How a can of worms just exploded in youth sports

The Supreme Court came to a decision this week. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Since the Astros seem to be doing fine without my help and a decision on Deshaun Watson’s future is still a few days away, I’m going to touch on a different subject from a different point of view on sports.

Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme court ruled that a public school district in Washington State deprived a high school football coach of his First Amendment rights of free speech and religious expression by suspending him after he refused to stop leading prayer sessions with his players on the field after games.

The ruling determined that the school board overstepped its authority, even though the coach is a government employee and the football field was public property.

I’m not going to get into separation of church and state, First Amendment rights or constitutional debate, conservative vs. liberal, secular vs. religion-affiliated, or the coach’s dedication to his faith.

I’m saying it’s not a good idea for a coach at a public school to lead players in prayers connected to one denomination of the U.S. religious community. Here’s why:

Several years ago, I was a manager in a youth baseball league. The age group for the kids was 12-13 years old. League officials discovered that one of the managers was instructing his players to kneel in the dugout while he recited a Christian prayer.

The league asked the coach to stop leading his young players in prayer. He did. After the season, the coach and I discussed the matter. He explained that his faith was so strong, he wanted to spread the comfort it brought him.

I offered my view that parents, those who wish to, send their kids to churches and temples and mosques, where qualified religion instructors guide the children spiritually. These leaders often get to know the families in their congregation and understand their needs. I didn’t believe that parents who register their kids for youth baseball expect the coach to offer religious guidance. You’re a kids’ baseball coach. You’re out of your league. We're still good. We say hello at local burger joints.

A couple of years later, I was covering the Little League World Series in South Williamsport. I attended a press conference with one of the coaches. He said he was disappointed that his team didn’t win the championship, but he was pleased that he got the chance to instill some religion in his players through prayer.

That was Little League, the most public and American of institutions. I think a Little League coach should teach kids how to catch fly balls, hit a baseball and never slide into a base head-first. And that’s pretty much it. Oh, and never tell a child “just don’t strike out” because that guarantees he’ll be back in the dugout in three pitches.

A youth sports coach is a pretty powerful person in a neighborhood. They’re volunteering their time, so thanks for that. If a player feels uncomfortable praying to an entity that isn’t part of his family’s faith, that’s unfair to the player, who may not want to upset or alienate his coach. The idea is to find commonality among a team, not divide the players.

There are few people more influential in a town than the high school football coach. Players and their parents often do not want to upset the coach or create a problem that has nothing to do with skill level. Or give the coach reason to think the kid is not a “team player,” not one of the guys. At least not one of the coach’s guys.

The Washington State public school coach did not force his players to join him on the field for prayer after games. But some parents of players on that team said their kids felt compelled to join the prayer session. At least do it in private, so fans can't see who's on the field and who's not.

It creates a situation where if a player doesn’t go on the field for prayers, and the coach later benches him – for whatever reason – it could be a problem. You know how competitive high school football can be. College scholarships are riding on a player’s on-field performance. Parents could say to the coach, you benched my kid because he didn’t pray with you and you’re a bigot.

It just creates problems that aren’t necessary.

I know, this is America and the Supreme Court is the final word on what is constitutional and what isn’t. So now public school coaches can lead their players in public prayer on public property.

Doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

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Nick Caserio's history of drafting injury prone players has become a problem. Composite Getty Image.

Nick Caserio was hired to serve as the general manager (GM) of the Texans on January 7, 2021. Some saw it as another nod to the organization's obsession with the Patriots. Others saw it as the team finally getting their guy after pursuing him previously. They were even hit with a tampering charge while trying to talk to him about the job. Since he's been on the job, there have been highs and lows.

Recently, the news about Kenyon Green and Derek Stingley Jr put a stain on his tenure. Green was placed on season-ending injured reserve (IR) and Stingley Jr is expected to be placed on IR, likely missing six to eight weeks, per Aaron Wilson. Both guys were Caserio's 2022 first rounders. Both guys are starting to look like busts and have fans a little more than just upset.

Green's case was curious because he was said to have needed surgery before he tore his labrum during the Saints preseason game. He had knee surgery this past offseason. There were knee injury concerns when he was coming out of A&M. Adding to his injuries, Green has played poorly. To make matters worse, the Chargers drafted fellow guard Zion Johnson two picks later. Johnson played all 17 games last season as a rookie at right guard and has moved to left guard this season. The pick used to draft Green was part of a trade back with the Eagles. They used the 13th overall pick to take Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis, a guy at a position this team could desperately use.

Stingley Jr was a highly touted recruit coming into LSU as a freshman. He played as well as any corner in the country that year. Oh, and they won a national title with arguably one of the best teams in college football history. His net two years in Baton Rouge were marred with injuries. Some believed his junior year was more him holding back to stay healthy for the draft. It worked because he was taken third overall, one spot ahead of Sauce Gardner. Gardner went on to be an All Pro as a rookie. While he's surrounded by more talent on the Jets' defense, people will forever link them because Stingley Jr hasn't lived up to expectations. He missed six games last season and is set to miss at least that many this season. When he has played, he's looked okay. “Okay” isn't what you want from a guy drafted third overall ahead of the other guy who was widely considered better than him.

For the 2021 draft, Caserio was handcuffed. He had no first or second rounders, and made a few trades that lessened his draft pool from eight to five picks. Of the five guys drafted that year, only Nico Collins seems to be a player. The 2022 draft was more productive. Although Green and Stingley Jr were the headliners and haven't played up to the hype, the others are carrying the load. Jalen Pitre and Dameon PIerce alone make that draft class dope. This past draft was seen as the one to save the franchise so to speak. Getting C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr got the team a franchise quarterback and edge rusher with picks two and three overall. The price paid to move back up to three was hefty and puts more scrutiny on Anderson Jr. They appear, so far, to have also found a couple other nice players. Tank Dell being the hidden gem of this class.

While people can't, and shouldn't, base Caserio's performance strictly off of the guys he's drafted, one must call it into question. The '21 draft was a wash. The '22 draft looks suspect, but has some redeeming qualities. The '23 draft will most likely be his saving grace. But should it? Former Texans GM Rick Smith nailed almost every first rounder he drafted. Even he was almost run out of town because folks didn't like what he did. Why should Caserio be any different? So what if he cleaned up the mess by the previous regime! That's what he was hired to do!

“Keep that same energy!” That phrase is used when people try to hold others to different standards. Where's that energy everyone had for Bill O'Brien, Jack Easterby, Rick Smith, Gary Kubiak, David Culley, and Lovie Smith? When others weren't performing well, their heads were called for. I see some people holding Caserio accountable. For the most part, it appears as if he's getting a bit of a pass. I'll be interested to see if this continues should the team has another subpar season. If that pick they traded to the Cardinals is another top 10 pick and the Browns pick the Texans own isn't...if Green can't come back and/or Stingley Jr doesn't show any signs of being a lockdown corner...then what? Let's hope none of this comes to fruition. If it does, we'll have to revisit this conversation.

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