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From Passionate to Frenzied
June 13th, 2007 6:27PM

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By Regan McMahon

Believe it or not, there was a time not so long ago that families spent Saturday mornings together at home or someplace other than a soccer field. ... When I was growing up, youth sports were dominated by boys, and kids generally didn't get started in team sports until 3rd grade at the earliest, joining seasonal teams like football, baseball and basketball, with some kids not getting involved until middle school and almost no one getting serious till high school. Soccer changed all that, with programs starting in kindergarten and close to 50 percent participation by girls. ...

What's unique about the soccer phenomenon is that this "new" American sport went from being practically unknown to universally embraced within 10 or 15 years. Before soccer took hold, it was understood that there were some kids who played sports and some who didn't. A parent might watch for signs of athleticism when she threw the ball around with her child at a park when he was little and think, "I can see he's got a good arm. Maybe he'll be a good baseball player when he gets old enough for Little League."

But soccer programs inspired such a lemming-like response that a majority of middle- and upper-middle-class parents sign their kids up for soccer at age 5, whether they are athletic or not. To not do it makes you or your child the odd person out. So now it's not just a sport, it's a tool of socialization.

Recreational soccer also fills a gap created by grade school budget constraints and academic priorities that led to the cutting of physical education programs. In times past, kids got exercise, gained skills and learned individual sports in P.E. class. At one time, everything from croquet and badminton to baseball and basketball were taught as part of the regular school curriculum. Students would discover at school if they had a certain aptitude or passion for a sport, and might build their skills in class before ever going out for a team at school or in a recreational league.

Soccer's role as a safe environment for kids to play can't be underestimated, either. The sport's popularity explosion in the '80s came at a time when parents were increasingly worried about their children's safety in day care centers (around the time of the McMartin Preschool case; the owners were indicted in 1984 for sexually abusing the children in their care but acquitted at their 1990 trial) and in their neighborhoods, where there was great concern about child abductions, fueled by the media and a few high-profile incidents. Parents began to believe that it wasn't safe to let their children play in their front yard or even in their backyard, or to walk or ride their bikes to friends' houses or to the local playground to play a pickup game or shoot some baskets. Plugging your child into an organized sport overseen by plenty of adults, with parents on the sidelines, seemed a wise and easy choice. And millions of American parents made their choice.

As soccer grew in the '80s and '90s, U.S. soccer successes mounted in the Olympics and the men's and women's World Cup competitions, and the number of collegiate programs multiplied. Professional soccer matches began to appear on the new 24-hour sports networks and cable TV outlets - including those by the first professional U.S. women's league (which disbanded in 2004) - and parents and kids began to see soccer not just as weekend fun but also a ticket to a college scholarship or even a career path. Consequently, the excitement over soccer went from passionate to frenzied. To not sign your kids up for soccer seemed tantamount to denying them an opportunity for a college education. The pressure was on. Soccer mom and good parent became synonymous.

Excerpted from "Revolution in the Bleachers" by Regan McMahon. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) April 2007.

Regan McMahon, a mother of two athletic children, is the deputy book editor and a feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. "Revolution in the Bleachers" traces the dramatic changes in youth sports in America over the past 20 years and provides a guide to help parents bring balance back into their kids' lives and reclaim family life apart from the kids' team activities. For more about the book, go to: http://www.revolutioninthebleachers.com/



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