Friday, April 4, 2008

Trend of Violence by Parents and Adults in Youth Sports

I wrote an article for my a class last year (here). Recently, I edited it and moved some things around, and I think I made it a little bit better. At the very least, it's pretty interesting and disturbing at the same time just to look at the certain incidents that took (and still do take) place.

Here it is:

In July of 2000, Thomas Junta watched his ten-year-old son participate in a pick-up hockey game at an ice rink in Reading, Massachusetts. During the game, Junta grew increasingly infuriated with the rough level of play on the ice, and he yelled for the man monitoring play, Michael Costin, to make the kids tone it down. Costin, who also had a son participating in the game, was confronted by Mr. Junta on the ice before Junta was ordered to leave.

Later that same day, Junta returned to the facility, found Costin, and slammed him down on the concrete floor next to a soda machine. If the severity of that blow was not enough, Junta then proceeded to wedge Costin to the floor using his knee and repeatedly punch him in the head. Costin died soon after the fight ended.

After the incident, Junta was tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six to ten years in prison.

While this tragic event may seem like an isolated act of violence, it highlights a disturbing growth in the number of incidents of abuse and violence by adults in youth sports. According to Regan McMahon of the San Francisco Chronicle, such incidents “have risen dramatically in the past five years.”

“From road rage to airplane rage to cell phone rage, children in sports aren’t immune to all of this,” said Fred Engh, head of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. “Now we have sideline rage.”

Sporting Kids Magazine recently conducted a survey of 3,300 parents, coaches, and youth, in response to which 84 percent admitted to having “witnessed parents acting violently (shouting, berating, using abusive language).” The National Alliance reported that parent violence in youth sports has “quadrupled between 2000 and 2005,” and the group has seen reports that “documented 100 incidents of parents or fans physically assaulting youth sports coaches or officials in 2005.”

Bob Still, a spokesman for the National Association of Sporting Officials (NASO), said that his organization receives “two or three reports of this kind of behavior a week.” A trend has definitely formed, and the problem is growing.

“The parent of today is much different than the parent of five years ago,” said Engh. “It used to be maybe five percent of the people stepped over the line. It’s grown now to about 15 percent.”

Adults and parents are not just verbally expressing their anger at coaches or sporting officials anymore; they are actually exhibiting violence as a way to show their displeasure. One such incident in South Dakota involved an adult man striking a referee in a soccer match involving 11-year-old girls. The referee happened to be the town’s mayor, and the man was sentenced to one year in jail. Another incident occurred in Pennsylvania when a former police officer offered a Little League baseball pitcher two dollars to hit an opposing player with a fastball. The officer was charged with soliciting assault. Yet another confrontation took place in Wisconsin when a baseball coach of 11 and 12-year-olds followed a 62-year-old volunteer umpire into an equipment room and repeatedly punched the umpire in the face. The coach had been upset over an apparent non-call during the game.

Thousands of incidents of violence have been reported, and as more reports of violence by adults continue to flow in from all over the U.S., the question of why this problem persists arises. Parents and coaches seem to be more aware of the mounting issue because of the attention it receives, yet many still feel the need to react violently during youth sporting events.

Several excuses have been offered to try to partially explain why these occurrences keep happening. One reason is pride or hope, and some parents may believe their child will become the next superstar athlete who achieves immense fame and wealth. A father in San Fernando, California, assaulted his 11-year-old son’s baseball coach for removing the boy in the middle of the game. “How dare you make my son a three-inning player,” the father yelled at the coach. Maybe he figured his son would become the next Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken, Jr.

Some parents also may feel the need to push their child into sports because they were never talented enough themselves to go very far. Because realizing their previous shortcomings in sports is very difficult for some parents, they may treat every moment for their child on the court or field as a win-or-else experience. Some parents even constantly and visibly criticize their own child athletes for apparent failure or mistakes. “[Sometimes] it’s not the kid at bat,” said Engh. “It’s the parent.”

Violent adults also may be reflecting on the nature of sports themselves, which is inherently violent. Big hits, rough plays, and destructive athletic behaviors are glorified on ESPN’s SportsCenter and on the internet at websites such as YouTube. Parents may get the idea that their child can be just as aggressive as professional athletes and, therefore, just as successful. And if their child struggles or doesn’t turn out to be supremely talented, they blame everyone else involved in what transpires during practices and games.

No matter how many other explanations exist, the issue of declining sportsmanship, especially by parents, remains. Obviously, not all parents have difficulty controlling themselves at youth sporting events. Many parents understand how to express their desire for kids to have fun while hoping their child succeeds as well. At the same time, though, youth sports have been littered with many overbearing parental figures that care for winning at all costs instead of hoping that kids make friends, learn important lessons in teamwork, and have an enjoyable time competing.

Oddly enough, many parents still wonder why willing volunteers, coaches, and officials continue to decline annually. According to a survey by NASO, 76 percent of respondents from 60 high school athletic associations believed adult violence in youth sports “is causing many officials to quit.”

“It’s not worth risking your life [to umpire] for $50 a game,” said Still. “What we’re concerned about is the tone and tenor have changed. Now they come at you with a bat in hand a real intent to hurt.”

Though many people like Engh and Still continue to educate adults and parents on the dangers of abuse and violence at youth sporting events, such violent instances still frequently occur. Unfortunately, William Pollack, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, noted that these violent episodes may just be “the tip of [the] iceberg.”

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