City code for sports includes fans, coaches

October 13, 2007|By Jonathan Bor and Kevin Van Valkenburg | Jonathan Bor and Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporters

Spectators attending youth sporting events in Baltimore are put on notice: Verbal or physical abuse of officials, coaches or players will not be tolerated.

The city Parks Department ushered in a new code of conduct yesterday evening by handing out a two-sided flier to fans at a Pop Warner football game in Patterson Park. Those who break the rules risk ejection for a game, season or lifetime, the code warns.

"If a parent or any spectator doesn't want to adhere to the code of ethics, we're going to ask them to leave," said Bob Wall, chief of youth and adult sports, adding that off-duty police will help enforce the peace at all recreation league games.

"Adults just get too caught up in the winning," Wall said.

The policy comes amid mounting concerns locally and across the nation about incidents in which fans verbally abused and, in some cases, assaulted referees at games involving children as young as elementary school age.

In Baltimore, the issue boiled over when officials declared a weeklong boycott of youth games.

The action came after an attack by several men on an official returning to his car after working a morning game Sept. 29 at Southside Academy in South Baltimore. The boycott effectively shut down rec-league football games last week.

Police have made no arrests, and it remains unclear whether the assault was directly related to the football game. The official was unhurt.

Less than a week previiously, a youth football coach in Montgomery County was arrested after he was alleged to have gone to his car and returned to the field with a black bag containing a .45-caliber pistol. The incident occurred after a referee ended a game early because of inappropriate behavior by one of the teams.

2 strikes, you're out

Baltimore's code of conduct instructs parents and spectators to "accept the decisions" of officials, encourage children to "play by the rules," not to ridicule players for mistakes or losing, and not to harass or interrupt coaches during games or practices.

It also orders coaches and officials to make sure athletes are properly dressed and well-behaved, and never to "either physically or mentally push children beyond their abilities."

Adults hurling verbal abuse can be asked to leave the facility, and those committing a second offense will be banned from rec-league events for the rest of the season.

Anyone committing a first assault will be banned for a year, after which he or she may apply for reinstatement.

A second assault wins the person a lifetime ban.

The policy received a positive reception from officials at yesterday's contest among 10- and 11- year-olds from West Baltimore playing football in Patterson Park.

"Of course, it's going to help," said Larry McNair, 47, a former coach dressed in an official's black-and-white-striped uniform. "People have to realize these are instructional games for the kids. Even as officials, we're out there instructing."

"Some people just want to win at all costs," he added.

Yesterday's game, played under lights on a cool, blustery evening made for football, attracted a small but spirited crowd.

Coach Noel Ghee, who guided the James D. Gross Stingers with a firm but friendly demeanor, lamented that some parents take winning too seriously.

"They take a lot of fun away from the kids," he said. "It's still a kids' game."

The code applies year-round to football, baseball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse and swimming events run by the parks department.

Leagues around the country - from a San Diego-area Pop Warner football program to a Nebraska ice hockey association - are adopting zero-tolerance policies in which teams can be penalized for coaches' or parents' misbehavior.

They're doing it, in part, because incidents such as those seen in Maryland are on the rise nationwide, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports.

Last week, in Morris, Ill., a parent attending a soccer game for 6- and 7-year-old boys was charged with battery. He was accused of trying to choke a 46-year-old referee, allegedly claiming that the referee had yelled at his wife.

At a youth football game in Tacoma, Wash., in September, two people were arrested and another man was hospitalized after a group of parents were alleged to have attacked other parents for celebrating too much.

In July, a fight between two PONY League baseball coaches in Acton, Calif., led to charges when one coach, as the teams lined up to shake hands, was alleged to have grabbed the opposing coach and kneed him in the groin. He then repeatedly kicked him in the ribs and gouged his eyes and neck in retaliation for a "dirty slide" during the game.

Lack of knowledge

The problem is not just American. In Germany recently, a 42-year-old man was arrested after he karate-kicked an 8-year-old boy in the chest during a soccer match, according to German news reports.

In Italy this year, a youth soccer team director died after he was kicked in the face by a fan of a rival team.

USA Football, a national advocacy group for promotion of the sport, conducted extensive research this year about fan behavior at games from Pop Warner to high school and found that more than 90 percent of coaches and officials say they have experienced verbal harassment, according to Steve Alic, director of communications.

The root of that statistic, Alic says, is a lack of knowledge.

"Something we recommend in terms of effective measures to improve behavior is to hold preseason meetings to address this issue with parents," Alic says. "You try to educate coaches about modeling appropriate behavior. That's not always easy to do in the heat of the moment, but it can't be emphasized enough.

"We also suggest that leagues try to educate parents about youth football rules. Sometimes, something that happens in a game is not understood on the sidelines, and that causes a reaction."

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