How some communities are teaching moms and dads to play fair.

By Mike McNamee, Photo from Photodisc
October 05, 2005

Violence in Youth Sports

Thwack! The Yankee batter sliced the baseball off the tee and ran for first base. The ball bounced into the outfield, stopping just short of the chalk arc that marked the home-run line. Convinced that the ball had rolled across the line -- an automatic double -- Yankee manager Pedro Lopez stormed onto the field to confront the umpire. A Tiger coach, Peter Hernandez, joined the argument, and soon the two coaches were shoving each other. Then Hernandez threw a punch -- and 20 more parents charged in. The players were hustled into the dugouts, but a home video of the August 2000 melee in Miami's Tamiami Park shows one young fielder still in his position. He was only 5 years old, and he just wanted to keep playing the game.

On baseball diamonds and soccer fields across the nation, the games kids play are increasingly overshadowed by the punches adults throw. The National Association of Sports Officials logged more than 100 assaults on referees and umpires last year. In 1998, the Racine, WI-based group started providing assault insurance to pay members' medical and legal bills when players, coaches, or parents take the old cry "Kill the ump!" to heart. No one tracks the more common cases when fans attack coaches, players, or each other.

Unless, of course, those assaults make national headlines -- like the hockey-rink death of Michael Costin in July 2000. Costin was coaching a group of kids through a practice when one player's dad, Thomas Junta, started yelling at him about excessive roughness. Costin skated over to Junta, swearing. Junta ran onto the ice, and they scuffled. An employee of the Reading, MA, rink ordered Junta to leave. But minutes later, police say, he returned and confronted Costin, who was treating his three sons to sodas. Ignoring the boys' pleas, Junta pinned Costin to the floor and beat him into a fatal coma, according to charges brought by prosecutors. Jurors found Junta guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to six to ten years in Massachussetts state prison.

Rising Sports Rage

Costin's shocking death launched a national debate on the brutal outbursts associated with youth sports. But violence at the games, experts say, goes far beyond beatings and midfield riots among opposing fans. Sideline rage extends to parents who heckle referees, coaches who berate their players, and teams that teach dirty tricks in pursuit of victory.

Such rough handling and verbal abuse in sports are often shrugged off as just part of "toughening up" kids. Among young athletes surveyed by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, 45% said they'd been "called names, yelled at, or insulted while participating in sports," and 18% said they'd been hit, kicked, or slapped. Indeed, in the weeks after the city of El Paso started courses in proper sports parenting, three volunteer coaches in the youth-football league were arrested for child abuse after parents reported they were hitting players or dragging them by their face masks.

With the increased emphasis on pro-style toughness come pro values -- the "me first" approach of such bad boys as Roberto Alomar or Latrell Sprewell. But unlike those pros, kids don't play for fame or money. They play for fun -- and there's precious little fun when adults are out of control. So kids are fleeing the games they love. Robert Malina's son, a young soccer player, quit his high school's varsity team as a sophomore and took up skateboarding instead. "When I asked him why," says Malina, former director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University in East Lansing, "he said, 'Dad, when I'm out there on the ramp, no one's yelling at me.'"

Malina's son lasted longer than most. According to a Michigan State study, of the youngsters who gambol onto the field as 5- and 6-year-olds, 70% will hang up their cleats and get out of sports by the time they're 13. Many will say that parents' pressure and coaches' negative attitudes have robbed the sports of the fun they were seeking.

High Expectations

The outcome of a game in the 1995 Maryland state tournament for Babe Ruth baseball illustrates what can happen when pressure overtakes fun. The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Thunder faced the Blue Jays from Libertytown. When the two teams had played before, the Blue Jays shut out Thunder, 14-0, Bethesda coach Bob Procelli recalls. But in the third inning of the tournament match-up, Thunder was holding a 7-4 lead -- and the Blue Jays' parents and coaches were frantic. "They were yelling all kinds of things at those kids, really riding them," Procelli says. And when the Blue Jays came back to win, 10-7, "those kids weren't cheering," Procelli says. "It was more like, 'What a relief -- we can go home without getting chewed out.' " The players on both teams were 8-year-olds.

Such high expectations can wreak damage long before a child quits sports. Parents' poor behavior can undo even the best Knute Rockne lectures about sportsmanship. "Kids will heed what you do, not what you say," says sports science professor Daniel R. Gould, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "You may be trying to teach your kids to be emotionally controlled. But what they learn is that when you're an adult, you can go crazy."

In extreme cases, pressure can make kids ill. Some 5% to 8% of young athletes, Dr. Gould estimates, exhibit the classic symptoms of anxiety and burnout -- headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension. These same kids can suffer from psychological problems as well: "Too often, parents see their young athlete only as a home-run hitter or a goalie and not as a child," says sports psychologist Darrell J. Burnett, Ph.D., of Laguna Niguel, CA. "The kid's total worth and identity is tied in with athletics -- and she's only as good as her next game." Instead of building self-esteem, her talent undermines it.

Cheering Only

A growing number of sports leagues across the country are trying to rein in this kind of pressure. The Lakeside (CA) Region of the American Youth Soccer Organization has posted signs and handed out buttons declaring its fields Kid's Zones, where adults are welcome only if they cheer good play, respect the referees, and keep their tempers in check. "The message is simple: We're here for the kids and the game," says former commissioner Steve Hamann.

The Jupiter Tequesta (FL) Athletic Association and the city of El Paso are going further: Kids can't play until their parents have undergone training in sportsmanship, child development, and sports parenting. "What we're teaching is common sense," says Jeff Leslie, president of the Florida league. "But people lose their grip on common sense in the emotions of the game."

Leslie launched the parent-training program after a bloody incident in nearby Port St. Lucie, FL. Early in the second half of a coed under-14 soccer game in November 1999, referee Stephen M. Farinacci whistled a penalty. Fifty yards away, coach Mauricio Lesmes leaped up, slammed down his clipboard, and started screaming. The players on his bench quickly joined in. Farinacci approached Lesmes and asked him five times to calm down. But the livid coach blasted the ref with profanity. "Finally, he said, 'F--- you,' and that was it," Farinacci says. The ref ended the game and ordered all the players and spectators to leave.

Minutes later, Farinacci saw Lesmes sitting on a bench near the clubhouse. "He said, 'I guess you forgot that the game is for the kids,'" the referee recalls. Then, Lesmes -- whose 6-foot-2-inch frame towered over the 5-foot-4 ref -- slammed his head into Farinacci's face, shattering his nose and the bone around his left eye. Lesmes claimed his belated attack was provoked by Farinacci's behavior and the heat of competition. A judge who saw the attack on a surveillance-camera videotape disagreed and convicted him of assault.

All Too Common

It's easy to blame such incidents on the hair-trigger tempers of men who were never fit to work with children. Lesmes was substituting for coaches who had been thrown out of the team's previous game. Both Costin and Junta had criminal records.

But that doesn't explain why every Saturday and Sunday, even-tempered, Brazelton-reading moms and dads drive their minivans and SUVs to athletic fields, then turn into screaming bullies. Sideline rage crosses all ethnic, educational, and professional lines. Just ask the 13-year-old soccer referee in Washington, DC, who had to eject a parent -- one of the nation's top law-enforcement officials at the time -- from a match in the early 1990s for badgering the referee over offsides calls.

And while men are more likely than women to lose control and fly into sports fury, testosterone isn't required: After South Brunswick, NJ, police officers broke up a brawl ignited by a 9-year-old-girls' soccer game in September 2000, the mother of a player attacked a female official in the parking lot. Convicted of assault, she was fined $405 and sentenced to 20 hours of community service.

Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the May 2001 issue of Child magazine