Cashing In On Kids

In recent years, there have been far too many stories of youth athletic contests that disintegrated into bloody brawls involving parents, coaches, and officials.

Some programs have been destroyed by embezzlers pocketing enormous sums of money for personal use.

And now this: gambling. That’s right, gambling on games has now reached youth sports.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines recently did a piece on the South Florida Youth Football League, a program which caters to 30,000 kids, ages 5 to 15. While players are scoring touchdowns and making tackles, it turns out the real action is taking place away from the field, reminiscent of a Las Vegas casino.

Hidden cameras captured parents and spectators openly making bets in the stands, along the sidelines, in front of coaches, and at the entrance to the facility. Point spreads are created and the stakes can be high. Some games have $10,000 to $20,000 riding on them.

As one individual said, “Drug dealers love youth league football.”

All About The Money

While the South Florida league has a gigantic problem on its hands, most youth program directors are not naïve enough to think this is the only youth program in America that has been infiltrated by crime and sabotaged by adults who have absolutely no interest in what’s best for children.

Sadly, this type of behavior is the opposite of what youth sports are supposed to be all about. And it is sick.

There is emotional damage caused to kids who are expected to perform at a level that only ensures a bettor’s success, while disregarding the elements of a positive sports experience, such as learning how to play as a team, being a good sport, and developing valuable skills.

Former players in the South Florida program spoke about how bettors with wads of cash rewarded them with $100 bills when they played well, helped the team win, and, in the process, helped that individual collect a windfall.

Is that really the message we want to deliver to impressionable children--sports are all about money? I think most will agree that instead of taking away cash from a sports experience, kids should be developing all the attributes that make sports so powerful when they are conducted properly.

End It All Now

These problems can end in a heartbeat--if recreation professionals are up to the task. Those who are made aware of these situations must take a stand and deny any league the use of its fields that condones this type of behavior.

That’s a message that will take root. If every community is truly diligent about what happens on its fields, along the sidelines, and in the stands, then we can slam the door on this nonsense.

If coaches were violently assaulting kids, it would not be tolerated. So why allow kids to be damaged emotionally by the knowledge that thousands of dollars are riding on the outcome of their games? That type of pressure has no room in youth sports.

So what are we going to do about it?

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit or contact Emmy Martinez at or (800) 729-2057.