How A Few Parents Are Ruining Youth Sports For All Of Us

by Elizabeth Broadbent

Youth sports are about teamwork. They’re about cooperation, camaraderie, trying and failing and trying again. Learning the value of hard work. Learning the value of loss. Picking yourself up from the dust. Persistence. Fair play. Kindness.

But wait — apparently youth sports are about winning and scholarships, bitches, and don’t you forget it. At least, that’s what some sports parents would have you think. They’re getting out of control, and with their sense of entitlement, disrespect for officials, and lagging numbers of officials themselves, confrontations are increasing.

Not all sports parents are like this. In fact, the vast majority of sports parents aren’t like this — they’re here for the reasons we started with. Teamwork. Cooperation. Camaraderie. Hard work. They want to cheer on their kids, to have a good time, to teach them life lessons and how to fall in love with a sport. These are most of the parents out there.

And the other ones? Well, they’re ruining it for the decent folk.

Several years ago, one of the premier girls’ soccer leagues in the DC Area, Bethesda’s Legacy, had all of their parents forced to watch two games from a distance of 100 yards after they berated a referee in the last game of the season, The Washington Post reports. These are parents who have invested hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for their kids to play ball, sacrificed weekends and evenings and family time and sibling activities at the altar of a single sport. They want their money’s worth. These are the ones who think their kids are destined for a college scholarship, and like every bad grade could slide a kid from Harvard to the plebian horror of a state school, every negative call could push that scholarship dream out of reach — or so parents think.

That same Washington Post article reports that 74% of kids have seen out-of-control parent behavior at games. Bruce Svare, a psychology professor at State University of New York at Albany and author of Reforming Sports Before the Clock Runs Out told the Chicago Tribune, “I think if you examine where we were at maybe 10 to 15 years ago, compared to where we are now, things have gotten demonstratively worse.”

In South Florida alone, between 2012 and 2013, at least one parent was ejected per month for “engaging in physical or verbal violence” with a referee or another parent, according to the Orlando Sentinel. This includes six soccer dads and a team’s entire parent section. This in one tiny area of the country, a few years ago — and it’s getting worse. Not only do we have parental entitlement, an obsession with scholarships, an evolution of youth sports into a sinkhole of money — now, we have a shrinking number of officials to cope with it all.

One umpire saw a “young base runner” trip and fall into the catcher. Both boys took a tumble. He chalked it up to a young kid still learning the game. But the catcher’s coach didn’t see it that way. He barrelled up (metaphorical) guns blazing, “screaming expletives and demanding the runner be ejected from the game,” says the Chicago Tribune.

It’s incidents like this that lead officials, who are often teenagers or young adults, to quit. They’re sick of the verbal abuse from the stands, sick of the rage from the sidelines. They came here to help kids play and maybe earn a little cash. According to The Penny Hoarder, these guys are making $25-$50 per Little League game, $50 and up for high school games, and starting around $100 for college games. That’s it. Basically, officials get abused, because who’s going to take this shit for fifty bucks?! So they quit, which has led to a massive shortage of officials in all sports, across the board, and officials have to scramble to find people to staff games.

This means, points out Fatherly, that umps have to officiate more games, which puts them on the line to get abused more often, and the vicious cycle continues. Kody O’Connor, 30, who owns a business that staffs officials for games in the Chicago area, told the Tribune he once had to call the police after he was threatened with baseball bats by an unruly mob of parents. One 29-year-old ref said, “It just became too stressful. No matter what call I made, I would have parents yelling, screaming. And this could be for (games with) 6- and 7-year-olds.”

Now, even worse, if parents don’t make a call, one official points out, they pick up their phone and make a video, then post it on social media. The ensuing abuse migrates off the field and into the virtual world, often with the official’s name attached to it. It’s that desire to vindicate their child, with the unlimited means to do it, that makes some of these sports parents so unstoppably ruthless.

Remember: this is a game played by kids, for kids. The coaches are often volunteers, and the refs are making peanuts. It’s no wonder that 37% of kids say they wished no parents were allowed to watch them play. And no wonder that nearly the same percentage — 35% — say they plan to quit next year. In fact, according to Outside, the National Alliance for Sports says a ridiculous 70% of kids burn out and quit playing competitive sports by the time they’re 13. In fact, between the rabid parents screaming at refs, the refs yelling back, and the 45% of kids who report verbal abuse or name-calling by coaches, that shouldn’t really be a surprise.