It may have started as a simple skate-around at a nondescript
hockey arena 15 miles north of Boston, with boys of all ages and
sizes working on their puckhandling skills. But by the time it
ended, amid children's wails over their dying father, it had
become the final, ascendant symbol of a national malaise--of the
violence and vulgarity that have been pooling like blood around
youth sports in America. One hockey father, Michael Costin, lay
slumped near the vending machines by the rink, his face so
disfigured that two of his children would say they barely
recognized him. Another hockey father, Thomas Junta, had thrown
Costin to the ground and beaten him into a coma from which he
would never awaken.
It all began around midafternoon on July 5, at the Burbank Ice
Arena in Reading, Mass., when two men--Costin, 40, a part-time
carpenter and a single father of four young kids, and Junta, 42,
a truck driver and married father of two--got into what appeared
to be a minor shoving match. Costin had been on the ice
supervising the practice for the boys--who included his sons
Brendan, 12, Michael, 11, and Sean, 10, and Junta's 10-year-old
boy, Quinlan--when the action got a little rough. According to
Junta's lawyer, Junta saw his son get checked and struck in the
nose by an elbow. Junta complained, urging Costin to control the
checking, but the attorney says that Costin skated over to where
Junta was sitting and snapped, "That's what hockey is all about!"
When Costin came off the ice, Junta strode screaming toward him.
The two men wrestled briefly--the 6'2", 275-pound Junta tore the
5'11", 175-pound Costin's shirt and ripped a gold chain from
round his neck, according to Middlesex District prosecutors--until
a rink employee broke up the scuffle and ordered Junta out of the
arena. He left. In an era in which kids often behave with greater
civility than their parents and in which violence and verbal
abuse by adults have become commonplace at children's sporting
events, the fight surprised no one in Reading, a town of some
23,000 souls. What happened next, however, shook a talk-show
nation already numbed by pointless violence.
Costin and his boys were in the locker room, shedding their
skates and gear, when young Michael said, "Dad, I'm thirsty."
Moments later they were all at the Coke machine next to the rink
when Junta returned, according to prosecutors, with "fists
clenched." Junta knocked Costin down and pinned him to the floor
with a knee on his chest. He then began beating Costin's face
with his fists and banging his head on the hard rubber mats that
covered the floor. Costin's three boys stood around Junta
screaming, "Please stop! Please! He can't see. He can't hear."
Junta did not stop, prosecutors say, until a bystander pulled him
off. By the time police arrived, Costin lay unconscious, without
a pulse, his head in a pool of blood, his face misshapen by the
Junta was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor assault, but when
Costin was pronounced dead two days later, prosecutors stiffened
the charge to manslaughter--that is, killing Costin without
meaning to. Junta has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer claims he
struck Costin in self-defense and that he reentered the arena not
to finish his fight with Costin but to look for two children he
had driven to the rink. Junta is free on $5,000 bail, but he
faces a trial after which, if found guilty, he could be sentenced
to 20 years in prison.
Neither Junta nor Costin was new to the criminal justice system.
Costin had been in prison seven times between 1983 and 1995 for
crimes that stretched from breaking and entering to assaulting a
cop, and Reading police believe he had ties to a gang of Hell's
Angels in nearby Lynn, Mass. Junta had been charged with but
found not guilty of willful destruction of property, had been
sentenced to a year in jail for using a vehicle without the
owner's permission and, in 1992, had been arrested for assault
and battery. (There was no disposition in that case.)
Although the criminal records of the two men distinguish them
from many Little League dads, the situation that triggered the
violence is all too typical. Junta was regarded as a devoted
father. Costin was a recovering alcoholic who had turned his
life around after gaining custody of his four kids, and several
acquaintances said he was "the consummate single father" who
lived for his children. The kids--the three hockey-playing boys
and their nine-year-old sister, Tara--trailed his casket as it
was borne up the aisle of Our Lady of the Assumption Church in
Costin's hometown of Lynnfield on July 11. The Reverend John E.
Farrell delayed the funeral Mass to give the children time to
finish writing letters of farewell to be placed in their
father's casket. During the wake the grieving Tara had tried to
climb into the coffin with her dad.
"Pride and anger can be virtuous and vicious," Farrell told the
200 mourners. "Sports can build up or take away."
As terrible and devastating as Costin's death was--in an ironic
twist, Junta attacked Costin after Costin had rebuffed him for
protesting violence in the practice--it was only the most recent
case in what has become an epidemic of verbal harassment and
physical violence by parents at youth sports events. Among the
most egregious offenses:
--Ray Knight, the former Cincinnati Reds third baseman and
manager, was charged with simple battery, disorderly conduct and
affray (fighting in a public place) after an altercation at a
girls' softball game in Albany, Ga., in April 1999. Knight
engaged in a heated and profane 15-minute argument with the
father of a girl on the team opposing the squad on which Knight's
12-year-old daughter was playing. Knight finally punched the man
in the head.
--Police had to be called to quell a brawl last October in which
at least 50 parents and players went at one another at the end of
a football game involving 11- to 13-year-olds in Swiftwater, Pa.
--After a hockey game for 11- and 12-year-old boys in Staten
Island, N.Y., on Jan. 23, a carpenter named Matteo Picca struck
his son's coach, Lou Aiani, in the face with two hockey sticks,
according to witnesses, bloodying Aiani's nose. Picca, who was
indicted for assault and criminal possession of a weapon and was
sued for $4 million by Aiani, had been heard complaining angrily
during the game that his son had not improved all season. Picca
has pleaded not guilty to the charges and claims that while he
did hit Aiani with his fist, he did not swing the sticks at the
--Following a Little League game in Sacramento in April 1999, a
man who was coaching his son's team beat up the manager of the
opposing team. The assailant, who had been ejected by a
16-year-old umpire for verbally disrupting the game, was
convicted of felony assault and sentenced to 180 days of work
--A Tamaqua, Pa., policeman was convicted of corruption of a
minor and solicitation to commit simple assault for giving $2 to
a 10-year-old Little League pitcher to hit a batter with a
fastball last August.
--A soccer dad in Eastlake, Ohio, pleaded no contest to a charge
of assault last September after he punched a 14-year-old boy who
had scuffled for the ball with the man's 14-year-old son, leading
to both boys' ejections. The punch split the victim's lip. The
man was sentenced to 10 days of community service and ordered to
--A former corrections officer was sentenced to 30 days in jail
for assaulting a 16-year-old ref in La Vista, Neb., last October
at a flag football game for six- and seven-year-old boys.
--A youth baseball coach in Hollywood, Fla., was arrested for
aggravated battery on July 12, almost a month after he broke an
umpire's jaw with a punch during a Police Athletic League game
for high school players. The umpire was throwing the coach out of
the game when he was struck. The coach plans to plead not guilty.
The games kids play are looking more and more like dress
rehearsals for the Jerry Springer Show. In fact, the fields and
arenas of youth sports in North America have become places where
a kind of psychosis has at times prevailed, with parents and
coaches screaming and swearing at the kids, the officials or
each other, and fights breaking out among adults. According to a
survey conducted in the early 1990s by Michigan State
University, of the 20 million American kids who participate in
organized sports, starting as early as age four, about 14
million will quit before age 13, and they will say they dropped
out mostly because adults--particularly their own parents--have
turned the playing of games into a joyless, negative experience.
The vast majority of parents still comport themselves with
restraint and civility at games, but it is impossible to ignore
or wave away the loud, critical, ill-mannered parent in the
stands who believes that his or her child is the next Junior
Griffey or Mia Hamm. The obnoxious Little League parent, the
meddling soccer mom, the aggressive dad who stalks the sidelines
at football games and the poolside deck at swim meets have
become a larger presence at youth games in the past five years.
Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports
(NAYS), which educates coaches and parents on the needs of young
athletes, says that field reports from his organization's 2,200
chapters in the U.S. reveal an alarming trend: In 1995 you could
expect 5% of a crowd of parents to get out of line at a youth
athletic event--i.e., to embarrass their children or be abusive
toward the kids, officials and coaches. Only five years later,
you can expect 15% of the crowd to cross the line. "It borders
on insanity," says Engh. "Every year I see more and more ugly
Jim Thompson, director of the Positive Coaching Alliance at
Stanford, says that 10 years ago, when he was giving coaching
workshops, soccer parents and coaches (unlike their counterparts
in baseball and basketball) had no complaints about parental
behavior. But that was before soccer exploded in the U.S.--before
it opened yet another lucrative mine of college scholarships and
before the national women's team grew a comet's tail and rose in
a spectacular arc to the world championship. Thompson says you
should hear the lamentations now. Soccer folks talk about
belligerent parents hurling abuse at officials. Indeed, says
Thompson, things have become so difficult for youth-league soccer
refs that adults are declining assignments, and the sport has had
to turn to high schoolers for officiating. "But the kids don't
want to do it either, because they don't want abuse from these
parents," says Thompson.
The most serious problem facing the myriad organized youth
sports leagues, however, involves a landmark case in which the
Illinois Supreme Court is expected to decide later this year
whether children's leagues can be held financially responsible
for injuries resulting from adult violence at their games. The
case grew out of a grotesque incident 10 years ago in which John
Hills, the father-coach of a Little League player in the Chicago
suburb of Lemont, complained to umpires that a rival coach,
16-year-old George Loy Jr. of suburban Bridgeview, was loudly
making calls before the umpires themselves could make them. By
the third inning Loy's father, George Sr., also a Bridgeview
coach, was baiting Hills, calling him a "four-eyed mother----er"
and promising to "get him after the game."
After the sixth inning, as Hills bent over to pick up his
scorebook, George Loy Sr. jumped him from behind, punching and
kicking him as he drove him to the ground, and then circled the
prostrate figure, looking for places to kick him again. George
Jr. soon joined his father in pummeling Hills. Finally, George
Sr.'s brother, Bridgeview manager Ted Loy, joined in the
thuggery, kicking Hills between 10 and 15 times, witnesses said.
Lemont's third-base coach, Harry Keeler, interceded and helped
Hills to his feet and was hit himself. Then the Loys launched one
last attack on Hills. George Sr. stepped in and dropped Hills
with a right to the face that broke his nose, while George Jr.
smashed Hills's left knee with an aluminum bat.
Hills did not wake up until he was in intensive care. Along with
the broken nose, he suffered fractured ribs, a bruised kidney, a
concussion, a scratched cornea and the injured knee, which still
ails him. A plumber by trade, he returned to work only this year.
The Loy brothers were arrested, charged with battery and
sentenced to supervision and 40 hours of community service.
Hills sued all three Loys, the Bridgeview Little League
Association and the Justice Willow Springs Little League, which
sponsored the tournament and owned the field. After a two-week
trial in which 19 witnesses described what had happened, a
default judgment was entered against the Loys, who never
responded to the service of legal papers. (Nor would they
comment for this article.) A Chicago jury awarded Hills and his
wife a total of $757,710, finding not only the Loys but also the
two Little League associations liable for the damages. The
Little League groups, whose insurance would pay their share of
the award, appealed, but the three-judge Appellate Court in
Chicago upheld the jury's judgment.
The outcome of the case created such anxiety at Little League's
national headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., that the league hired
a law firm to file an amicus curiae brief urging the seven
Illinois Supreme Court justices to vacate the judgment. Little
League has 2.7 million child-athletes and sponsors 186,000 teams
in the U.S., and it sees a far-reaching danger if its local
organizations are held accountable for the actions of parents and
coaches. In a defense of its position, Little League declared
that making its associations responsible for adult violence would
put their playing fields in the same legal category as dens of
potential mayhem like "taverns, discos and dance clubs." The
brief notes that Little League games are alcohol-free events
attended by children and their parents, and it asserts, "Little
League baseball does not attract the less savory elements of the
communities in which it thrives."
Remember that this brief grew out of an incident in which two men
and a bat-wielding boy beat another man senseless while two teams
of Little Leaguers stood and watched. If the Illinois Supreme
Court sustains the jury verdict, thereby holding Little League's
cleats to the fire, the whole topography of adult violence at
children's games will change--just as court action altered the
landscape on the issues of handguns and tobacco.
Outside the courtroom, as evidence of a national groundswell on
the issue, various youth leagues and other groups have been at
work to curb violence and encourage mature behavior at games.
Over the last year and a half three U.S. government classes at
Deer Valley High, outside Phoenix, initiated and nearly pushed
through the Arizona legislature a bill called the Youth Sports
Official Protection Act, which would stiffen penalties for
violence against youth-league officials. The bill passed the
state house of representatives 38-18 but was defeated 22-8 in the
senate. The class will again lobby to pass the measure in the
next school year.
Before the widely publicized class on sportsmanship held in
February in Jupiter, Fla.--at which about 2,000 youth-league
parents were required to sign a pledge to behave themselves at
games--a soccer league outside Cleveland held a "Silent Sunday"
last October in which parents were under league orders not to
yell instructions to kids, not to question officials' calls and
not even to let out a cheer. Many parents either sucked
lollipops or put duct tape over their mouths.
West to east, meanwhile, youth-league violence kept police and
lawyers working all last year and in the first half of this one.
On April 27, 1999, in a slow-pitch softball game for 12-and-under
girls in Albany, Ga., Ray Knight was coaching third base for the
Magic, the team on which his daughter Erinn played. With the
count 3-2 on a Magic batter, the pitcher for the opposing team,
the Hot Dice, lofted a ball, and Knight, before the ump could
make his call, loudly urged the batter to first: "Get on down
there, atta baby!"
From behind the third-base dugout, a 47-year-old construction
worker named Jimmy C. Smith, the father of a girl on the Hot
Dice, yelled to Knight, "Let the umpire call the game!"
Knight turned around and said to Smith, "Are you talking to me?"
"Yeah, I'm talkin' to you!" Smith said.
Knight walked to the fence and said, "You don't tell me what to
do!" He accused Smith of trying to embarrass him.
"You're doing a good enough job [of] embarrassing yourself,"
"You just shut up!" snapped Knight.
"You can't tell me to shut up!" Smith shouted back.
"Well, you just meet me here after the game," said Knight.
"I'll be here," said Smith.
After the game Knight saw Smith waiting off the field and walked
over to him. They argued some more, and at one point Smith pushed
Knight. Knight lost his temper, and soon both men were nose to
nose and screaming obscenities at each other.
Just as the shouting ebbed and the fight seemed over, Smith
started back toward the field. "You couldn't handle the big boys
up there," he told Knight, referring to the major leagues, "so
you had to come down here and coach girls' softball." As Smith
walked by him Knight threw a punch that landed on Smith's right
ear, opening a small cut. Smith dropped to one knee, and Dave
Roberts, an assistant coach for the Hot Dice, grabbed Knight and
took him to the ground to stop the fight. Knight did not resist.
It was all over by the time the cops arrived. The local district
attorney, after interviewing witnesses, charged both Knight and
Smith with two misdemeanors. Knight was also charged with simple
battery for landing that punch. The charges are pending, and more
than a year later Knight still regrets his loss of control. "I
feel awful about it," he says. "I'll tell you how much it hurt
me. My girls didn't play in that league this year. I didn't want
any part of it. My remorse is immense."
Twelve days before Knight belted Smith, a more violent incident
occurred at a Little League game involving seven- and
eight-year-old boys and girls in south Sacramento. Lawrence
Bahrs, the father and coach of a seven-year-old boy, became so
disruptive that the 16-year-old umpire asked him to leave the
field. Bahrs, a 40-year-old welder, was calling balls and strikes
over the ump's voice. Bahrs says he had gotten angry at the other
team's manager, James Solari, then 39, for allegedly instructing
the umpire and for using abusive language. After the game,
according to Sacramento Deputy District Attorney Scott Triplett,
Bahrs lay in wait for Solari.
As Solari left the field, Bahrs recalls, he told Solari, "'You
might think you're some kind of coach, but you're an a------.'
That ticked him off, and he took a swing at me. I deflected it,
and he backed away. I walked up to him and I decked him, and I
punched him a couple of times and I kneed him in the face."
Solari says he suffered a concussion and had the braces on his
teeth broken in the attack. Bahrs pleaded no contest to felony
assault and served six months of work furlough. After his
release, Bahrs attended court-ordered anger-management classes.
He was also put on five years' probation. "I'm sorry it
happened," Bahrs says, "but it's pretty prevalent. You think it's
bad at baseball games, you ought to see it at soccer games."
Or midget football games. In Swiftwater, Pa., last Oct. 10, right
after the Pocono Mountain Cardinals had defeated a team from
Allentown's East Side Youth Center 14-7, the two teams of 11- to
13-year-old boys had met to shake hands when some of them began
exchanging taunts. One angry lad shoved another, and Allentown's
13-year-old Nicholas Davis got whacked on the head by a helmet.
Coaches tried to break it up, but the "footbrawl," as the Pocono
Record would call it, ultimately involved 50 to 100 players and
parents, most of whom were trying to break up the fight. A few of
the parents joined the melee after they charged onto the field to
rescue their kids. The police were summoned, but only three
people were charged, one adult and two kids. Two people were
injured; one, a Cardinals assistant coach, Michael Bartell,
suffered a cut above his right eye that required seven stitches.
When asked in studies why they play sports, children invariably
say they enjoy the fun, they like being with their friends, and
they enjoy learning the fundamentals and improving their skills,
according to Thomas Tutko, professor emeritus of sports
psychology at San Jose State and a member of the NAYS board.
"Kids rank winning about seventh or eighth down the list," says
Tutko. Unlike pro and college sports, in which winning often
translates into money, children's games are supposed to teach
skills and values--such as fair play, working with others and
dealing well with adversity--that kids can draw upon throughout
"The main purpose of youth sports is to emphasize effort,
participation and skill development," says Joel Fish, director of
the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia. "So we are
sending the wrong message when we get too invested in the outcome
of a youth game--who won, who lost, who scored the most. You start
to get away from what the mission of it is."
For more than 100 years, that mission has gone far beyond
sport's chalk boundaries. In the 19th century, most immigrants
to the U.S. came from industrializing countries in northern
Europe, and they fit well into the newly industrializing
America. After 1880, however, most immigrants were coming from
small rural communities in southern and eastern Europe, where
the agrarian economy did not prepare them for the regimentation
of factory life. So across America, in schools, churches and
playgrounds, games were organized both to get growing numbers of
rowdy children off the streets and to teach the values of
industrial production to recently arrived workers and their
"The organized playground movement and the emergence of organized
sports were, in part, tied to the Americanization of workers,"
says Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist at the University of
Colorado. "The playground movement was motivated strongly by the
belief that you could use team sports to acculturate immigrants.
You made them understand the notions of setting goals, of keeping
records--the things that the assembly-line supervisor kept track
of." After World War II, Coakley continues, games became
instruments of organizing and controlling children as millions of
urban Americans fled deteriorating cities, settled down behind
white picket fences and bred like rabbits to produce the Baby
Boom, perhaps the greatest population surge of any nation in
Western history. "The average parents moved to suburbia to
control their environment and to raise the kinds of children they
wanted," says Coakley. "This led to the formation of supervised
environments for kids."
Out of this singular set of circumstances emerged the vast,
dust-choked world of youth sports. Armies of kids joined
thousands of youth leagues, and their parents came out to watch
them play. Indeed, the 1950s ushered in an epochal change in the
nature of play in this country. For decades, unwatched and
unfettered by adults, children had passed the time playing
made-up street and schoolyard games--from stickball to
kick-the-can--and in playing them had learned how to arbitrate
their conflicts and needs, how to compromise, how to build a
consensus and make their own rules. Which is to say, how to get
along in a democratic society.
That era ended with the rise of youth sports organized and
controlled by adults, who set up the leagues and the schedules,
resolved disputes and made and enforced the rules. Children lost
control of their games--along with all the skills they had learned
by playing on their own--and the games themselves became
extensions of the parents' lives, often more important to them
than to the kids. So it was that a new species of bird was
hatched in the aviary of U.S. sports: Parentis vociferous, the
loud, intrusive moms and dads unable to restrain themselves.
The species has been sighted everywhere; it's native to all
states, and anyone who has been involved in youth sports has a
story to tell. Refs and umps are the easiest targets,
particularly if they are young. Typical was the experience of
Jesse Weber, 19, a sophomore microbiology major at Colorado who
umpired Little League for five years in Shaw Heights, outside
Denver, and who remembers the stream of catcalls from the
stands. "It was ridiculous," Weber says. He remembers having to
walk to the fence and tell adults twice as old as he, "You're
out of line. Have some respect for the game and the players in
it." He remembers parents who called him a "jackass" and
followed him to the parking lot, as if to pick a fight. And he
remembers the shame the children felt at their parents'
behavior. "You could see it in their faces," Weber says.
Coaches and parents have been baiting youth-league umps for
years. Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law
Center in Philadelphia, was a 16-year-old umpire in a rec league
for 10-year-olds when, after a championship game in 1966, he was
followed by several parents as he walked, nearly in tears, the
100 yards from the field to the rec hall. "It was like 100
miles," Schwartz says. "They kept yelling, 'You're a piece of
s---!' Nothing in my experience had prepared me to be called what
I was called by those adults."
The umps aren't the only people in authority at youth sports who
are upset by abusive parents. Melinda Schmitt was an All-America
swimmer who took up coaching after graduating from Miami in 1980.
"I loved to coach," she says. "Little kids to seniors." She was
leading a team of eight-and-under children when she first saw how
panting adults were ruining the experience for the kids, showing
up with stopwatches and timing all the swimmers until they had to
be barred from the pool deck.
At a meet in Pompano Beach, Fla., in 1982, one kid was finishing
a 25-meter race when his father, dressed in a shirt and slacks,
left the stands and leaped into the waist-deep pool. He started
slapping the water right next to the child. "He was screaming in
the kid's face, 'You didn't finish hard enough! You let them pass
you!'" Schmitt recalls. That incident, more than anything else,
drove her out of coaching. "I still think about going back," she
says. "But I don't want to deal with the parents. They're trying
to live out their fantasies. Some of them think they have the
next Mark Spitz."
One of the distinguishing marks of obnoxious sports parents,
psychologists say, is the inflated hopes they have for their
children--an implacable belief, unsupported by evidence, that
their kids are Mozarts in cleats, gifted enough to earn a college
scholarship or even be a professional. With all the elite club
and travel teams now playing, children's games have grown as
deadly serious as intercollegiate sports. Not incidentally, the
rise of Parentis vociferous coincided with the transformation of
sports into a secular religion--and the escalating value of
college scholarships and pro contracts.
"Like pro sports, youth sports at many levels are no longer a
game," says Darrell J. Burnett, a clinical child psychologist in
Laguna Niguel, Calif., who specializes in youth sports. "It is
big business. The statistical chances of a kid getting a college
scholarship are very small, but parents have unreasonable
expectations. When their kid makes an error at shortstop, instead
of saying, O.K., he made a mistake, he'll learn from it, they
think, Oh, my god! What if a scout is in the stands watching?"
Now Armageddon can be found in tee-ball games for five-year-olds,
and battles have been joined in events as trivial as
flag-football games for six- and seven-year-old boys in which no
official score is kept. Last Oct. 23, in La Vista, Neb., a
38-year-old machinist and former corrections officer, Roenee
Ware, was caught on videotape verbally abusing and then
assaulting the 16-year-old referee, Mike Tangeman, at halftime of
a game. Flag football is a weighty business in Nebraska. Ware's
team of tykes, the La Vista Tornadoes, had three coaches--Ware was
the offensive coordinator--and the Tornadoes were "running the
option," says Tangeman. When the game got rough and elbows
started to fly, the ref began calling penalties. At halftime,
Ware went onto the field and yelled at him for his calls.
The tape shows Ware, 6'3" and 250 pounds, jabbing his finger in
Tangeman's chest as the little boys, including Ware's son,
gathered behind him. At one point, after a shoving match, the
5'9", 160-pound ref slapped Ware's finger away. Ware then punched
him in the face. Ware was arrested on a charge of third-degree
assault and convicted at trial. He was contrite at his April 14
sentencing--"I should have walked away," he said--but Sarpy County
Judge Todd Hutton gave him 30 days in jail and fined him $585.
Among the central questions raised by such a litany of incidents,
says Jim Thompson of the Positive Coaching Alliance, is this:
"Why do parents and coaches in youth sports act in a way they
would never act in other places?"
"Everything starts at the pro level and funnels down to the
college and the youth sports level," says Leonard Zaichkowsky,
head of the sports psychology program at Boston University. "At
Fenway Park, people with multicolored hair strip off their shirts
to show tattoos and body paint, and a certain kind of clientele
prides itself on drinking and using foul language."
What makes a youth-league event even more emotionally charged is
that parents are watching their own children play, their own DNA
body paint and tattoos, and everyone knows that blood is thicker
and more volatile than beer. "Something deep down inside happens
in moms and dads when they see their kid up there with the bases
loaded," says Joel Fish. "These are well-intentioned parents. We
know the people booing the loudest are pretty straitlaced in
their everyday lives. I can't tell you how many times I've heard
a parent say: 'Did I really yell at the 16-year-old umpire? Did I
really yell at my kid?'"
Last Sept. 25, at a high school soccer game in Eastlake, Ohio,
George Telidis, a 40-year-old Greek immigrant and former
scholarship soccer player at Cleveland State, went racing onto
the field after, he says, he saw his 14-year-old son, Alex, go
down twice while fighting for the ball with a 14-year-old Bosnian
immigrant, Davor Jozic. Alex has braces, and Telidis says he saw
his son's mouth bleeding. "You kind of lose it when you see your
own son's blood," Telidis says. He belted Jozic in the mouth,
splitting the boy's lip. (A teacher of Jozic's says both boys had
been red-carded for the incident and were walking off the field
when Telidis struck.) Telidis was arrested for assault, to which
he pleaded no contest, and was sentenced to 10 days of community
service. He seems chagrined now. "I would not hit him if I could
do it over," Telidis says. "I would control myself more. I did
what I did to defend my son."
The whole parenting experience is emotionally loaded, says child
sports psychology consultant Alan Goldberg, and in sports it
often stirs feelings that have been buried for years. "All the
old garbage comes to the surface," Goldberg says. "If you were
frustrated as an athlete, if you were never picked to play on a
team or didn't go anywhere as an athlete, all that stuff gets
Frank Smoll, a sports psychologist at Washington who specializes
in youths in sports, speaks of a "reverse dependency trap"
between young athletes and their parents. Normally, Smoll says,
youngsters depend upon their parents for feelings of self-worth
and self-esteem. The trap is set when the parent overidentifies
with the child. "So it's not just Johnny or Mary out there,"
Smoll says. "The parents are playing the game out there, maybe
trying to live out a past glory or attain some athletic
excellence they were denied or incapable of attaining."
Over one 12-year period, Burnett says, he worked with as many as
1,000 troubled youths in Southern California. "Runaways, drug
users, suicidal kids," Burnett says. "Ninety-eight percent of
these kids had dropped out of youth sports. I asked them why. Kid
after kid gave the same two reasons: negative coaches and
negative parents." Burnett and other psychologists recall the
common plea of children to their parents: "Please don't yell on
the sideline. It's distracting. And it's so embarrassing."
In Goldberg's archive of horrors, the piece de resistance is the
memory of an irate mother at poolside during a swim meet,
slapping her nine-year-old daughter across the face in front of
everyone and screaming, "Don't you ever do that to me again!"
The girl had shown up late for her heat and been disqualified.
"Know why she missed the race?" Goldberg says. "Her mother never
asked. She missed her race because two heats earlier her best
friend had had a lousy swim and was devastated and sobbing in
the locker room. This girl had been in there comforting her."