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Parental Violence in Youth Sports: Facts, Myths, and Videotape

For several days this past January, aided by extensive media coverage, recreational youth sports riveted a nation still reeling from the aftermath of terrorism. Unfortunately, the pivotal event was neither heroic nor uplifting, but, rather, another in a series of episodes which one youth sport pundit characterized as, "a rising tide of violence that's ravaging the youth sports landscape" (Engh, 2002).

Gregg S. Heinzmann, Ed.M.
Director, Youth Sports Research Council
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

During several days in January, 2002, the criminal trial of Massachusetts v. Junta riveted a nation still reeling from the aftermath of terrorism. Unfortunately, the pivotal event was neither heroic nor uplifting, but, rather, another in a series of episodes which one youth sport pundit characterized as, "a rising tide of violence that's ravaging the youth sports landscape" (Engh, 2002).

Can this be possible? Has the incidence of violence in organized youth sports actually reached epidemic proportions? Should parents of young athletes be fearful for their child's safety? Perhaps most important, what role should recreation professionals have in the administration of local youth sport leagues in order to minimize the likelihood of negative or violent incidents occurring in their community?

"Sports Rage" - Growing Trend or Media Hype?

Ever since that deadly encounter in July, 2000, when Thomas Junta and Michael Costin argued following a youth hockey scrimmage, the topic of "sports rage" has permeated our national discourse. Hundreds of major U.S. newspapers (and some throughout the world) have covered the story and written editorials decrying over parental involvement in their child's sports careers. Numerous talking heads have appeared on television, suggesting that this incident should be a "wake-up call" to all parents, while also warning of an impending crisis in organized youth sports.

But not everyone agrees with this doomsday scenario. [1] Much of the disagreement regarding the incidence of "sports rage" stems from the lack of a common definition. Alternately, the media often groups violent incidents, such as physical assaults against officials, with unsportsmanlike behavior, such as booing or heckling participants. While neither example should be tolerated at a sporting event, (especially one involving impressionable children) they represent dramatically different behaviors and should not be considered in the same light.

Therefore, for purposes of this discussion, "sports rage" can be defined as:

Within the context of an organized athletic activity, any physical attack upon another person such as striking, wounding, or otherwise touching in an offensive manner, and/or any malicious, verbal abuse or sustained harassment which threatens subsequent violence or bodily harm.

Once agreement has been reached on a common definition, investigators can begin to examine the evidence in order to substantiate the highly publicized mantra that 15% of parents at youth sporting events "step over the line," whereas, five years ago, it was only 5% ? Unfortunately, conclusive scientific evidence does not exist.

Except for one report conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), there have not been any published studies that have looked at the incidence of "sports rage." Moreover, the examples cited by the media have been based upon anecdotal evidence. In certain instances, the facts contradict what was reported.

For example, in September 2000, newspapers incorrectly ran the following headline, "South Brunswick, N.J. Soccer Parents Brawl." A subsequent investigation by Tom Morris, the township recreation director, revealed that the incident involved two parents from opposing teams, neither of which were from South Brunswick, the host community. "The rest of the group was trying to break it up rather than participate in the altercation," said Morris. He was also appalled when television producers called to inquire about the existence of any videotape that they hoped could be used for the evening news.

The NASO study chronicled the prevalence of assaults against sports officials (e.g., referees and umpires) at both the professional and amateur level. Its main purpose was to educate the public about fan behavior and support grassroots efforts encouraging state legislatures to enact laws that provide more severe penalties to individuals who assault officials. In short, there is currently no scientific evidence to substantiate the claim that violence in youth sports is "escalating" or "out of control."

Experts on youth violence have been asked for their thoughts on the subject of sports rage as well. Dan Macallair, vice president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, recently indicated that he believes there is an increase in violence at youth sporting events – particularly among adults. However, "we really don't know because we don't have the evidence," Macallair said. "My guess is that it's probably less than we think. . . My gut is that it's being reported more frequently and more widely just because of modern-day media practices and media technology" (James & Ziemer, 2001).

Case in point – one of the first documented incidents of "sports rage" occurred more than 25 years ago in Kissimmee, Fla. According to the article, "Taking the Fun Out of the Game," which first appeared in Sports Illustrated, "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." Another incident involved a father from Miami who got into a fistfight with his son's coach over his choice of playing position. Finally, a "particularly heartbreaking loss" resulted in a Palm Beach coach punching a rival team's star player (Underwood, 1975).

None of these incidents made Headline News back then – it didn't exist, nor did the Internet, chat rooms, etc. As a result, the American people were not as cognizant of stories such as, "Angry Mob Attacks Coaches," especially those occurring outside their immediate vicinity. Even more important, a series of independent, unrelated events (i.e., "rage incidents") were less likely to be interpreted as some kind of sociological trend.

In an effort to more fully understand this phenomenon, the Rutgers Youth Sports Research Council conducted a search of the "Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe," a computerized database covering more than 5,000 publications throughout the United States. Using the key words "youth sports" and "violence," more than 1,000 citations were returned dating back twenty years. Many of the references were "false positives," meaning that they dealt primarily with other issues and only made a passing mention to violence in youth sports. In addition, no clear trends emerged. Perhaps most important, the investigation failed to produce any evidence to substantiate the belief that violence in youth sports had reached epidemic proportions in recent years.

In the absence of scientific data on this subject, one can utilize the vast quantity of social science research that has been conducted on youth crime/school violence to enhance our understanding of how the media may be influencing public opinion about "sports rage." According to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), between 1993 and 1999, there was a 68% decline in youth homicide in the United States (the lowest rate since 1966). Since 1992, school-associated violent death is down 72%. Conversely, between 1990 and 1998, despite the fact that there was a 33% decline in murders, network homicide coverage was up 473%. Furthermore, although homicides constitute 0.1% - 0.2% of all arrests, more than 25% of crimes reported during evening news were homicides (Dorfman & Schiraldi, 2001).

What influence does this have on public perception? The JPI authors report that 62% of those surveyed believe that youth crime is rising. Similarly, while many Americans express concern about school shootings, during the 1999-2000 school year, the odds were less than 1 in 3,000,000 (16 killings among 52 million school-age kids).

The news media's significant influence in shaping public opinion can best be illustrated by the flood of reported shark attacks during the summer of 2001. Beachgoers may recall reading about a number of widely publicized incidents, including one case involving a man who was suddenly attacked by a shark while vacationing with his wife in the Bahamas. Fortunately, as the media recounted it, he was able to fight off his attacker, make it to shore, and trace his hotel room number in the sand before going into shock.

The facts, however, contradict the prevailing belief among the public that a shark attack was imminent. Furthermore, in the state of New Jersey, (whose economy relies heavily upon shore tourism) more than three decades of data collection reveal that the annual risk of death from lightning is 30 times greater than that from shark attack (158 vs. 5). Particularly relevant to the discussion about the media's handling of "sports rage", is the following analysis by Burgess (1991), reprinted from the International Shark Attack File:

Shark attack did not become a subject of particular public interest until the twentieth century. Several factors have contributed to the upswing in public awareness of shark attack during the last sixty years. First and foremost has been the evolution of the press from a parochial to a cosmopolitan news-gathering system that covers a larger portion of the world in a more rapid and comprehensive manner. Increased competition and a shift of journalistic values in certain quarters additionally has contributed to more active searches for "shock" stories, i.e., those that titillate the public and promote sales. Needless to say, an examination of current weekly tabloids confirms that "shark eats man" is a best-selling story line.

The question remains, is sports rage a growing trend or not? The answer is, "we don't know." From the perspective of the recreation professional, the more important question is, "could it happen on my watch?" Having been charged with the effective and safe administration of youth sport programs in your community, merely knowing that "it could happen" should prompt a measured response.

Why Do Parents Misbehave?

To date, many of the explanations given for "why rage occurs" have been too shortsighted to be of any practical value. For example, in response to the important and legitimate question, "why do some parents behave so poorly at their child's sporting event," the often parroted answer has been, "because no one told them they couldn't." Such simplistic analysis fails to provide direction for reforming youth sports, in terms of preventing sports rage, because it doesn't address the underlying reasons for poor parental behavior.

Anger vs. Rage

To begin to understand this phenomenon, it is important to recognize that anger (the precursor to rage) is a primal human instinct that's vital to our continued existence. Accordingly, anger can be manifested in a variety of ways. Who among us has not experienced this emotion at one time or another -- perhaps while angling into a parking space just as another driver comes along and takes it? Yet rather than interpret this affront as a serious threat to one's personal well-being, a more rational person might simply shake his head and continue to look for another place to park the car.

Rage, on the other hand, is violent and uncontrolled anger. And it is usually initiated by some triggering incident. In Mr. Junta's case, it was twofold: the sight of his young son being subjected to rough play on the ice, followed by Mr. Costin's ignorant and patronizing remark, "that's what hockey is all about." Although the media has recently focused on sports rage, there have also been reported instances of road rage, air rage, and even grocery store rage, among others. The fact that rage occurs in a variety of settings contradicts the assertion that it is somehow inherent to sports.

In addition, certain people can become enraged when they lack the impulse control to deal constructively with perceived threats. Others may experience unmanageable stress levels as a result of increasing societal pressure, and, therefore, turn to drugs or alcohol. [2]

Negative Role Models

Too often, professional sporting events have become venues for aggressive, bottle-throwing fans, who vent their frustration at officials and players.[3] Perhaps even more disturbing is the attitude of some professional team owners and management who seem to condone this behavior. Following the most recent incident at a Cleveland Browns football game, team president Carmen Policy said, "I like the fact that our fans cared. The bottles are plastic – they don't carry much of a wallop."

Putting aside the potential role of excess alcohol consumption, Patricia Dalton, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., regards this type of adult misbehavior as, "worrisome signs of social disintegration." Part of the reason for the decline in self-control, she says, is because "people are less concerned about others, and about what others think . . . we have lost our sense of stigma and shame, which used to be powerful shapers of behavior" (The Star Ledger, 2001). Other related factors include people's increasing sense of entitlement and lack of personal responsibility for their actions.

The entertainment industry must also share some responsibility for contributing to the breakdown in societal norms. Most of daytime talk television has turned into a veritable parade of society's most dysfunctional individuals. In fact, the most successful programs create a forum for people to discuss their bizarre exploits, while being humiliated and castigated by the studio audience. Perhaps even worse, the producers permit "in your face" confrontations or physical altercations between guests (e.g., The Jerry Springer Show). At first glance, it may appear that people are just being given an opportunity to confront their accuser or "stand up for their rights," but because the verbal conflict routinely escalates (apparently for better ratings), it validates the conventional belief that "it's better to fight than walk away."

One example of this aggressive mentality was articulated on the abcNews.com message board in the days following the Junta verdict. The author (LAD923) writes,

Any person that would just walk knowing that their children could be in danger is not a man, but a poor excuse for a parent. Part of the job of a parent is to teach children morals, and fight for them no matter what it takes. Also, as for a man that would run after being taunted by a psycho (Costin) not once, but twice, would not in my vocabulary, be a man. . . Mr. Junta did walk away, when he was attacked the first time. To walk away twice. . . If that is something that you could have done, be prepared, people are going to eat you alive. Everyone knows a pushover when they see one.

In describing the events that led up to the deadly encounter with Mr. Costin, Thomas Junta echoed a similar macho mentality, "He was pulling me. He was right in my face, giving me the finger and all kinds of s--- like that. It was just like a stupid guy thing. 'F--- you. No, f--- you.' S--- like that." (Court TV.com)

Pride vs. Ownership

Parents can also become emotionally involved, and in some cases, lose proper perspective when they begin to see their young athlete as an investment. According to Murphy (1999), instead of regarding sports as a potentially fun or healthy activity for their children, some parents view athletics as a means of achieving fame, glory or material rewards. In many instances, the goal can be a college scholarship or professional contract. But even if a child appears to be a gifted athlete, the odds are remote.

According to Boggan (2001), in the two high-profile sports of men's basketball and football, for every 10,000 high school student athletes, three will become NBA professional, and nine will play in the NFL. With respect to the nine-year-old hometown "phenom", the odds of a professional contract are even longer considering that more than 38 million school-age children participate in recreational youth sports throughout the United States (NCYS, 2001).

Another related element, which contributes to parents' emotional involvement in their child's athletic career is a process sport psychologists call identification. However, parents who "live vicariously through their children" are guilty of over-identification. They fail to see the importance and value of allowing the child to experience sport on their own terms, for their own sake. Moreover, the parents' self worth is linked to the child's athletic success.

Smith and Smoll (1999) have written an excellent primer entitled, "Sports and Your Child" for youth sport parents seeking to better understand their role in the athletic triangle (i.e., coach, athlete, parent). Furthermore, parents should be able to answer, "yes" to the following questions:

  • Can you share your son or daughter?
  • Can you accept your child's disappointments?
  • Can you show your child self-control?
  • Can you give your child some time?
  • Can you let your child make his or her own decisions?

The Role of the Recreation Professional

As the gatekeepers of public park facilities, recreation professionals have a critical role in ensuring that the highest standards of conduct are upheld at youth sporting events. Beyond the moral imperative, youth sports administrators have a legal duty to ensure that the activity is conducted in a safe manner. To the extent that spectator violence and injury arises as a result of the administrator's negligence, then the sponsoring agency or township could be named in a subsequent lawsuit.

One of the strategies often recommended to address the possibility of unruly spectator behavior is that of requiring all youth sport parents/guardians to sign a "Code of Conduct." In so far as they provide a measure of accountability for adults who may "cross the line," codes of conduct are useful. However, they are not a panacea for preventing inappropriate spectator behavior. [4] In addition, there are several caveats.

First, not unlike most participation agreements, codes of conduct must be explicitly worded and clearly identify the penalties for potential violations. Second, these social contracts must be developed in accordance with existing federal/state laws so that the accused is not deprived of basic constitutional rights. (Recreation administrators should consult a qualified attorney for assistance with drafting the document). Third, the violation must be evaluated as part of a formal hearing process, which ensures the confidentiality of the accused. Fourth, there must be a mechanism for violators to demonstrate evidence of successful rehabilitation (e.g., anger management counseling). For those seeking more information, the state of New Jersey has developed a comprehensive Sport Parent Code of Conduct that can be viewed at www.youthsports.rutgers.edu (see Resources/Administrative).

Recreation professionals must also recognize that codes of conduct are not "the solution" to the problem of parental misbehavior in youth sports, but, rather, one strategy that can minimize the likelihood of its occurrence. Ideally, expectations for proper behavior should be discussed prior to the start of the season as part of a parents' orientation meeting. According to Smith & Smoll (2001), the overall objective of the meeting should be to improve parents' understanding of youth sports and the goals of the program. In addition, the meeting can:

  • Acquaint parents with the coaches and administrators.
  • Educate parents about the objectives of youth sports and clarify the goals of the program.
  • Inform parents about the specifics of the program and what is expected of the children and parents. (This includes obtaining parental assistance for accomplishing various tasks and conducting the season's activities.
  • Get parents to understand and reinforce the coaching philosophy that will be used.
  • Inform parents about their youth sport obligations and commitments.
  • Establish clear lines of communication.
  • Help coaches and administrators understand the concerns of parents.

Another potentially useful tool for identifying and preventing unwanted individuals from becoming involved in a community's recreation program is Criminal Background Checks for volunteer coaches. Not unlike parental codes of conduct, however, criminal background checks are not foolproof nor fail-safe -- only those individuals with prior criminal records are identified (assuming a thorough state and federal check has been conducted).

In addition, one of the thorniest questions for recreation administrators is how to finance the background check? Assuming the coaches can afford the fee (around $40), administrators must consider the potential impact on volunteerism if the cost is passed on. If politics dictates otherwise, and the cost for the background check is rolled into the child's registration fee, then low-income families might be adversely affected. A number of other important issues/questions must also be considered:

  • How often should background checks be conducted?
  • What are the disqualifying conditions?
  • What if a volunteer refuses to consent?
  • Who will have access to the information?
  • How should the appeal process be handled?
  • What constitutes evidence of rehabilitation?

Furthermore, one of the subtle and unintended consequences of conducting criminal background checks is that it may give those in charge a false sense of security. Given the devious manner in which child molesters win the trust of the victim's families and seduce their victims, recreation professionals must remain aware of the possibility that abusers can infiltrate the community sports program undetected, despite efforts to the contrary. Ultimately, criminal background checks should be part of a comprehensive process for recruiting and supervising volunteers (Paterson, 1998).

Finally, recreation professionals can insure a safe athletic environment by hiring properly trained officials. Ideally, these individuals should be certified by a credible officials organization such as the International Association of Authorized Basketball Officials (IABBO ). Competent officials not only help identify potential equipment or facility hazards, they are also trained to employ techniques that mitigate confrontations among players, coaches and spectators. It is not "the official's job," however, to control unruly spectators. Adequate police and security personnel should be present to quell any disturbance that may arise. Through consistent and impartial application of the game rules, officials maintain a playing environment that upholds the virtues of sport.

Summary

In recent years, organized youth sports has received unprecedented media attention, largely as the result of parents and coaches engaging in negative, and, in some instances, violent behavior. Anecdotal evidence is insufficient to substantiate the claim that violence in youth sports is "escalating" or "out of control." To date, there have been no scientific studies conducted to support that view. Ultimately, it's beside the point. No matter how likely or unlikely, administrators must take reasonable steps to prevent inappropriate or violent behavior.

For those parents who are unable to act appropriately at their child's sporting event, the reasons have more to do with personality factors, the rapid pace of modern society, and underlying societal pressures, rather than circumstances inherent to sports. Other societal factors include the influence of technology, negative role models and an entertainment industry that markets violence.

Recreation professionals who oversee community facilities can begin to assert their influence by taking responsibility for educating parents about their proper role and responsibilities in the athletic triangle (e.g., coach, parent, athlete). Hosting a parent orientation meeting prior to the start of the season is one of the recommended strategies. In addition, requiring volunteer coaches to undergo criminal background checks can be an effective deterrent to unwanted individuals becoming involved in a community sports program. Hiring competent officials can also help minimize the likelihood of unruly spectator behavior.

Finally, simplistic explanations and glib solutions to the problem of "sports rage" are neither cost-effective, nor likely to produce reform. Similarly, no matter how laudable the goal, emotional rhetoric that calls for "altering the destructive course we're currently traveling," ignores the extraordinary efforts and significant contributions of countless parents and volunteer coaches who, in fact, "get it." In order to produce significant progress, parents must critically examine their own beliefs regarding "what youth sports should be all about" and continuously monitor their behavior to be certain that it's consistent with the positive values that they believe sport can offer their children.

References

Boggan, D. (2001) Personal Communication. NCYS Leadership Training Conference. Singer Island, FL.

Court TV.com. (December 26, 2001). Mass. V. Junta: Transcript of state police interview. Courtroom Television Network.

Dalton, P. (December 27, 2001). Adults behaving badly. Newark, NJ: The Star Ledger.

Dorfman, L. and Schiraldi, V. (April, 2001). OFF BALANCE: Youth, Race & Crime in the News. San Francisco, CA: The Justice Policy Institute.

Engh, F. (January 10, 2002). Fred Engh: Antidote for rowdy parents at sports events. Hackensack, NJ: The Record.

Feigley, D. (1983). Is Aggression Justifiable? Journal of physical education, recreation and dance. Vol 54. No. 9. (pp. 63 – 64).

James, M. and Ziemer, T. (August 8, 2001) Bad Sports: With Cues From Adults, Are Kid Athletes Getting More Aggressive? abcNEWS.com

Morris, T. (2002). Personal Communication.

Murphy, S. (1999). The Cheers and the tears: A healthy alternative to the dark side of youth sports today. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

National Council of Youth Sports. (2001). Report on trends and participation in organized youth sports. Stuart, FL: NCYS.

National Youth Sports Safety Foundation. (2000). Sport parent code of conduct. Boston, MA: NYSSF.

Patterson, J. (1998). Staff Screening Took Kit. Washington D.C., Nonprofit Risk Management Center.

Smith, R.E. and Smoll, F.L. (2001). Way to go coach! (2nd edition). Portola Valley, CA: Warde Publishers.

Smoll, F.L. and Smith R.E., (1999). Sports and your child: A 50-minute guide for parents. Portola Valley, CA: Warde Publishers.

Still, B. (2001). Officials Under Assault: Update 2001. Racine, WI: The National Association of Sports Officials.

Underwood, J. (1975). Taking the fun out of the game. In R. Martens (Ed.) Joy and sadness i children's sports (pp. 50 – 67). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

 


 

[1] Count me first. However, before I'm regarded as naïve or indifferent, the reader should be aware of my first-hand experience with unruly, obnoxious spectators. As a former high schol basketball official who has been cursed at, spit on, and threatened with bodily harm, I am both repulsed by this kind of fan behavior and committed to its elimination. In our zeal to reform organized youth sports, however, we must continue to promote "the benefits" of participating rather than demonize "parents across America" because of our contempt for the behavior of a relative minority.

[2] Coincidentally, health professionals have reported an increase in substance abuse and alcohol problems as a result of the events of September 11th.

[3] While reprehensible, it should be noted that no "epidemic" has been substantiated herein, either.

[4] Although the hockey incident in Massachusetts did not occur during a league-sponsored event, it is difficult to believe that it could have been prevented had Mr. Junta been simply warned of the consequences for inappropriate behavior. For further reading on how adults justify aggression, see Feigley (1983).

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