TOPICS > Nation

Bad Examples

January 5, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Now, bad sports at kids’ games. Earlier this week, a 45-year-old Massachusetts man was arrested for assault, nothing uncommon there perhaps. But the victim in this attack was the hockey coach of the man’s 14-year-old son, and that did leave many wondering what’s happening in youth sports. Lee Hochberg, of Oregon Public Broadcasting, has been looking into this growing problem.

LEE HOCHBERG: Being on the football field with hyped up high school athletes can be hazardous work for a referee. But the worst injury Dave Anderson ever sustained was inflicted not by a teenager, but by an adult– a coach who stormed the field.

DAVE ANDERSON: He was 6’3″ or 6’4″ and weighed somewhere between 230 and 250. So looking up to him, and I’m thinking, “My God,” you know, “what is this guy doing.”

LEE HOCHBERG: Anderson was refereeing a game between Sacramento California eighth graders when, as captured on home videotape, the coach erupted.

DAVE ANDERSON: So he’s facing me and then proceeded to shove me three times. Then he kicked me in the groin area and I stuck my feet up in the air to try to protect myself because I didn’t know what he was going to do.

LEE HOCHBERG: Anderson suffered soft tissue and back injuries, a freak incident, you’d think. But such adult misbehavior at youth sporting events isn’t that unusual. Ten miles away, the principal at Sacramento High School had to cancel his school’s season- ending football game last year, after parents in the stands got out of hand.

RICHARD OLSON, School Principal: Cursing at kids, harassing other parents, really foul language. I saw people getting almost to the point of violence. I saw kids cursing at their coaches because their parents were cursing at them.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nationwide, incidents of parental rage at youth sporting events– fathers and mothers punching and spitting and swearing at umpires and coaches– have tripled since 1995. This summer, two dozen adults stormed the Florida baseball field on which their four-year- olds were playing T-ball. Police had to be called in to break up the ruckus. A coach in another Florida case was charged with aggravated battery after he broke an umpire’s jaw. And in the nation’s first fatal instance of parental rage this July, a team of Massachusetts ten-year-olds watched as an angry parent beat their hockey coach, a father of four, to death.

FRED ENGH, National Alliance for Youth Sports: Think of that. We now have situations where somebody got killed with parents killing other parents in children’s sports. We’ve never had that before.

LEE HOCHBERG: Youth sports leaders, like Fred Engh of the Florida-based National Alliance for Youth Sports, are stunned at what’s happening. 30 million kids, aged four to fourteen, play organized sports in the U.S., and Engh estimates 15% of their parents step over the line in sports of all kinds, boys and girls.

FRED ENGH: Yesterday they had to throw a surgeon out of the game for attacking an official, so it isn’t leveled or aimed at any segment of our society, it’s the parent of today.

LEE HOCHBERG: Parental misbehavior is nothing new. I played baseball as a boy and quit Little League at the age of 13 as a silent protest against hollering grown-ups. But experts say, today things around the fields are much worse.

TONY FARRENKOPF, Clinical Psychologist: We are much more competitive. People are fighting much more for getting all they can. We are not here to have fun, we’re here to win. See, that puts it in the category of everyday competitive living– it matters.

LEE HOCHBERG: Tony Farrenkopf is an Oregon clinical psychologist and youth soccer coach. He says today’s parents bring to their children’s games the same competitiveness they bring to their own workplace. And they copy what they see professional sports stars doing on TV, from spitting on umpires, to fighting with fans in the stands.

NEWSCASTER: You’ve got morons throwing things and morons cheering ’em for doing it. Folks, this is an absolute disgrace!

TONY FARRENKOPF: We do what we see. We have seen it done. You can go do it. So people are now free. Hey, no big deal. I can punch someone.

LEE HOCHBERG: Referees take the brunt of the abuse, and youth leagues are having trouble recruiting them.

SPOKESMAN: They want a time-out, Joe.

LEE HOCHBERG: Referee Anderson still officiates high school sports where coaches are accountable to school districts. But as for other youth sports, usually run by community volunteers, he says he’s done.

DAVE ANDERSON: I won’t do it, probably because I’m a little scared. Who is going to stop the parents from coming out of the stands? Who is going to stop the coaches from coming on the field? There’s nobody there.

LEE HOCHBERG: The National Association of Sports Officials has begun offering assault insurance to its 19,000 umpire members. And many schools are hiring security guards to keep grown-up fans in line. Some referees think new laws are needed.

SPOKESMAN: I’m warning them there. And as I turn to the coach, he head butts me in the left temple and it’s lights out.

LEE HOCHBERG: Bob West of Spokane, Washington, suffered a concussion when a student wrestler assaulted him. It convinced him that Washington State needs a law to make assaults on officials a worse crime than other assaults; 14 states have such laws. In California, the man who attacked referee Anderson was sentenced to community service and fined $350, but he could have served a year in jail. West testified before Washington lawmakers that referees deserve the same added protections as police officers.

BOB WEST: A sports official puts himself in harm’s way. A referee is a police officer on a sports field. He’s the same thing.

JENNIFER SHAW: I don’t think it’s the same thing. A referee is not in a community care taking position.

LEE HOCHBERG: But Jennifer Shaw, of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, convinced the legislature to reject the idea. She argued adding a new law won’t change parental behavior.

JENNIFER SHAW: Every time that you get some new headliner crime, somebody says there ought to be a law. I just don’t think that it helps us any in controlling society to create these little categories of victims.

LEE HOCHBERG: Without laws to help them, some towns now say if parents are going to act like children, they’ll be punished like children. Soccer programs in Ohio and Maryland have instituted so- called silent Saturdays, in which parents can come to their kids’ games but have to keep their mouths shut. Experts say that’s no solution.

FRED ENGH: Sports, because of the scoreboards, are going to create emotions. And it’s not wrong for me to cheer for my child if my child scores a goal.

LEE HOCHBERG: Engh argues instead for a wholesale reeducation of parents who go to games. Many schools have taken to pre- game warning.

SPOKESPERSON: Sportsmanship extends beyond the field to the fans in the stands. Respect players, the coaches as well as the officials.

LEE HOCHBERG: And soccer clubs, like this one, celebrating positive play day in Scotts Valley, California, are using the kids themselves to give parents the message.

SPOKESPERSON: Everybody get a button and a card to give to a parent so you know what this is all about. They get upset and they argue with each other, they argue with the refs; it sort of reminds me of, you know, it’s about sportsmanship and fun…

LEE HOCHBERG: Some experts say community leaders should restructure youth sports, hiring a paid superintendent who would urge parents to go through sportsmanship training if their children want to use sports facilities. The National Alliance for Youth Sports now offers such training.

SPOKESMAN: You are pioneers.

LEE HOCHBERG: But when Glendale, Arizona, asked 2,000 sports parents to come to its sportsmanship seminar this fall, only a handful showed up. Engh says parental attendance should be mandatory if kids are to play ball. A required session for parents in Jupiter, Florida, did induce 2,000 to show up. The program costs five dollars per parent, but there’s a cost in doing nothing as well. Some athletics programs had to spend as much as an extra $10,000 this year to find officials willing to work, and Engh says there’s a cost of doing nothing that isn’t about money.

FRED ENGH: Who cares what the cost is financially? If we don’t fix this now, then we stand the danger of parents across this country saying, “i don’t want my child in this.” That’s a serious danger that we face.

LEE HOCHBERG: A danger — the children themselves deciding they want no part of youth sports that seem like they’re played more for adults.