It's a familiar scene: A coach or manager gets ejected for disputing a call. Then come the endlessly replayed dirt-kicking, base-tossing theatrics that make him an overnight celebrity.
What's worse, youth sports experts say, is that a disturbing number of youth coaches are modeling their behavior after these and other displays. The experts say the misbehavior can take such varied forms as using foul language, dealing with a player too harshly after a mistake or intentionally running up a score.
To combat inappropriate behavior, organizations in Maryland and across the country are educating players, parents and coaches, and requiring that coaches be certified. For example, more than a thousand Maryland State Youth Soccer Association coaches will have to be licensed beginning this fall. The association and others like it have adopted zero-tolerance policies on misbehavior.
The easy availability of Internet video means many Americans can easily see or hear about antics that used to remain little-known - the California youth football coach caught on videotape last year tackling a 13-year-old from another team, or the Staten Island (N.Y.) manager who appeared to strike a player during the 2006 Little League World Series.
Some other incidents in which coaches came under fire:
At a recent soccer game for boys ages 7-9 at Freestate Sports Arena in White Marsh, an official ejected a coach for alleged repeated profanity. After the game, Baltimore County police were called because the other team said the coach had an altercation with some parents. No charges were filed, but each team's coaches were left fuming at the other's and disputing what may or may not have occurred.
Marty Kuser, a tough-minded former Marine who instructs and assigns referees for youth games in the state, says coach-created problems are making "the lives of my referees as miserable as can be. Our referee base is dwindling and we lose a large part of it due to what comes from the sidelines."
Kuser, 56, a referee for 25 years, says with a hint of exasperation, "If we could just get the coaches to coach."
In Utah last year, a coach in a 10-and-under boys championship baseball game ordered a top hitter walked intentionally. That left the pitcher to face a weaker hitter who was a cancer survivor with a shunt in his brain. The cancer survivor struck out to end the game, and baseball fans flooded Internet message boards with opinions ranging from outrage that the winning team "humiliated a child with brain cancer" to impassioned defenses of the coach's tactic. Intentional walks frequently provoke debates in Maryland youth leagues, too.
"Is it [misbehavior] prevalent? I think that's a fair statement," says Virginia Tech health and physical education professor Richard Stratton, who has written frequently about coaching youth sports. Stratton says too many coaches seem to forget their players are kids. "The thing I think we have to beat into coaches is to get them to think about who it is they're coaching. The term is `developmentally appropriate,'" he says.
Training for change
Parents are often torn about coaches' heavy-handed tactics, Stratton says. A study presented last year to the American College of Sports Medicine found that extra exercise, verbal scolding and - to a lesser extent - public embarrassment were widely used by youth sports coaches. Stratton says that though some parents find such discipline distasteful, others accept the methods because "they see these ridiculous salaries the pro athletes are making and wonder if their kids can make it."
The survey, led by a Wisconsin pediatrician, sampled 376 parents of kids involved in organized sports. One-hundred thirty-five hoped their son or daughter would play college sports, and 22 expected their children to become professional athletes.
Kuser, who assigns referees for about 2,000 soccer games a year in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties, says problems with coaches are as inevitable as twisted ankles. "We put a percentage on it. If you're in a group of three referees and you average four games a day, then the odds are that your crew will have one game where you're going to be uncomfortable from coaches or parents yelling and screaming," he says.
Some youth league officials worry that kids' enthusiasm is being drained by coaches with misplaced priorities.
"I think we've lost our way a bit. We get competitive too early," says Graham Ramsay, director of soccer development for the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association.
Ken Kellner agrees. The Silver Spring father, whose two girls, 8 and 10, have both played organized soccer, wonders why kids rarely kick soccer balls around for fun in his neighborhood the way they shoot baskets or toss a football. "As the kids get older, the games and practices become more joyless. What is the purpose of all this? Is it to grow the next great American soccer star?" Kellner says.