'There's no crying in baseball'

Posted: Jun 06, 2003 12:00 AM

A racketeering operation in Syracuse, N.Y., might have finally been busted. It's not exactly the Bada Bing club, but concerned citizens have seen fit to file suit under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Among the alleged acts of wrongdoing by this criminal syndicate: yelling at players and having them practice on rutted fields.

The target of the RICO suit isn't the mob, but a youth football league. Syracuse-area parents unhappy with the way their gridiron tots have been treated are suing the league's umbrella organization for $5 million and asking $10,000 per each aggrieved little linebacker and quarterback.

The suit is part of a burgeoning trend across the nation of lawsuits lodged against youth leagues and coaches, in a sign that contemporary America has achieved a perfect storm of whininess and litigiousness. The movie "A League of Their Own" made famous the line "There's no crying in baseball." Well, now there is crying in baseball, football, hockey and much else, and if you are a coach anywhere near it, you had better get yourself a good lawyer.

The father of a 16-year-old Bantam hockey player in Canada sued the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association for $300,000 in psychological and punitive damages because his son didn't win the league MVP award. Of course, neither did every other player in the league, save one.

A father in Brunswick, Ohio, sued the coach of his son's baseball team a few years ago for $2,000, the value of a trip to Florida the team could have made if it hadn't been in what is euphemistically called "a rebuilding year" -- i.e., the team lost all 15 of its games, often by the 10-run mercy rule.

A father sued the New Haven, Conn., school district in 2001 for $1.5 million when his son was demoted from varsity to junior-varsity basketball, and probably would have asked for $3 million if his kid had been cut altogether.

There have been suits over players not having enough playing time, over players being slotted in the "wrong position," in short, over everything imaginable that typically makes youth sports a bittersweet experience, tinged both with fond memories and disappointment.

It is the disappointment that players and their parents can't abide, a sign of the steady erosion of any stern, "stiff upper lip" culture in America. They think they have a "right" not to be disappointed, and so have a legal grievance when it happens.

Winston Churchill once said, "Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm." The lawsuit parents define success as getting their way. They realize lawsuits are an excellent tool of bullying -- the larger and more spectacular, the better.

"If you sue because your son didn't make the team," says University of Missouri law-school professor Doug Abrams, who tracks sports suits, "you can be pretty sure that he is going to make the team within days."

Many parents also conceive of sports as a way to pay their childrens' college education through scholarships. Most sports-obsessed parents would be better off simply saving for future tuition the thousands of dollars a year they spend on private coaches, training camps, etc.

So far, none of the sports suits has succeeded. But that is small comfort. Judges should seek to stem the tide of the suits altogether by enforcing "loser pays" laws -- in states that have them -- making the plaintiffs pick up the legal fees of defendants in frivolous suits.

The historical pattern of novel litigation -- tobacco suits, for instance -- is that it is dismissed as ridiculous for years, up until the time one suit succeeds. Then the suits begin to win everywhere, a new bonanza is opened up for trial lawyers, and another corner of American life is changed forever.

There's already plenty of crying in baseball and other youth sports. Prepare for big damage awards next.