As my eight year old daughter and I walked into the gym the other night for her basketball practice, we were both confronted with a first.
My daughter had never seen a group of boys playing full-court basketball, with one team not wearing any shirts. I had not seen a group of young boys playing “shirts on skins” in some time, myself, and it was the first time since the Sandusky and Fine sex abuse scandals.
We both were hesitant to walk in the gym. Naturally, my daughter was embarrassed to see a bunch of 4th and 5th grade boys running around in nothing but their shorts and shoes.
Seeing the kids instantly brought back uncomfortable memories for me, too, as I always hated being a skin. While very athletic, I did not like my skinny pre adolescent body and I did not like taking off my shirt to play sports.
As my daughter and I peered through the little windows of the gym door, debating if we should or should not walk in, I noticed that many of these kids looked just like me.
Stuck in the small gym lobby, I started thinking to myself, is playing “shirts and skins” appropriate anymore?
In light of the events over the past few months, I wondered if such a commonplace norm in men’s sports, especially in unstructured sport, was appropriate for youth and adolescent participants in 2012.
As a kid of the Cold War era, shirts and skins was a standard practice. There was no choice, you were either a shirt or a skin, no questions asked. In 2012, I am not so sure this is appropriate anymore in structured youth sport environments.
I am torn because, on one level, I hated being a skin and I know that there are generations of boys who would agree with me. There is another side of me, the traditionalist, who says this is simply one aspect of sport that used to be commonplace and should continue as a right of passage from adolescents to manhood, something that is handed down from one generation to the next.
I know there are those out there saying “If you don’t have the confidence to play without your shirt, then you don’t have the ability to play out there anyway.” This may be correct, yet the point of youth sport is not about how good you are, it is about participation, inclusion and providing an environment for kids to feel comfortable enough to learn about and engage in their sport.
At a societal level, I do not see a place for shirts and skins anymore with boys under the age of eighteen in structured and organized sporting events. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against getting a tan and staying cool while playing if you are outside, in hot and sunny weather. I am not trying to advocate taking any fun out of a game of basketball.
Yet, I do have a difficult time accepting that it is ok for young boys to be running around, barely clothed, in structured and organized practices.
The Sandusky and Fine molestation cases force us to question and rethink any “old school” practices that place kids in vulnerable and uncomfortable circumstances. I now find myself in daily quandaries, as I am now questioning many long standing traditions in sport.
Many of these traditions were innocently born in the unstructured environments of the playgrounds of the past, yet now it is our obligation to consider consequences and be vigilant about outdated practices that have now become questionable and debatable.
We can no longer assume innocence and claim ignorance when it comes to the motives of adults who coach, teach and mentor our youth.
If we do continue with this blind trust, one day we will read a story about a youth basketball coach, accused of molesting children, who loved to divide their team into shirts and skins.