Over-involved parents turn violent Fatal fight between hockey dads just one example of rage in kids' sports

Sunday, July 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON – A father who doesn't like a call at his son's Little League game breaks the umpire's jaw. A mother at a soccer game slaps a 14-year-old referee.

A police officer thrown out of his son's baseball game later retaliates by pulling the umpire over and giving him a warning for what he said was an illegal turn.

Parents have become more invested – perhaps too invested – in their children's sports, some to the point of violence and vindictiveness. The recent fatal fistfight between fathers at a youth hockey game appears to be an extreme example of a growing trend.

"I think we saw that one coming. We've seen this behavior escalate, becoming much more violent," said Bob Still, spokesman for a national association of umpires. "It's parents, coaches and players, but it's mostly parents."

While pushy soccer moms and obnoxious Little League dads are old traditions in children's sports, a new parental rage has developed over the past five or 10 years, say sports psychologists and youth sports officials.

They give an array of explanations for the stress that causes some parents to go ballistic. There's the pressure of getting kids into good colleges. Or the hope – however unrealistic – that their boy is the next Sammy Sosa, or their girl the next Mia Hamm. It could be just the increased violence in society.

Regardless, experts agree that the higher the pressure from parents, the worse it is for children.

William Pollack, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard School of Medicine and an authority on father-son relationships, said some fathers try to live vicariously through their sons – a faded sports star seeking to relive his glory days, or one who failed at sports wanting to make sure his child succeeds.

"Now his son's going to do it for him," Mr. Pollack said. "He's going to make his son a man, and make himself a man at once. As crazy as it sounds, it goes on a lot in the male psyche."

At the National Association of Sports Officials, Mr. Still said he hears about two or three reports a week of violent parents at sporting events. The main targets of the rage seem to be coaches, referees and umpires. That appeared to be the case in the fatal fight on July 5 in Reading, Mass.

Michael Costin was on the ice supervising stick practice for some boys, including his three sons. Another father, Thomas Junta, didn't like the way Mr. Costin handled some rough play. The men fought, and Mr. Junta allegedly beat Mr. Costin brain dead. He is charged with manslaughter.

Mr. Still's group represents 19,000 referees and umpires in professional, high school and youth sports. He said officials for Little League and other youth teams often are volunteers, or people in training to become professionals. The most inexperienced officials often are up against parents, the most vigilant fans.

"Sports tends to be life with the volume turned up, so that creates a tense situation," said Mr. Still, also a referee. "We have to make quick decisions. Sometimes we make wrong decisions. That's life. You need to get over it."

To help parents who can't control themselves at games, some youth sports leagues – including those in Jupiter, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. – have adopted a sportsmanship training program. Developed by the National Alliance for Youth Sports, the program also includes an 11-point code of ethics parents must sign.

In Boston, the city's youth sports league has held mandatory meetings for parents because too many were swearing during games or yelling at their kids, said Joseph Robins, a youth worker for the Boston Housing Authority.

But Mr. Robins, sitting on the sideline of a summer baseball clinic, said he rarely sees parents get aggressive. Children in the city league often come from single-parent homes, with working mothers who can come to games only on special occasions. Fathers – usually the ones getting agitated over youth sports – often are absent.