaggeratedly exalted status.

A few days ago, I discussed the Hirst story with a friend. She mentioned that she and her husband both played college sports, but realized early on that their son lacked the athletic gene. They didn't push him into sports, she said, and were honest about his chances of getting significant playing time if he chose to do so.

They also encouraged their son to appreciate his talents in other areas. He graduated near the top of his class, and now attends a highly ranked university. Yet my friend couldn't help feeling dismayed that her boy's stellar scholastic record received scant notice compared with the accolades heaped on student-athletes.

Some coaches — not all, but definitely some — also feed the hysteria by taking too seriously the old Vince Lombardi line, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

These are the coaches who expect kids to live or die by their sport, demand an unreasonable commitment of time and resources, and belittle rather than encourage their players.

But it all comes back to parents, the first line of influence on kids.

Whoever made the threats against Hirst, perhaps we all need reminding that high school basketball isn't the most important thing in the world. Take heed: According to the NCAA, only 3% of high-school basketball players go on to play college ball.

For the other 97%, there's a great, big world out there that doesn't revolve around a game.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World