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Youth Sports Push Some Parents to the Brink

The Massachusetts incident that left one hockey dad dead and the other facing charges has some experts wondering whether youth sports mania has gone over the edge.

“I’m not surprised it happened. Don’t we always tell the kids to knock it off before someone gets hurt?” says Douglas Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri who has written widely on the subject.

Someone got more than hurt following that July 5 youth hockey scrimmage in Massachusetts. As the 10-year-old players watched in horror, one player’s father beat an opposing player’s father over what he considered rough play during the game. The beating victim, Michael Costin, a 40-year-old father of four, lapsed into a coma and died after being removed from life support.

Abrams says statistics show 85 percent of parents do not cause problems at sports events. But the other 15 percent can create huge headaches for coaches, officials and other spectators. When what he calls “achievement by proxy” becomes disproportionate, trouble follows.

“A lot of adults live through their children, and to a degree parents are supposed to project onto their children,” he says. “But it can get out of hand. In the last five to 10 years, behavior of parents has been deteriorating.”

Not so, says Lance Van Auken, spokesman for Little League Baseball.

“We haven’t seen an increase in the number of incidents. We’ve seen an increase in the reporting of incidents,” he says.

Van Auken says modern communication — especially the Internet — makes it easier to find reports of violent behavior. But he says the Massachusetts episode was still shocking.

“You don’t want to play down that incident,” he says.

Abrams contends that poor parental behavior is on the rise, and he sees two reasons: the lure of college scholarships and professional athletes with multi-million dollar contracts. Abrams says some parents hope for the big contract despite the huge odds against an individual athlete.

“You’ve got a better chance of winning the state lottery, but parents don’t understand that,” he says.

With registration fees, travel expenses, insurance and equipment, youth sports can also be expensive, says Abrams, who has been a youth hockey coach for 31 years.

“Unfortunately, some parents look for a return on that investment — a college scholarship. The more rational parents’ reaction is that the child is having fun, meeting other children, getting exercise, learning a sport — those kinds of things.”

Larry Dieringer, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility, says the time to solve the problem is when people are young.

“They need to know from a very early age that there are ways of dealing with issues like violence,” he says. “It’s possible for people to learn these things — and it’s easier to learn these things — when you’re young.”

Abrams says the answer may be for the 85 percent of the crowd to educate the 15 percent that acts up. But he says even the ones who cause problems are basically good people who get caught up in the frenzy.

“I assume that parents don’t go nuts in the audience during a clarinet concert,” he says. “But they certainly do during a basketball game or a hockey game.”

What To Do

Keep things in perspective. Remember it’s just a game. And when you witness inappropriate behavior at a youth sports event, report it to league officials.

Little League Online is a resource for the nearly 3 million players and their parents, and Educators for Social Responsibility works to make conflict resolution a part of youth education.

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