The Boiling Point

Another day, another youth-sports brawl

By John Engh

Another day, another youth-sports violent incident caught on camera. It’s difficult to say whether these types of incidents are more prevalent today than 10 years ago because we live in a different world, where seemingly every incident is now caught on some type of video device and immediately uploaded for the whole world to view and repost.

Photo Illustrations: © Can Stock Photo

Photo Illustrations: © Can Stock Photo

I don’t know how long it would take for me to hear about an incident in Colorado involving 10-plus youth-sports parents on a youth baseball field looking like they are engaged in a massive brawl outside a local bar at midnight. But I do know that, if this had happened 10 years ago, our organization would have received a call from a park and recreation employee and definitely a reporter from the local newspaper asking why these things happen and what can be done about them. Because these fights occur with such alarming regularity these days, they barely register as news coverage.

It’s scary to think we have reached that point.

Usually, in this space, I discuss my reaction to an issue and then ask professional youth-sports administrators to share some insight on what happens in their community. But since these fights have become an all-too-common problem, I will share the responses of our staff members who answer questions like these on a daily basis. I asked, “Why does this happen and what can be done about it?” Together, these individuals represent more than 100 years of experience in the youth-sports world, so they have heard or witnessed almost everything imaginable. They had much more to say than what I edited, but their responses are so important if we are going to prevent this type of behavior in the future.

Lisa Licata, Senior Director, Professional Administrators: It is the responsibility of the leadership of every program (and the facility providers) to manage everyone’s expectations and to demand that youth sports be conducted at the highest quality possible. There must be an ultimate leader in every community who runs youth sports (so they don’t run amuck). There are plenty of free resources (from the National Standards for Youth Sports to the Recommendations for Communities) available to ensure everyone is on the same page. The leadership must be proactive with the same number-one priority—everyone involved in youth sports (administrators, volunteer coaches, parents, and the players) must know what to expect and what is expected of them. These can be articulated in written policies, by providing training, continuously communicating, and holding everyone accountable for their actions and behaviors!

Erice Wingate, Program Coordinator, Professional Administrators: It’s difficult to prevent something like this from happening, but not impossible. Unfortunately, some parents feel entitled to act as they please because they paid for their child to participate in the program. Others act unruly because they live vicariously through their children. Parents must be aware of the consequences of this type of behavior, and the rules must be enforced immediately by the organization. Administrators and staff members must focus on parent behavior during games, even if it is just “chippy” remarks. It usually takes a moment for parents to get riled up to the point of throwing fists. A staff member needs to always be on hand and approach unruly spectators immediately.

Garrett Pearson, Member Services Coordinator: Unfortunately, there may be many circumstances that either provoked an incident or led up to it. A previous game between the two teams may have been highly contested and the tension boiled over. Maybe, social media contributed to an incident when unsavory comments by some parents were left for others. No matter the circumstance, though, when adults take matters into their own hands in “childish” manners, we understand again why adults can sometimes ruin youth sports. Never mind the fact that these adults choose to display their displeasure in front of the kids. We are looking at not just poor behavior but poor judgment. Also, looking at the situation from a youth-sports advocate standpoint, we believe proper education and training can help prevent these occurrences, but it always seems to come down to the individual being responsible for actions. Parents pay for their children to participate, so they feel they are owed the opportunity to do and say what they want, not quite understanding the proper reason of a participation fee (uniforms, officials, field usage, etc.).

Kate Nematollahi, Director, Education Programs: Too many parents take games too seriously. They want their kid to do well/succeed, and they think that, in sports, winning equals success. (We know success is much more than that—learning new skills, having a good time, developing a love for physical activity, making friends, etc.) Adults are accustomed to passionately cheering for pro and college teams, booing the other team, and complaining about bad calls. So, when their child, their own flesh and blood, is dressed in a uniform, competing in a sport, that passion is at an all-time high. I suspect that the parents in that video have displayed inappropriate behavior before, such as haggling with officials, yelling at coaches, or arguing with parents of the opposing team, and that behavior may never have been addressed by league administrators. If verbal abuse is tolerated, it can easily lead to a physical outburst. I hope that the kids who had to see this ridiculous display want to continue playing sports, but I can understand if they don't.

Courtney Knudsen, Marketing & Partnerships Coordinator: While videos like this one are painful to watch, it can serve as a conversation starter to implement or improve program policies. The fact that violence is ever a part of the youth-sports experience is unfortunate. This situation could have been prevented with proper education. We can't be at every youth-sports event across the country, but we strive to make our programming accessible and relevant for anyone involved—whether coaches, officials, parents, or league directors.

Greg Bach, Senior Director, Communications & Content: It starts with the mindset of parents, many of whom are simply mortified to see their child fail in any way in sports these days. If the child strikes out, the parents, instead of recognizing it’s simply a part of competing, are overwhelmed with embarrassment, and their mood may suddenly tilt as they sit there and hear parents on the opposing team cheering their child’s strikeout. Even worse, when they believe an official has made a poor call that deprives the child of the chance to shine, their blood pressure climbs, emotions simmer, and outrage often soon follows. The same goes for coaches consumed with results—calls against their team (often made by a teenager with little officiating experience) fuel their anger because they believe that, if they aren’t winning games, the parents in the stands will think they aren’t good coaches. And, once one adult—a coach or parent spectator—expresses anger or a negative comment, that usually ignites a response from an adult on the other team. So now there’s verbal sparring, and a fight or brawl often follows.

As for me, incidents like this one remind me of an old public-service announcement we produced that showed the absurdity of a kid at a piano recital getting yelled at from the audience because he had missed a note.

But, as this fight in Colorado reminds us, will we ever get to the point where adults understand that this is youth sports, and it’s for the kids?

John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at jengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit www.nays.org, email nays@nays.org or call (800) 729-2057.