Boys do cry: ESPN's approach to LLWS

Big audience numbers are expected for the ABC/ESPN broadcasts of this weekend’s Little League World Series games in Williamsport, Pa. That is likely to mean big criticism as well.

ESPN has already attracted its share of disapproving columnists and critics, who argue that a children’s event (these players are all between the ages of 11-13) should not be on national TV. Most of the critics question why we need to see the boys cry.

We say why not? What’s so shameful about little boys crying?

This year, in addition to airing all 32 tournament games, ESPN also broadcast several regional qualifiers.

If you haven’t watched any of the coverage, the games are intense. The draw is obvious. This sporting event is all about the boys, from those who have yet to shed their baby fat to those with a shadow of a teen ‘stache on their upper lip. Metal braces poke out from between their lips. Their ears stick out from under their caps. It's fun to watch boys who are glorious in their boyhood, and happen to be amazing athletes.

The games are remarkably similar. After the boys boogie with Dugout, (we think he’s a bear), the official mascot, they retreat to a coach’s huddle, then retake the field with stoic game faces. That doesn’t last long. By the fourth inning, they look like the boys they are, which is to say intensely competitive and with their emotions as outerwear. They grimace with anxiety, sigh heavily to calm shaky nerves, drop their heads or smack their gloves in frustration when they make mistakes. They hang on the fence in the dugout, begging for a hit. When they lose, sometimes they cry.

The also crack open great big grins when they get on base or make big plays. Because they are so fresh and genuine, their smiles are as endearing as their tears are gut-wrenching.

It’s those faces that make such compelling TV. It’s those same faces that make the critics lash out.

Turning a bright spotlight on children, detractors argue, is over the top.

“They're kids, the kind who still have favorite foods and take cartoon-shaped chewable vitamins.” wrote Jelisa Castrodale of NBC Sports. “I’m not sure they need to choke down two weeks’ worth of nationally televised scrutiny on top of it.”

Others go further, accusing ESPN of exploiting children.

“Allowing the public viewing of pubescent angst under the guise of a baseball game is opportunistic, offensive and just plain wrong,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke.

Here’s the thing: Kids cry when they lose a big game. We shouldn’t turn away from that. It’s not at all shameful for a 12-year-old boy to cry in the face of disappointment. Instead, we should articulate what aspect of those tears is a part of a healthy, normal response -- and what is unhealthy. Our hunch is that folks who accept the grief that comes with losing are comfortable with emotional expression. Those who recoil have their own issues.

Most of the boys cry for the right reason: because they’re sad. It is a singular moment of great sorrow. They had something within their grasp and it slipped away. If 12-year-olds don’t cry a little at moments like that, we as a society should be concerned. Some of the boys crumble for the wrong reasons, because they feel they’ve let down their parents or their coach or some other adult in their life. Or even worse, they equate their failure on the field with failure as a human being.

Such is the consequence of out-of-control, elite-level youth sports, said John Tauer, a psychology professor and head men’s basketball coach at the University of St. Thomas, a Division III university in St. Paul, Minn.

But that’s no reason for ESPN to shy away from airing the Little League World Series, he says.

“I don’t know of any study that has looked at the long-term effects of playing sports on national TV at age 12,” he said. “My hunch is that most of the kids who play in the Little League World Series don’t suffer any adverse effects.”

And for the few who really do emotionally collapse, it’s not because TV cameras are there to witness their failure, he said. It’s because of the toxic environment that surrounds youth sports.

So look at the boys who cry. But you'd better watch close. In response to the intense criticism, ESPN producers work hard to cut away from sobbing boys, said Bill Graff, senior coordinating producer. A camera shot might catch a few tears, but it won’t linger.

“I will tell you that we are very sensitive to kids that get overly emotional,” he said. “We don’t stay on it very long. We won’t stay on a shot of a kid crying. People see that and they say, ‘How in the world can (ESPN) make money showing that kid crying?’ But there may be three instances of that in a whole weekend.”

That’s a noble approach, if maybe a bit misguided. By turning away from the tears, ESPN misses an opportunity to take its coverage of the Little League World Series to the next level. The television audience for LLWS, which at times this week beat out the audience for MLB games aired at the same time, is filled with kids, parents and coaches who would eagerly lap up good information.

Instead of minimizing the intense emotions, we suggest having the resources on hand to explore these difficult moments.

  • Bring in an expert to analyze the coach’s interaction with his players. Sure, the coaches are highly guarded when a microphone is clipped to their collars. Even so, much of what they tell their young players is confusing or paralyzing to the players, Tauer said. But occasionally a coach is brilliant. Let the audience in on what works and what's counterproductive.

  • Produce segments on how parents should responsibly manage young athletic talent.

  • Track down players from a decade or two ago who did not go on to professional sports careers. Then talk to mental health experts about how grown adults put early success into proper perspective.

ESPN takes the middle road with the Little League World Series, for admirable reasons. We say go further. Look the critics and the crying boys in the eyes and ask why. (OK, not literally. But don’t turn away.) Help us all understand what’s healthy and what’s not healthy about intense pressure on young children. Bring more context to this compelling story, not less. It would capitalize on already good TV.