by: Mary Lord
May 15, 2000 issue, Science and Ideas
©2000 US News and World Report Inc.
nine years as president of the Subdivision Sports youth
baseball league, the low-pressure alternative to Little
League he founded, Mike Finneran of Naperville, Ill., has
had many memorable moments. Like the time one coach in a
second-grade game began choking the other. Or the numerous
encounters with parents who hurled the "F" word faster than
Randy Johnson's fastball, berated their kids from the sidelines,
and disputed every umpire's call. "We were the laid-back
league," says Finneran, 50, who canceled this spring's baseball
season for third- through eighth-grade boys. "I've had three
heart attacks, triple-bypass surgery, and a stroke. I don't
need the stress of these guys fighting."
Sports isn't the only league stressed out by parent spoilsports
these days. Across America, along with the idyllic scenes
of kids scrambling after line drives or booting soccer balls
around the park, there are the heckling hubbub and ferocious
temper tantrums from adults taking child's play far too
a game goes by without an ugly example-or two or three.
Last fall, a "midget league" football game in Pennsylvania
ended in a melee involving nearly 100 players, coaches,
parents, and fans. A Maryland father, disappointed that
this son had been left off the all-star team, knocked down
and kicked a coach, while an Oklahoma coach had to be restrained
after choking the teenage umpire during a T-ball game for
5- and 6-year-olds. In fact, attacks on umpires have grown
so common that the National Association of Sports Officials
recently began offering a new benefit to its 19,000 members:
they're not the hardest hit, says Fred Engh, president of
the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of Why
Johnny Hates Sports: The players are. He cites a recent
survey by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission in which
almost half the young athletes said they had been yelled
at or insulted, 17.5 percent reported being hit, kicked,
or slapped, and 8.2 percent were pressured into harming
others. No wonder 7 in 10 kids quit organized sports before
their 13th birthday. "You'd never hear this at a child's
piano recital: 'Erin, you bum, you can never do anything
right!' " notes Engh, who likens the unrealistic expectations
adults place on young athletes to child abuse.
Alarmed by the escalating epidemic of aggression, thousands
of communities are embracing measures to quash the "win
at all costs" mind-set and restore a sense of recreation
to childhood's fields of dreams. West Des Moines's youth
baseball league recently adopted a zero-tolerance policy
toward obnoxious adults; cuss or brawl, and the kid leaves
going to stand tall on this," vows league president Mike
Linn, who hopes to stave off violence before it occurs with
other measures, such as giving every young player a turn
at bat and running coaching clinics. Albuquerque fines abusive
spectators $5, while soccer leagues nationwide now observe
"Silent Saturdays"-sometimes with duct tape or lollipops
to muzzle sideline shouters. In Florida, the Jupiter-Tequesta
Athletic Association is really playing hardball: It just
became the first in the nation to require that parents attend
an ethics class and sign a code of conduct if they want
their kids to play.
far, such measures have scored big with the unobstreperous
parents who make up the vast majority of coaches and spectators.
Jupiter-Tequesta didn't lose one of its 2,000 players because
a parent shunned the sportsmanship class, for example. And
while incidents still arise, they quickly get resolved-often
by the parents themselves. "It's eerie how quiet it's been
because the parents are trying to figure out where to draw
the line," says JTAA President Jeff Leslie, who calls the
overall effect "a blessing for our league."
sports historian Gerald Gems, chairman of the health and
physical education department at North Central College in
Illinois, considers these temporary palliatives at best.
He says that efforts to bring civility to youth sports ultimately
will strike out unless they also attack America's win-at-all-costs
mentality. What's also needed, he suggests, are programs
to teach coaches child psychology and strategies for dealing
with parents. Jim Thompson, founder and director of the
Positive Coaching Alliance in Stanford, Calif., which has
launched a 10-year campaign to boost sportsmanship, agrees.
"We don't want parents just to learn not to be jerks," he
says. "We want them to learn to be positive motivators."