The first widely documented account of parental violence at a children’s sports game in the US came in a 1975 Sports Illustrated article. It detailed a football game in Kissimmee, Florida: “A mob of adults attacked four coaches of a winning team of 12-year-olds with clubs and pipes, sending one coach to the hospital. A cry from the crowd, ‘He’s dead!’ apparently satisfied the mob and it withdrew just before the police arrived. The coach was not dead, only unconscious for four hours.”
Then in 2000, someone was actually killed. Michael Costin, a 40-year-old father of four, was on a rink supervising a kids’ hockey game in Reading, Massachusetts. Costin was apparently encouraging his son’s team to hit, check, and slash their opponents, something that didn’t go down well with other parents.
Thomas Junta, whose son was among the opposition team, confronted Costin and, according to witnesses, got involved in a shoving match that ended with Junta, who weighed 270lbs, sitting on Costin’s chest. A medical examiner reported Costin died when an artery at the base of his brain was severed by a powerful use of force and that he had sustained injuries in 15 places. Junta was convicted in 2002 of involuntary manslaughter.
Those stories are extreme, but trouble at kids’ games in the US is far from rare. Pretty much every parent whose kid plays an organized sport can tell a tale about a sideline parent who crosses a line, or two lines, or sometimes three. There’s the father who yells at a volunteer referee about a missed call; the mom who shouts at a coach about more game time for her kid; others who yell at the kids on the field, often their own but not always.
While there’s a stark lack of formal data and research on parental rage at sports events, it probably wouldn’t do much to halt an alarming trend: youth participation in organized team sports in the US is in a slow decline. Figures from a 2014 survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association report 26 million children aged six to 17 played team sports that year, down 4% from 2009 – not a huge drop, but noteworthy.
More than anything, pushy parents can hurt a child’s enjoyment of sport. When I was a girls’ soccer coach I came across Melinda [not her real name], a naturally athletic and very smart player. She picked up some soccer fundamentals quickly and understood basic tactics: she ran to space when she had the ball, looked to pass to team-mates, and knew she had to help defend her goal as well as try to score.
At half time, several games in a row, she was in tears.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“My dad keeps yelling out and telling me I’m doing everything wrong,” she answered. “Am I doing everything wrong?”
Melinda was doing everything right and exactly what her coach had asked. Dad, apparently, had other ideas. She was caught at an emotional crossroad. Melinda – who was eight years old – loved playing soccer. She also hated it.
According to Liza Blank, a New York City-based psychotherapist, parents on the sidelines often put their own needs before those of their kids. “Rather than allowing their children to have a new experience and take a risk to make a mistake and learn something new, the parents take over,” Blank says. “It’s driven by the parent’s own need for validation. For kids who are shy or scared, the parents really can be a problem and deter them from taking risks and trying new things.”
As it turns out, Blank’s suggestion is already in play at the American Youth Soccer Organization, a national not-for-profit group that runs kids’ soccer leagues across the United States. AYSO was founded in a Californian garage in 1964 with nine teams. Over 50 years later, the organization boasts more than 50,000 teams and 500,000 players. During one season in 2000, AYSO ran a pilot program for a “Kids Zone” at one of its regional leagues. The Kids Zone incorporated a code of conduct and a six-point “parent’s pledge” and was adopted nationally by the organization the following year.
The pledge, which theoretically must be signed before a child can participate in an AYSO season, includes an agreement that parents will show respect for coaches, players, opponents, and opposing fans and agree to “refrain from questioning, insulting or making personal attacks” against referees. Parents must also agree to “not yell out instructions … [and] during the game … make only sportsmanlike comments that encourage [their] child and other players on both teams.”
The Kids Zone document also includes an agreement that parents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs on the sidelines and says weapons aren’t welcome at AYSO soccer games either. The agreement underlines how genuine the fear of violence at children’s sports events is.
The evidence can be found on YouTube. Type “crazy sports parents” and kiss goodbye to your afternoon as you watch shaky amateur videos of football coaches punching umpires, a mother landing solid punch on a male soccer ref, and local news coverage of kids doused with pepper spray during an all-in parent brawl.
Meanwhile, in Little League baseball, one father, Phil Campbell, says troublesome parents can be easy to spot, operating apart from the collective group of families supporting the kids on the field.
“When someone like this shows up, he’s not one of the sociable parents, because sociable parents hang out and chat and loosely regulate each other’s behavior,” Campbell says. “If he had been a sociable parent he would have been quickly admonished and put in his place for being a dick. But that guy deliberately has to stand away from everyone else to shout and taunt and say nasty things.”
Alternatively, and on a less serious note, the loner parent may not be the one to worry about.
“I’ve been guilty of sitting on the grass next to my child’s seemingly endless softball game, reading the entire New Yorker because, even after several years, what was going on on that softball field remained utterly inscrutable to me,” says Anya Ulinich, an author whose daughters play softball and Ultimate Frisbee.
“Does that count as passively outrageous behavior?”