A brawl among adults attending a boys’ middle school basketball game in Alburgh, Vt., this week led to tragic consequences, when a man involved in the melee later died at a nearby hospital.
An autopsy has yet to determine the cause of the 60-year-old man’s death, according to the Associated Press, which reported the incident. But the tragedy shines a national spotlight on what seems to be a growing problem in youth sports: adult aggression.
Poor behavior by adults was identified as the main culprit behind a mass exodus of approximately 50,000 high school referees between 2018 and 2021, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, an advocacy organization for high school athletics. In a nationwide survey of more than 17,000 referees in 2017 by the National Association of Sports Officials, respondents identified parents as most frequent aggressors during youth sports events.
This escalation of adult aggression provokes questions beyond who will be left to officiate at school-sponsored sporting events. Education Week sought answers to some of those concerns, including why poor behavior among adults at youth sporting events seems so pervasive, what impact it has on students, and how schools are responding.
Why does there seem to be an uptick in adult aggression?
Psychologist Richard Weissbourd describes a combination of factors he believes are responsible for what seems to be the increasing frequency of adult aggression at youth sporting events.
“I think we live in a time where we do tend to feel less collective responsibility, and we are hyper-focused on our own kids and their own well-being,” said Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Parents have become laser-focused on their own children’s athletic achievement, added Weissbourd. “Parents are loading up [youth] sports with lots of hopes, expectations, and dreams,” he said, referring primarily to the often-unfulfilled hope of college athletic scholarships.
These shifting societal priorities have been growing for the past four or so decades, according to Weissbourd. When layered with a more recent uptick in anxiety, depression, and stress caused or exacerbated by the pandemic, the combination is likely to result in more frequent bursts of aggression, he explained—sometimes at the expense of children.
“It’s a scary thing for a kid when their parent is so out of control,” Weissbourd said. “It’s really troubling. We’re modeling for kids all the time. It’s a terrible way to model managing anger.”
Some schools and districts are taking steps to address the growing adult aggression.
On Saturday, January 28, three days before the altercation at the middle school basketball game in Vermont, another Vermont sporting event was getting underway, this one at Essex Skating Facility in Essex Junction, with a call for sportsmanship. “At the end of day, this is just a game we play,” he read, “and we’d like to keep it that way.”
High school junior and hockey player Gavin Cowan, from Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho, Vt., read the Vermont Principal Association’s Sportsmanship message prior to the “puck drop” that signals the start of the game.
“We read the message before every game,” said David Marlow, the director of student activities at the Mount Mansfield high school. “Before the national anthem, it’s quiet, and having a kid read it, we hope, has more impact.”
While school officials have little control over adults’ behavior, they can use preemptive strategies to minimize aggressive behavior among students.
“We’ve met with our varsity teams, and done kitchen table discussions—conversations you’d have at your kitchen table [about sportsmanship],” Marlow said. This includes taking the broad message of sportsmanship and breaking it down, discussing why it’s important to the student-athletes, and asking them what they can do to amplify it during a game.
Marlow said the school also has taken measures to hold fans and athletes accountable for their behavior at sporting events. For instance, it ensures that a school representative, typically the head of the athletic department or principal, attends every sporting event, even those at other schools.
“I do think it’s important [for the student-athletes and fans] to see a familiar face if issues pop up,” he said.
Such measures won’t be necessary at any upcoming sporting events hosted this season at Vermont’s Alburgh Community Education Center, the middle school where the tragic spectator brawl occurred, or any others in the Grand Isle Supervisory Union. That’s because spectators have been banned for the remainder of the season.
The district announced the action in a letter on its website. “[W]e cannot ignore the increase in spectator misconduct at school sporting events throughout Vermont, including in our gymnasiums,” the letter reads.
“We haven’t had the issue here at MMU, but it could be any school at any time,” Marlow said. “When we met with our kids after the incident, one of them said: ‘We just want to play the game we love to play’.”