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A Adult Homicide in Youth Sports

by: Douglas E. Abrams

After a Massachusetts youth ice hockey game last week, one player's father beat an opposing player's father senseless while the 10-year-olds watched. The attacker was angry about rough play during the game. The victim, a 40-year-old father of four, lapsed into a coma and died after being removed from life support. 

With the behavior of so many youth sports parents spiraling downward in recent years, it was only a matter of time before someone was killed.  Adult confrontations have become commonplace in youth leagues throughout the nation, frequently controlled only when police are summoned to restore order. Brawling parents have even disrupted preschoolers' T-ball games.

The parents usually emerge with little more than hurt feelings, cuts and bruises, and an occasional broken nose or split lip. And also with their bewildered children thoroughly embarrassed by the spectacle.

Psychologists attribute deteriorating adult behavior to "youth sports rage," a term coined a few years ago after a 46-year-old Wisconsin Little League parent was arrested for punching out a 60-year-old umpire who refused to call a balk on an 11-year-old pitcher. Last year, the National Association of Sports Officials began offering assault insurance to youth-league referees and umpires. More than a dozen states have made it a crime to assault youth-league coaches and officials, and at least a dozen more states may follow. The force of law now must restrain adults during children's games.

Youth sports programs now must also divert attention from the children and waste time and money figuring out ways to control the parents.

Many programs post security guards at games, often paid from funds that would otherwise be spent on the youngsters. Many programs have instituted zero-tolerance policies against adult violence and profanity. More and more programs conduct mandatory preseason sportsmanship seminars for parents enrolling their children. To muzzle over-competitive parents, some programs no longer post standings or award first-place trophies at the youngest age levels, when children barely in grade school first experience the exhilaration of athletics. Some programs enforce "parent-free zones" to insulate the field in sports such as soccer, which have no physical barrier between spectators and players. Some programs tired of foul language have experimented with "silent Saturdays," which prohibit adults from opening their mouths at games. A few programs have even tried banning parents from some games altogether. 

What can be done to return civility to youth sports? Programs can play their part by conducting sportsmanship seminars and sternly enforcing zero-tolerance policies against parents who behave like lunatics. Because most youth leagues use public facilities, public authorities must also sternly enforce their own rules of behavior. 

The criminal process can also have an important deterrent effect. Too often, police merely respond to a call at a youth-league game, separate the adult combatants, and file a report. A few arrests would send a swift local message to troublemaker parents, who are likely to be more embarrassed by arrest than by their own outlandish conduct. Last week's Massachusetts killing was unusual in its tragic outcome, but it should be a nationwide wake-up call that assaults and disturbances of the peace at youth-league games are crimes, and not mere tolerable adult over-exuberance.  The majority of parents, who behave and want sports to enrich their children's lives, must speak out forcefully because many impressionable parents, unsure of appropriate conduct, are listening. The troublesome minority make the most noise because the majority ordinarily suffer their abuse in silence. The majority's message is straightforward. No matter how much some over-competitive parents want to live vicariously through their children, youth sports must serve children's needs, not adult fantasies. Youth leagues are not feeder systems to the pros because only a minuscule percentage of youngsters ever make the big leagues. Most of all, adult hooliganism defeats the vital missions of youth sports -- to provide the children fun and to set an example that teaches valuable character lessons. Too often, character lessons go unlearned these days because many child athletes display much better sportsmanship than their parents. The parents could learn from the children. This turnabout is a stain on youth sports because parents, not children, are supposed to be the role models setting the example.

NOTE: Doug Abrams is a former coach for Nassau County Hockey.  He was an assistant coach on the Nassau County Midget Lions National Championship team.  He is currently a Law Professor at The University of Missouri. A Adult Homicide in Youth Sports