A bitter medicine for misbehaving fans


January 30, 2000|By Norris West

How do you cure a misbehaving child? Timeout.

And how do you treat adults who seem to think youth sporting events at public school gyms are no different than fight night at Madison Square Garden? Timeout.

Yes, timeout was the medicine Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks officials used to remedy a behavior disorder that has afflicted growing numbers of parents, coaches and young athletes throughout the county and throughout the country.

The disease is highly contagious. Parents can infect other parents, and children on the court are bound to catch it.

Recreation officials have tried some remedies, but none worked. So they went for the gusto. They went for the gag cure.

They called their medicine Silent Saturday and applied it to parents and coaches. This treatment went down as bitterly as Castor Oil. But it was administered to prevent the spread of the misbehavior bug that emerges, coincidentally, at youth basketball games.

It was a severe measure, but officials were convinced it was necessary to stop the gradually declining behavior of parents and coaches who are supposed to simply support, teach and encourage young people.

I got a dose of this solution two Saturdays ago at Corkran Middle School near Glen Burnie. I didn't like it.

I enjoy basketball at every level -- youth leagues right up to the NBA (and WNBA). The game is supposed to have cheers from the stands and coaches yelling from the sideline. But at recreational leagues across the county on Silent Saturday, children played ball in a lonely atmosphere.

The tough timeout sanctions took the fun out of the game between the Harundale and Severn 11-to-12-year-old boys' teams at Corkran Middle. Although the contest looked like basketball, it sure didn't sound like basketball.

Parents sat silently in folding chairs, resisting the urge to cheer -- or jeer. Coaches fought the impulse to shout instructions, encouragement or complaints. Coaches and fans were permitted to wave signs, but not make noise.

Just about the only sounds were the syncopated thud of 11-year-olds dribbling a basketball, a referee's whistle and parents murmuring their disapproval.

This is not the way basketball should be played or watched. This was no fun -- not for parents, coaches or players. On Silent Saturday, only the referees were smiling. They could tolerate one fan's hand-held sign that complained, "C'mon ref."

Silent Saturday included "can do's" and "can't do's." Among the can't do's for coaches and fans were cheering, clapping, yelling, making noise and speaking to players on the court.

The county imposed its group timeout on 400 teams, with players ages 8 to 17, their coaches and their parents. The desired effect: to get their attention.

Lisa DiGiacinto, the county's chief of recreation and athletics, acknowledged that most parents and coaches don't need this treatment. But the silent minority is getting louder, crueler and more threatening, she said.

Ms. DiGiacinto said she has heard too many scary stories. Angry parents have followed referees to their cars, arguing vociferously about calls that they are certain had cost their children a shot at the pros.

Once, a coach ran onto the court to choke a referee. And, of course, there's the regular name-calling from the bleachers targeted at referees, even the good ones. It makes you wonder why anyone would become a ref. Not surprisingly, the number of applicants for game officials has declined.

Anne Arundel County got the idea for Silent Saturday from a youth soccer league in Ohio. Ms. DiGiacinto said recreation officials across the country were watching to see if this interesting but untested solution works here.

"Our county's just trying to be proactive instead of reactive," she said amid the silence of a Severna Park-Davidsonville contest, which took place right after Harundale-Severn in the string of silent games. "Before it gets way out of control, we're saying, `wake-up call.'" Or timeout.

My only concern about this method is overmedication. Must everyone be treated when only a relatively small percentage is sick? I take solace, however, in the fact that one Saturday of this treatment is a small dose.

I'm also glad that recreation officials showed some flexibility. They didn't warn or toss Tammy Martz when she screamed in delight after her son, Joey Mavor of the Severn squad, drove the lane for a flashy lay-up against Harundale, the eventual victor.

They didn't eject parents who temporarily forgot about the clapping prohibition. Their target was unruliness.

The medicine went down smoothly that Saturday, although one spectator yelled -- outside the Corkran Middle School building: "I feel like I'm in Russia!"

Recreation officials soon will find out if the one-time application worked. Let's hope it did. We certainly can't tolerate a further decline in behavior -- these are just games.

And we don't want the people at recreation and parks to think a heavier, more frequent dose of this experimental cure is necessary.

Norris West writes editorial for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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