SAN JUAN, P.R. — The basketball tournament organizer worrying his business model could be gutted.
The baseball league administrator warning that children will go soft, unable to compete in society.
The head of Puerto Rico’s Olympic committee demanding exceptions to train elite athletes.
They all packed into a meeting room at the commonwealth’s sports and recreation department in early December to weigh in on some of the farthest-reaching limits on youth sports providers attempted in the United States and its territories. That is, they gathered to largely defend the status quo.
Adriana Sánchez Parés, the director of the department, took it all in. “Everybody agrees there’s a problem,” she said to me, “but the attitude is: Don’t change me, change someone else.” She knew this backlash was coming.
It had been building for more than a year. In 2018, Puerto Rico enacted a law ordering her department to create protections for minors participating in organized sports.
The first of these regulations, a statement of general principles, went into place in August. It called for age-appropriate play, drawn from best practices endorsed by sports governing bodies in other countries. No tournament play or keeping score before age 9, and no more than three games a week through age 16.
Now, Sánchez Parés is customizing regulations for specific sports, like spelling out pitch counts in baseball and the frequency of sparring sessions in boxing. The sports, including soccer, tennis and wrestling, are played by children and also a part of the Olympic program. She has the final word and plans to issue the regulations in late January, underpinned by a statement of rights for children. Among their rights: to “be treated with dignity and respect” and to “have fun” under the care of “qualified coaches.”
Programs and coaches violating the rules face suspensions and fines of $500 to $1,500.
The catalyst was the death of Roberto Quiles Jr., 15, who collapsed during a five-day Junior Olympic basketball tournament sponsored by Jeep. His father, Roberto, said that the cause of the heart failure had not been determined, but that his son had been “exhausted” from year-round play and that medical attention was slow to arrive on site. His death elevated island-wide concerns about pressures placed on children and families by a youth sports system that had been transformed — industrialized — over the past decade or so.
As in the United States, the emphasis on travel teams had taken over. There were expensive basketball and volleyball tournaments at the Puerto Rico Convention Center for hundreds of teams from all over the island, at ever-earlier ages. Teenagers were playing eight games a week between their club and school teams. Children were kept at practice past 10 p.m. on school nights. Family dinners were sacrificed. There were overuse injuries and occasional fights in the stands. Abuse from parents was directed toward referees — or their own children.
“When the boy died, people erupted on radio, ‘Why can’t the government do anything?’” said Representative José Pérez Cordero, a surfer and state legislator who helped pushed through the bill.
Sánchez Parés, 34, is old enough to remember the way youth sports were — a low-cost community affair — but young enough to embrace new ways of attacking recognized problems. A lawyer by training and a former college volleyball player, she is drawing up regulations as head of a body that does not exist in the United States at the state or federal level.
“Many people complain that kids need to learn how to win,” Sánchez Parés said. “I say yes, but they don’t need to learn it at age 9 and it doesn’t always have to be in a game. There are many ways to learn how to win and how to lose.”
She considers herself a reluctant regulator, quite capable of groaning at the bureaucracy that chokes progress in other Puerto Rican sectors. But the island’s Olympic committee and affiliated sports federations have focused largely on developing national teams, creating a void for younger athletes that entrepreneurs have happily filled, dangling the carrot of the elusive N.C.A.A. athletic scholarship. The more children play, the more families pay.
“The parents don’t know about athletic development and don’t care about their kids’ health,” said Yum Ramos, president of the Puerto Rico Basketball Federation. “They just want to win games. And the leagues, they just want to make money.”
He added that regulation was the only way to deal with things. “You have to have the right structure for people to make the right decisions,” he said.
Sánchez Parés anticipates court challenges. An instinct for parental control is strong in Puerto Rico. Patria potestad, or power of the parents — “it’s cultural and the rule of law here,” she said. “Can we interfere with that? That’s the biggest opposition we have, if challenged in court.”
There could be other fronts. Some private schools have objected. So has the Olympic committee, whose annual funding from the department has been slashed in recent years amid the island’s economic troubles and worries about its ability to train athletes who win medals. “Our federations have autonomy, and that’s not to be negotiated,” said Sara Rosario, the Olympic committee’s president. Basketball has also taken that position, while still advising Sánchez Parés on the regulations.
The counter is there is scant evidence the prevailing approach is working at the top. Puerto Rico has won just one gold medal and nine medals over all in the Olympics since 1948. Only a handful of athletes get scholarships each year at N.C.A.A. universities. The neighboring Dominican Republic produces better baseball talent, by focusing more on skill development than game play. Might Puerto Rico see improved results, athletically and to public health, by dialing down the volume in youth sports, controlling costs for families and rebuilding the community base upon which elite sports sits?
Sánchez Parés is inspired by Norway, which I wrote about in April. Nine out of 10 children there grow up playing sports, with all activity guided by a Children’s Rights in Sport framework that includes similar language to the statements in Puerto Rico’s document. In the recent Winter Olympics, the nation of 5.3 million people won a record 39 medals.
Puerto Rico is smaller, with three million people. And it is poorer, with most sports facilities in its 78 municipalities in need of repair, damaged from hurricanes and everyday use. Sánchez Parés recognizes these limitations.
But the most effective sports systems in the world don’t produce athletic talent as much as prevent it from being ruined before it ripens. It is less about spending money and more about spending time getting the youth model right, committing to build the base and being patient with children as they grow into their bodies and true interests. In Puerto Rico, it’s just government taking the lead and dragging the sports organizations along.
Everyone I spoke with in Puerto Rico worries about enforcement. How will Sánchez Parés, who was given no budget for investigators, sniff out violators? At the same time, the mere threat of penalties is already changing behavior. One of the largest operators of basketball tournaments told me he is now limiting games to one per team per day. A coaches’ association is working out how to keep school and club schedules from overlapping. In November, basketball banned keeping score through age 7, after a failed attempt in 2016.
The new regulations challenge the usual order, in which youth are the least protected people in a nation’s (or a state’s) sports ecosystem, which is drawn up by adults, often for adults.
“If you want kids to play like pros then you need to treat them with the same respect,” Sánchez Parés said. “Maybe we,” meaning the government, “don’t have to get involved if you were taking care of them.”
Tom Farrey is a journalist, director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, and author of “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.”