Youth sports are all the rage, for both the good and bad

Commentary

October 04, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

REMEMBER in July 2000 when one hockey dad beat another hockey dad to death in front of his two sons in Reading, Mass.? It was a tough lesson for those involved in youth sports.

Apparently, some youth football coaches and parents in Anne Arundel County haven't gotten the message. There was a brawl after a game Sept. 14 between the Cape St. Claire Cougars and Riviera Beach Buccaneers. A game that featured some cheap shots was reportedly followed by one team blocking the other from leaving, which eventually led to a fight.

An assistant coach, 52, allegedly punched the 15-year-old son of the rival head coach, injuring his eye socket. Now the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks is trying to clear up the mess.

When will it stop?

The stories keep popping up all over the country. Youth sports aren't out of control, but we're moving in that direction. Playing for the pure fun seems to be drying up in this era of winning at all costs and specialization, where parents second-guess coaches and abuse officials.

Travel to a youth football game these days, and the coaches of the 9-10 teams are walking on the sidelines with earphones because they are NFL wannabes. In the 7-8-year-old group, the coaches break down game film. There is the story of the Florida Little League baseball coach who got into an argument with an umpire and broke his jaw. In Ohio, a soccer dad punched a 14-year-old boy who had scuffled with his son for the ball.

According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, 15 percent of the adults attending games could become violent. Five years ago, the figure was 5 percent.

"There is a line, and we all know it's there," said Eldon Ham, a sports psychologist and lawyer who teaches at Chicago-Kent College of Law. "Most of the time we're OK with it, and we know the main objective of youth sports is for participating, learning and enjoying the team concept and atmosphere. But we still have these certain people who act up."

Why?

"First of all, there is a lack of respect and civility these days, not just in sports, but in all of life. People don't know how to act and react, like this road rage," said Steve Burke, director of Urban Youth Sports at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "Secondly, the stakes are much higher for the parents these days. They think of college scholarships and professional sports. They send their kids to camps year-round for one sport in hopes that they find the path to the elite level and financial security."

According to Burke, only 1 percent of those involved in youth sports ever become professionals. That means a lot of parents suffer from disillusionment. Unfortunately, a lot of parents live vicariously through their children. They relive their Little League and Pop Warner experiences. They often have high expectations for sons and daughters with low skill levels.

And when certain goals aren't met, frustration sets in. The child and coaches become prime targets. Officials wear a bull's eye on the back of those striped shirts.

The National Association of Sports Officials offers "assault insurance" because of the verbal and physical abuse. Some officials have received death threats.

"Parents lose perspective," said Burke. "It's supposed to be fun, but it's not fun for a child to see his dad slugging it out in the stands with another father. They really are embarrassed. Parents need to know that a child will feel just as proud if his dad is a good sportsman, cordial and well-mannered to the other team. It has just as much effect as the negative."

Ham says more states have passed laws to protect officials and hopefully cut down on what has become nationally known as "youth sports rage" or "field rage." More local and state legislatures are calling for youth organizations, including high schools, to craft their own code of conduct for parents, coaches and players.

If there is a violation by the parents, some groups would bar them from attending games until they undergo anger management counseling. If they refused, the child would be terminated from the program.

"You can't stop it [youth rage], per se, but you can increase the stakes with criminal sanctions, which some states have already done," said Ham. "Something has to be done when these parents are freaking out at these games. It starts at the top of the pyramid and it filters down."

Burke wants to see more preventive measures. He suggests more seminars with coaches, outlining to parents their goals and expectations for the season. He would like to see more recreation groups implement codes of conduct, and the possible sanctions if violated.

"It's not just a problem in the U.S.A., but Europe, as well," said Burke. "They have soccer stadiums constructed with barb wire fences and moats. People take this thing way too seriously."

There has to be a way to lighten it up. Until then, we'll get more incidents like the one in Florida, in Ohio and now in Anne Arundel County.

And unfortunately, it might lead to another situation like the one in Massachusetts a couple of years ago.

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