Families & the Community

Angry Parents Place Coaches in Tough Spots

By John Gehring — April 19, 2005 7 min read
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When the father of a Texas high school football player shot his son’s coach two weeks ago, the attack shocked athletic officials and educators across the country, who never expected that a parent reportedly angered by his son’s limited playing time would take such extreme action.

But while the incident at Canton High School was unusual, they say, it reflects the changing nature of a job that has become increasingly fraught with criticism, verbal abuse, and uncomfortable and potentially dangerous confrontations.

Canton High assistant football coach Howard Bell, far left, gets help hanging a poster for Gary Joe Kinne, the school's head football coach, who was hospitalized after being shot by a parent.

“This incident is a billboard for all the problems we face today in youth sports,” said Fred Engh, the president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a group based in West Palm Beach, Fla., that promotes better sportsmanship and fan behavior. “This gets the media’s attention, but one step below all this is the verbal and emotional abuse of coaches. We have parents who want to take things into their own hands.”

The Texas parent, Jeffrey Doyle Robertson, had already been barred from attending games at the high school in Canton, located 60 miles east of Dallas, because of earlier confrontations with coaches and players. But on the morning of April 7, he entered the school’s field house and, according to police officials, used a pistol to shoot the school’s head football coach in the chest.

Gary Joe Kinne was critically wounded, and was still recovering in a hospital last week. Mr. Robertson, who was found in a wooded area two hours after the shooting, was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Coaches and school administrators elsewhere have been threatened, verbally abused, or physically assaulted in other incidents related to school sports.

A vice principal at Seaside High School in Seaside, Calif., was severely beaten by two 20-year-old men after a high school basketball game in February when he asked the men, who were taunting opposing team players, to disperse, according to local newspaper and television accounts. He suffered multiple facial fractions, and returned to school this month after undergoing surgery for head injuries.

And in January, officials in California’s 13,000-student Salinas Union High School District decided to hold a basketball game between two rival high schools behind locked doors and prohibit fans from entering when a head coach received a series of threatening phone calls. But after parents complained, the game was instead held under heavy police presence without incident. Officials formed a districtwide task force of parents, coaches, and student-athletes. The task force will submit recommendations for ways to limit incidents of taunting and other unsportsmanlike conduct at athletic events.

‘Totally Out of Control’

Threats to coaches arise in a sports atmosphere that many observers say is marked by heightened incivility from the professional ranks on down to inter- scholastic and youth leagues. Demanding parents, they say, aggravate the problem.

Mr. Engh of the National Alliance for Youth Sports said he has no trouble adding to his office “Wall of Shame,” a collection of articles about parents and fans behaving badly at youth sporting events. He even has a name for the phenomenon: “sideline rage.”

He and other national observers believe the apparent erosion of civility in youth and school sports is driven in part by parents’ all-consuming belief that sports will be a ticket to college scholarships or even greater athletic glories for their children.

And when professional athletes and their fans act boorishly—as they did when a melee erupted between players and fans during a National Basketball Association game in Detroit last fall between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers—parents and youth athletes don’t exactly have positive messages coming from the top tiers of the sports world.

Albert Fracassa, the 72-year-old head football coach at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., has watched parents’ attitudes change over the 49 years he has coached. “It’s worse than it has ever been,” Mr. Fracassa said about the pressure parents put on their children and coaches.

The coach at the 600-student Roman Catholic school played football for Michigan State University in the 1950s, a time when, he recalls, coaches were authority figures rarely challenged or questioned. Those days of respect are gone, he says, and he blames the coarser attitudes of parents and fans, to a large extent, on a celebrity sports culture obsessed with oversize personalities and 24-hour-a-day media coverage.

“Most parents are pretty good, but no matter what you do, there is always someone that has delusions of grandeur about their kid,” he said.

The verbal and occasional physical abuse coaches receive from parents and other spectators has made it harder to attract and keep coaches, according to Dick Galiette, the executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association, based in Hamden, Conn.

“We hear about parents and coaches coming into conflict all of the time,” he said. “The behavior in the stands has become something that has gotten totally out of control. It’s so distorted. You don’t get the long-term coach because they are saying, ‘Why do I want to take this abuse?’ ”

Hockey Violence

Schools have responded to bad behavior by restricting access to sports events, in some cases, and starting broad programs to foster good sportsmanship.

When two high school ice hockey teams from Massachusetts met for a game this January, they were continuing a proud tradition. Northeast Regional Vocational School and Shawsheen Valley Regional Technical High School have been facing off in a rivalry that dates back 30 years.

The game was played hard and clean that day, but when it ended, fans from the opposing teams began shouting insults at one another and the players. A full-blown fight with flying punches and swinging hockey sticks soon erupted.

“All hell broke loose,” said David Keogh the athletic director of Northeast Regional. “Spectators from both sides, including parents, were directly involved in this melee. It was ugly.”

The next day, Mr. Keogh had a proposal ready for his principal and superintendent. The next time the two teams met, school officials would prohibit parents and other fans from coming inside the rink. School leaders knew the ban would be unpopular, but they backed the athletic director.

So when the two teams met in February for a conference championship, only the coaches, players, and a small flock from the news media were allowed into the rink.

“They played the game in pretty much dead silence,” Mr. Keogh said. “I took a lot of heat from parents, but some did call to express their support. The parental and fan involvement, especially in hockey, has gone nuts. It’s just rude, and not fun to watch. It’s gotten out of hand.”

Allyce Najimy, the senior associate director for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, said her organization frequently hears about out-of-control fans and parents. The center has formed a statewide Sportsmanship Alliance that includes representatives from all of the professional sports teams in Massachusetts and offers workshops for parents, coaches, and athletes about the need for maintaining civility in athletics.

Some school districts also now require parents to take sportsmanship classes before their children can participate in athletics. A statewide initiative in Maine launched in January set clear standards for fostering more positive sports experiences. (“Maine Rallies Behind Rules for Athletics,” Jan. 26, 2005.)

‘How to Behave’

While it’s not uncommon for school administrators to bar individual parents or other fans from attending games because of poor behavior, one lawmaker in Massachusetts believes more needs to be done to educate athletes and parents about proper behavior before problems arise.

Rep. Peter J. Koutoujian, a Democrat from Middlesex, introduced a bill last month that would require all public school student-athletes to take a sportsmanship class. Under his proposal, the state department of education would write a curriculum for middle and high school athletes, and workshops would be provided for parents, teachers, and coaches.

But the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees school sports in the state, doesn’t support that proposal. The association already conducts extensive sportsmanship training, and it believes a legislative mandate is unnecessary.

“Many schools require parents to sign a sportsmanship pledge,” said Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the association. “The problem isn’t that people haven’t been informed about how to behave.”

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