Every time I write the words, “violence in youth sports,” I get a weird feeling that there’s something terribly wrong here. Here we are, offering sports programs to millions of children across the country, and have to worry about violence? It seems every time I do an interview, the inevitable question arises: “Is the violence we see today greater than ever?” My answer is always no. It’s like asking if crime today is greater than ever.
Here’s the deal: While 95 percent of youth sports parents are law-abiding and caring people, the other 5 percent seem to get all the headlines because of their violent acts. Take the case of Thomas Junta in the year 2000. He’s the Massachusetts hockey dad who was sentenced six to 10 years in state prison for the fatal beating of fellow parent Michael Costin after a youth hockey practice. That case was the billboard example that really got everyone’s attention. It made everyone sit back and say, “What’s really going on out there in youth sports?” And, more importantly, “Why is it so prevalent today?”
The More Things Change …
Looking back on the last 30 years, I see nothing much different than before. We’ve always had the emotionally immature, reckless people who get violent when somebody “messes” with their kid. They take things into their own hands while losing control.
I’ll never forget watching a baseball game once when my son John was playing. Because a father from the other team didn’t like the coach taking his kid out of the game, he went into the dugout, grabbed a bat and began chasing the coach around the field. When I was in charge of a youth sports program involving 10,000 kids, there were many incidents in which parents and coaches became violent--and that was 30 years ago.
So why does it seem so common today? Well, there are a couple reasons. For one, these days almost everybody has a cell phone, video camera, the Internet, and the ability to tell us about an ugly incident in their town immediately. Consequently, the story appears in the local or national news the next day and there you have it: a seeming proliferation of violence in youth sports.
Read All About It
One example of this is an e-mail update we received here at the National Alliance for Youth Sports from Doug Abrams, who works with the University of Missouri. He has been collecting youth sports-related stories for some time now and sends them to people interested in reading about these incidents.
Here is a sample of the hundreds of stories our office has received over the years:
Headline: “No jail for father who choked coach” (Toronto)
Summary: The president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League said he hopes it "won't be open season on coaches" after making the decision not to jail a hockey parent for a violent attack on a volunteer coach. This decision came despite the fact that the league president called it the worst act of assault on a minor league coach he’d seen in 25 years.
Headline: “Man pleads not guilty in football brawl” (California)
Summary: A California youth sports father was accused of rushing a youth football player and knocking him to the ground--and pleaded “not guilty” to misdemeanor child abuse. Last summer, the father bolted onto the field and knocked down a 13-year-old player who made a late hit on his smaller son. Other parents videotaped the scene. The man was later banned from coaching duties for the league.
Headline: “Youth umpire, coach fight at game” (Ohio)
Summary: An umpire and a youth baseball coach who fought during a game were cleared of formal charges--and remained free to work in youth sports again. This is a little scary, considering that the two fought during a tournament game after the umpire ejected the other man’s 14-year-old son for throwing his batting helmet in the dugout after he was called out.
Solutions to the Problem
While the stories above are real and ugly, taken together they paint a picture that makes organized youth sports look like a battlefield, the last place you would want your kids in their leisure time. The truth is that, overall, youth sports is a very healthy experience for most kids, and it is getting healthier. Sure, we have the overbearing, emotionally immature parents out there who stand out loudly and clearly as they drive their kids unmercifully to be the next superstar--but it’s important to remember that violence is something that will always be around and youth sports is not immune, especially when we have scoreboards, standings and rankings, championships, all-star teams for children as young as five years old and other things that drive the passionate part in most of us.
So, while we’ll never be able to totally eradicate the violent incidents that occur in youth sports, there are several ways to help prevent them. Just by mandating a few simple rules, outlandish behavior by adults in youth sports can be reduced.
Here are some tips:
· Have a game-day policy in which spectators must sit in the stands--no standing on the sidelines for sports like football, soccer and basketball, where words will be more likely to be exchanged in the heat of the action. In baseball, there is no standing near the dugout.
· Have a policy whereby umpires can report abuse from fans immediately during the game (could be a recreation director on-site at games, supervisor of officials, etc.) to eliminate chances of a problem escalating.
· Use designated recreation staff members to monitor the behavior of spectators and issue warnings to those who behave inappropriately.
· Hire off-duty policeofficers to oversee games. You can build the cost into the registration fee for the players.
The good news is that thanks to the dedication of more and more communities, we are seeing steps like these being taken to educate and train coaches and parents on how to prevent violence, and how to deal with it when it occurs. It’s just a shame that it has taken us so long to stand up to that troublesome 5 percent and say, “No more.”
Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which is in its 25th year of advocating for positive and safe youth sports and offering training and education programs for coaches, parents, administrators and officials. To find out more about these programs, visit www nays.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org