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Out-of-control parents threaten youth sports
By William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
July 19, 2001
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Summer youth sports leagues are heating up around Minnesota, just as the thermometer is sticking in the 90s. Heat, fatigue, and the pressure of a big game are a combustible combination, not just for the players but for their parents as well. That can occasionally produce ugly explosions of anger or violence at sporting events. While physical attacks on referees or between parents are rare, one sports administrator says sportsmanship in general seems to be at an all-time low and youth sports organizers hope they can reverse the trend.

  • June 2001 - Youth soccer game breaks out into a full-scale brawl that involves players, coaches and parents in San Diego.
  • March 2001 - Nearly 20 players and fans were involved in a fight that ensued at mid-court of a varsity girls' basketball game in Boston.
  • February 2001 - Youth basketball game ends with the referee using a knife to slash the coach that questioned his calls. The referee was a Baptist minister, substitute teacher, bus driver, Air Force veteran, and father of five. In Fayetteville, Georgia.
  • February 2001 - Soccer goaltender is kicked in the face at the conclusion of a youth soccer game, leaving the player unconscious and fracturing his cheekbone in Cleveland.
  • February 2001 - A hockey mother in Euless, Texas fights another parent in the stands after allegedly shoving a student for badmouthing her son during a game.
  • January 2001 - A youth hockey coach is banned from an ice rink for five years after parents witnessed him verbally and physically abusing players and challenging parents to a fight in Cleveland.
    Any doubts about soccer's place in the big time of youth sports could be expunged by visiting the National Sports Center in Blaine. The facility, billed as the world's largest soccer complex, is filled with 22,000 youngsters playing on 1,500 teams from 16 countries.

    Even with thousands of games being played, don't expect to see any local accounts of on-field riots, referee beatings, or other hooliganism. Those extreme cases of bad sportsmanship are still, thankfully, rare.

    But Roy Evans, the director of referees for the USA Cup, says even in Minnesota, patience sometimes wears thin, especially in the latter stages of a tournament. "Frayed nerves usually come in the afternoon, in the evening. The players have played two or three games that day. The referees become tired and they may make a mistake and, yes, the players get frustrated with that type of thing," he says.

    Referees hear complaints from players, more from coaches, but worst of all, some say, are the parents stalking the sidelines.

    Jeff Thompson, refereeing at the USA Cup, also coaches soccer. He says most spectators are well behaved but just one boorish parent can spread plenty of misery around a field. "If a parent is over the top, it's directed at everybody. It's directed at the referee, it's directed at other parents, it's directed at the other coaches. They just don't know when to be quiet. And there's probably one on every team," he says.

    In just about every sport that children play, there are parents who get a little too wound up. The Minnesota State High School League has put together a Be A Good Sports program for schools looking to formalize sportsmanship policies for their fans.

    There are several theories about why some parents get too exuberant. Some of the win-at-any-cost mentality, prevalent in professional sports, may have trickled down to the Little League level. Some parents may want to protect their children from losing.

    In families with a particularly skilled athlete, another set of pressures arises. Craig Malm, the community health director at Mercy and Unity Hospitals, co-chairs the Sports Violence Action Team for Anoka County. He says some parents position their teenage athlete as the flagship of the family. "Their whole family is identified by this kid's success. Maybe he's a star soccer player or hockey player and he's the star of their high school team. And the pride of the family - or sometimes one parent or two parents - centers around how that kid performs. So, that's obviously a very unhealthy situation," Malm says.

    Pressures on teenage athletes are no longer confined to boys sports. Many colleges have boosted the number of female athletes they recruit by adding women's hockey or soccer.

    Shelly Orr, the program director of the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, says the majority of complaints she hears about inappropriate behavior stem from girls games. Orr suspects the prospect of an athletic scholarship has upped the intensity for some parents. "Sporting scholarships, although there are some out there and we do have kids that come out of Minnesota that do receive some money, they're pretty few and far between. So, you shouldn't be looking at a 10-year-old or 12-year-old and expecting that you're investing all this time and money in them so they can get a scholarship some day," Orr says.

    Orr says referee abuse is a problem in youth soccer, prompting. She says the turnover among referees is in the range of 30 percent. Games involving 5- to 10-year-old players, where the stakes are presumably lower, are often officiated by 15- to 20-year-olds who are learning to referee.

    Jeff Thompson says with experience, many of those youngsters would make excellent referees. "Unfortunately, all it takes is one parent to just go right after this young referee and all of a sudden we're down a referee. That referee doesn't ever want to do another game, he's got a bad taste in his mouth. He might not even like soccer anymore. All because this one parent is just obnoxious."

    Shelly Orr says she makes it a habit when fielding complaints about referees to suggest the complainer try refereeing. She says parents who go through referee training usually have a new perspective on how to treat officials.

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