A playoff atmosphere permeated the ballpark. Fans hung on every pitch, barking disapproval whenever a call tipped the strike count in their teams disfavor. A close play at first base finally ignited the explosion. Opposing coaches bickered, then launched into an ugly shoving match. Umpires intervened before flying fists could hit their intended targets.
Was it game one of the World Series at Yankee Stadium? Hardly. Try my 8-year-old sons baseball match in rural California.
A pitiful incident, an alarming national trend. Last summer Michael Costin died after a fight with fellow parent Thomas Junta during a game their sons were playing in Massachusetts. In January, New York father Matt Picca was accused of beating up his sons hockey coach after a verbal bout. In February, a soccer coach in Florida was charged with battery for head-butting a referee, and a Baptist minister acting as a basketball referee in metropolitan Atlanta stabbed the coach of an 8-year-olds basketball team after the coach questioned his play calling.
Unfortunately, these events arent sensationalized media caricatures. Parental aggression at youth sports is altogether commonplace. Ask anyone who has a child in sports and theyll quickly tick off their own personal examples.
Youth sports are too often about frustrated parents living out their own long-lost dreams on a school playground. About sons becoming highly recruited pitchers with college scholarships; about daughters being the next Brandi Chastain.
As a result, kids are fleeing sports in droves. The National Alliance for Youth Sports reports that nearly 70 percent of children drop out of organized leagues by the age of 13. The number one reason they gave in a survey was that it ceased to be fun.
Maybe its time to ban parents from the ball fields and let the kids have their fun. In fact, youth leagues around the country are starting to institute a "no-tolerance rule." One outburst of aggression and that parent is banned for the season. Thats certainly a good start.
But more is needed, above all a total mind shift about the goal of youth sports. Lets pause for a reality check here. Youth leagues are not a farm system for the NCAA. The chances of your kid getting a college scholarshiplet alone a pro careerfor kicking, throwing, or catching a ball are next to nil. Whenever my son announces hell be going to North Carolina on a basketball scholarship, I tell him to deflate the ball and pick up that book laying beside his bed. While an academic scholarship might be the equal of sinking a half-court shot, a sports scholarship is the equal of throwing one in the hoop from the parking lot.
I hold a silly hope that by joining a sports league my children will gain skills that will endure both on and off the field. I suppose I should throw all my cards on the table. I dont believe the answer is to stop keeping score or to no longer assign kids to a particular team. My regional soccer club tried that a season and it didnt work. The kids kept the score anyway and lost all the benefits of being on a team. Weve found locally two requisites for a fun season: the teams are balanced, and everybody gets to play. Winning and losing is not the primary issue. Im most proud of my own children when they walk off the field after a loss and feel proud of their efforts, or show true respect for their opponent in a winning effort. Spiritual maturity is to find value in the wins and the losses.
Last month I heard a national sports-radio host make the most inane commentgranted, thats not exceptional on sports radioto the effect that anyone who plays in an adult softball league is a complete twit; "theyre just frustrated that they couldnt play college baseball," ran his logic. Id venture the reverse to be the actual case. Not enough of us still play sports, yet yearn for such occasions to play physically with others. Somewhere along the line, usually around age 10 to 12, we were told we werent good enough.
Well, Im fed up with the whole sports industry. I no longer waste my time watching professionals strut their stuff on TV, and I certainly dont want my children motivated by empty dreams. Its all about having fun...from 8 to 80. Cmon, lets say it together: Play ball!
David Batstone, a founding editor ofBusiness 2.0 magazine, is executive editor of Sojourners.