Tom DeGraw talks matter-of-factly about the 11-year-old boy who threw a helmet at him while he refereed a football game, and the time a fight broke out at another game and police officers charged the field with clubs drawn to separate angry parents.
“We have had a lot of problems with the fans lately. All these parents want their kids to get a scholarship,” said Mr. DeGraw, a longtime sports official in Maryland. “They forget it’s a kids’ game.”
He’s one of many people distressed by what they see in youth athletics today: in-your-face bravado, trash-talking parents, behavior that mimics the antics of spoiled professionals youngsters see on television.
While sports have long been played in a supercharged environment where the mix of adrenaline and competitiveness can push behavior out of bounds, officials, athletic directors, educators, and others involved with youth sports say parents and athletes are pushing the limits of acceptable behavior more than in recent memory.
In response, some school districts have started to set clear boundaries by requiring parents to take sportsmanship classes before their children can participate in athletics. In the New Albany-Plain Local School District in New Albany, Ohio, all parents in the 1,736-student district must take a 90-minute class on sportsmanship and ethics and sign a sportsmanship code of conduct.
Max Ness, the athletic director at New Albany High School, said a strong message had to be sent to parents about appropriate behavior at games. “Based on the tenor of athletics today, we wanted to re-emphasize sportsmanship and integrity,” he said. “We felt a big part of that was the parent piece. Somebody had to make the step and say to the community, ‘This is what we stand for.’ ”
This school year, for the first time, officials of the 723,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, urged coaches to send a letter home with athletes spelling out the importance of appropriate parental behavior on the sidelines.
At some public high schools this fall in California, parents who verbally harass officials or other fans will be given yellow warning cards and escorted from the game if they don’t shape up. The California Interscholastic Federation began a campaign last year to increase the level of conversation around sportsmanship issues. Part of that effort is a requirement that athletes sign a code of conduct before participating in school athletics.
Barbara Fiege, the commissioner of the Los Angeles section of the California Interscholastic Federation, said that while no particular incident pushed the district to re-examine character issues in sports participation, a consensus has grown that such matters needed to be addressed.
“The goal is to change bad behavior,” Ms. Fiege said. “There was a general feeling we needed to do something.”
Interscholastic and community sports leagues for youths have plenty of level-headed coaches and parents who keep athletics in perspective. But bad examples in big-time sports and an erosion of civility throughout society, observers say, have fostered a disturbing environment for many young athletes.
Last year in Reading, Mass., a father was beaten to death by another parent during a fight that broke out during a youth hockey game. In Minneapolis last month, an assistant football coach and a 14-year-old student were stabbed when a scuffle started after football practice. A father of a Little League player in Palm Beach, Fla., was sentenced to three years in prison for pointing a pistol at a coach last spring. And in Illinois earlier this year, a coach was fired after she took a meat cleaver into school after an argument at a junior high volleyball game.
For Maureen Doyle, who came back to her high school alma mater to coach softball in Danvers, Mass., an experience two years ago with a verbally abusive father, who also was a school committee member, wound up in court after the enraged parent threatened to kill her during a telephone call.
The father of two daughters, both of whom played on the varsity softball team at the 1,057-student high school, had grown increasingly belligerent throughout the year, showing up at practice even though it was closed to parents, intimidating coaches, and harassing other players and parents at games, Ms. Doyle said.
The situation came to a head when Ms. Doyle called one evening to tell the parent his elder daughter had not made the all-star team. It was the night of his daughter’s prom, and Ms. Doyle hoped to break the news softly.
“He answered the phone, and when I told him, he said that if I breathed an f-word word about this to his daughter, he would kill me. He said ‘I’m serious. I will kill you, Maureen,’” Ms. Doyle said. “He was practically crying. It was so intense, I got scared.”
Normally, she wouldn’t have paid the threat much attention. But Ms. Doyle knew how emotional the father had become. A few months later, a judge placed the parent on a one-year probation for the threat.
Ms. Doyle said that she had found little comfort from school officials.
“They called their attorney and sent me a fax saying if anything happens to me, there was nothing they could do about it,” said Ms. Doyle, who has since left the school as a coach and is pursuing a teaching career.
“I love coaching, but I wasn’t going to put myself through that. I was disgusted. I knew this wasn’t going to end,” she said.
She hopes to return to athletics, though. “I’m still not sour on coaching,” she said.
Nationally, the problems have become so bad that many youth leagues are struggling to find enough sports officials willing to step into the fray.
A report last winter from the National Association of Sports Officials shows that 90 percent of state-level sports leaders responding to a survey reported a shortage of officials in their state. A decline in sportsmanship by parents, coaches, and players was listed as the biggest reason sports officials quit.
The problem of fans, coaches, or players turning violent against officials has become so widespread that 16 state legislatures have passed measures specifically mandating penalties for battery against sports officials.
“It’s just mind-boggling to see fans go absolutely crazy,” said Barry Mano, the president of the sports officials’ association, based in Racine, Wis. “In the long term, education is vitally important. In the short term, we as a society have to draw a line in the sand and say we’re not going to tolerate this.”
A mixture of influences has contributed to a youth-sports culture that is anything but fun and games for many of those involved.
Critics point to the example of professional athletes who flaunt a celebrity lifestyle made possible by multimillion-dollar contracts. And while only a tiny percentage of student athletes ever make it to the pro ranks, they watch young men just a few years older than themselves being drafted into the National Basketball Association, for example.
For the first time, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft was a 19-year-old high school student, who signed a three-year, $11 million contract. Four of the top eight picks in the draft made the leap directly from high school to the professional league.
The high premium placed on athletic accomplishment is also seen in the fact that football and basketball coaches at major programs in some states make more money than teachers.
Meanwhile, the use of sports supplements such as creatine, at one time largely confined to college and professional athletes, has become more common among younger athletes.
And the best high school teams, sponsored by big-name companies like Nike and Adidas, travel the country, and sometimes to foreign countries, during the school year to play in tournaments.
Many young athletes have been driven away from sports because of obsessive parents and coaches. Findings from a survey conducted by Michigan State University in the early 1990s suggested that of the 20 million youths who participated in organized sports, about 14 million quit before age 13 because of the pressure adults placed on them.
Pushing for Change
In his West Palm Beach, Fla., office, Fred Engh seems to add another newspaper article every week to his “Wall of Shame"—a collection of stories from around the country documenting the state of youth sports. There are articles about umpires being harassed, parents fighting each other, coaches spinning out of control.
Mr. Engh is the president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a nonprofit group whose mission is to promote sports as a vehicle for developing character and values. He started the organization in 1981 out of frustration over what he felt had happened to youth sports.
At one time, he says, children played games for fun in a healthy atmosphere of support and encouragement. Adults with other agendas, Mr. Engh argues, have polluted that atmosphere. “What has taken over is championships, all-star teams, cheating, playing when injured, and other wrong messages,” he said.
In July, the alliance hosted the National Summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports to address the problem of violence and declining levels of sportsmanship in athletic programs. Recreation and youth-sports professionals from around the country gathered in Chicago to begin working on standards for communities that hoped to improve the environment of youth sports.
Much of their work centered on how to better educate coaches and parents about acceptable behavior. Later this fall, official guidelines hashed out at the conference are to be sent to every community that offers sports programs for children.
A former physical education teacher and recreation director, Mr. Engh believes that not enough time is devoted to educating parents about keeping sports in perspective. His organization has developed the Parents Association for Youth Sports, or PAYS, which teaches parents about the importance of sportsmanship at their children’s athletic events. PAYS programs have been used in almost 300 cities nationwide.
“Parents behave the way they do,” Mr. Engh said, “because no one tells them they can’t behave that way.”
The El Paso Method
That’s starting to change. Last year, the city of El Paso, Texas, made participation in a sportsmanship program mandatory for parents whose children played in citywide athletics. Paula Powell, the sports-operations supervisor for the city’s parks and recreation department, said too many youth games had been marred by brawls, stabbings, and gunplay.
The three-hour class parents must now take begins with undercover footage from a local television station, which captured parents acting out of control at games. A psychotherapist, who works with athletes to improve their performance by using relaxation and visualization methods, then speaks to parents about dealing with stress while watching their children compete.
Police officers brief parents on some of the worst cases of parental behavior at games and the consequences of that behavior. Staff members from the El Paso Child Crisis Center talk about communication styles and physical abuse of athletes. By the end of next year, some 15,000 parents will have completed the program.
“Since we started the classes,” Ms. Powell said, “we haven’t had any serious incidents.”
Keith Wilson, a psychotherapist and consultant who works with athletes to improve their performance through mental training, teaches similar techniques to parents in the El Paso sportsmanship classes.
Just as athletes can learn to regulate their breathing, visualize success, and relax their muscles so can they perform better in stressful situations, Mr. Wilson said. Parents watching children compete can learn to moderate their own behavior.
He disagrees with punitive approaches, like requiring “silent” games—where parents aren’t allowed to cheer at all—or handing parents yellow cards at games if they act up. Such policies, he contends, provide only short-term improvement.
“We don’t believe parents are the problem,” Mr. Wilson said. “They are the solution. You will have more success if you equip people with better skills so they can handle intensity.
“We try to show parents that if they do it right, their behavior will make a positive difference in their child’s performance.”