No place for fan rage in sports

Sidelines: Throw a penalty flag on parents and spectators at youth games who don't observe rules of civility.

January 13, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

It didn't matter who threw the first punch in the brawl between Thomas Junta and Michael Costin in front of their children at a hockey rink in Reading, Mass. Costin was killed in the fray, and Junta was convicted Friday of involuntary manslaughter.

What matters is that it happened at all. A lot of people who have spent time at youngsters' athletic competitions might be shocked, but not entirely surprised. Sooner or later, the seething passions that some spectators (many of them parents), some players and some coaches bring to these events would inevitably lead to a fatality.

It's unfortunate that Junta, 44, is such a big man, at 275 pounds, and that he's a truck driver. This creates the impression that sport rage is the exclusive province of big lugs who wear blue collars. But people across America know that sport rage is as likely to be expressed by an affluent professional as it is by a truck driver.

I do not pretend to be a sports expert. The finer points of football, basketball, soccer and lacrosse - of course lacrosse - elude me. But I do have a lot of experience attending games as a spectator, especially at the high school level where all of my four children have played on varsity teams, three of them in two sports.

Most of the people who go to these games behave well. The players are there to do their best. Most coaches are there chiefly because they want to help them do their best. The spectators are there to see a good game, all of them hoping their team will win, that their son or daughter will play well, perhaps even do something spectacular. They cheer when their team surges ahead. They moan when the opposite happens. There are excellent plays and horrific mistakes. Coaches make mistakes. Players make mistakes. Officials make mistakes. Therein lie the elements of the life experience: success, failure, determination; behavior in all those, fairness, sportsmanship, respect.

All that sustains the original notion that the athletic experience would help to round out the boy or girl.

But the trend of national rage and the lust for ego gratification has intruded on this. Not from the majority, but from enough individuals on and off the field for whom the sporting event has become so important that victory has to be had at any cost; that defeat - in a play, in a game, in a season - is unacceptable, the subject of fierce criticism, possibly punishment. Futures are at stake for the children whose parents dream of athletic scholarships to pay for college, for schools that want to attract students, and where scholastic achievement has been overwhelmed by athletic achievement.

An aberrational ego fulfillment seems to be at stake for parents who are certain they know more about the sport than any player or coach or official. Some cannot resist the desire to coach their children from the sidelines, even contradicting a coach. Some get so angry, they explode. They make threats. They make demeaning comments about other players. They scream at coaches and officials. They scream at their children. I have seen youngsters profoundly humiliated and intimidated by this sort of treatment.

The idea that the athletic experience should round out the youngsters' adolescent experience is severely abused in this environment.

This catastrophe is not peculiar to Boston or Baltimore. It is a national phenomenon. It's not just fathers; it's also mothers. The whole country seems to be experiencing heightened violence and frightening behavior at the sporting events of youngsters.

This is not to mention the condition of professional sports as demonstrated by fans of the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints hurling bottles and other debris onto the field last month, or as demonstrated in the drunken excesses of fans of the Ravens at every home game.

Put sport ragein the same category as road rage and air rage (which until Sept. 11, meant passengers acting violently in airplanes and airports). And it doesn't start at the high school level; it starts in the peewee leagues.

What's to be done?

A group named the Positive Coaching Alliance reports that the National Association of Sports Officials is offering "assault insurance" to its 19,000 members. It is only one of the groups of officials and regulators and fans that have formed to try to eliminate the rage or get rid of the ragers.

In California, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, officials have adopted a variety of ways to go after disruptive mothers and fathers. They're handing lollipops to rowdy spectators and telling them to keep sucking until the game's over. They're handing out yellow cards warning misbehavers that they'll be escorted from games. One community has demanded that parents attend spectator etiquette classes.

No one wants to take the competitiveness out of sports. There's no greater thrill than going after victory and getting it. A tight game can be nerve-wracking for players and fans. A bad call by an official can be infuriating. A single mistake can mean the loss of a game.

At the beginning of every high school game I have ever attended, the captains meet before the game and shake hands. After each game, both teams and their coaches shake hands. That's what it's supposed to be about.

In between, these players do their best. It would be foolish to say that they never utter a nasty word to each other in between, but they play by the rules or they are penalized.

The same can't be said for everyone on the sidelines. The word needs to reach there that sports is what happens in addition to education, not vice versa.

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