A playoff atmosphere permeated the ballpark. Fans hung on every pitch, barking disapproval whenever a call tipped the strike count in their team’s 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 son’s 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 son’s 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-old’s basketball team after the coach questioned his play calling.
Unfortunately, these events aren’t sensationalized media caricatures. Parental aggression at youth sports is altogether commonplace. Ask anyone who has a child in sports and they’ll 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 it’s 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. That’s certainly a good start.
But more is needed, above all a total mind shift about the goal of youth sports. Let’s pause for a reality check here. Youth leagues are not a farm system for the NCAA. The chances of your kid getting a college scholarship—let alone a pro career—for kicking, throwing, or catching a ball are next to nil. Whenever my son announces he’ll 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 don’t 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 didn’t work. The kids kept the score anyway and lost all the benefits of being on a team. We’ve 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. I’m 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 comment—granted, that’s not exceptional on sports radio—to the effect that anyone who plays in an adult softball league is a complete twit; "they’re just frustrated that they couldn’t play college baseball," ran his logic. I’d 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 weren’t good enough.
Well, I’m fed up with the whole sports industry. I no longer waste my time watching professionals strut their stuff on TV, and I certainly don’t want my children motivated by empty dreams. It’s all about having fun...from 8 to 80. C’mon, let’s say it together: Play ball!
David Batstone, a founding editor of Business 2.0 magazine, is executive editor of Sojourners.