By Doug Abrams
Last week’s column explained that national playing rules protect youth athletes most effectively when parents, coaches and officials actually enforce the rules. The explanation may sound commonsensical, but enforcement can break down whenever parents and coaches intimidate referees, coaches skirt the rules, or parents incite the players. The truth is that breakdown, and the safety risks it brings, can easily happen when adults lose their self-control.
Longtime high school hockey coach Hal Tearse, who serves as Minnesota Hockey’s coach-in-chief and chairs its safety committee, describes the reason for lax enforcement this way: “You can boil it all down to one word: winning. Everyone wants to do everything they can to win. There is very little consequence for violating the rules, and kids get all these little messages that [breaking rules] is really OK. Clearly we need to do a better job.”
A Toxic Atmosphere
Last week’s column recounted the story of 15-year-old Neal Goss, who broke his neck when an opponent raced across the ice and blind-sided him at the end of a JV hockey game that had spiraled out of control without effective intervention by any parent or coach. We cannot prove that adult irresponsibility caused the cheap shot that left the sophomore a quadriplegic, but parents and coaches concerned about player safety should take a useful lesson from the game. The lesson is that adult irresponsibility may not make injury inevitable, but adult irresponsibility makes injury more likely.
Parents protect their children every day based not on proof, but on the parents’ own intuition and common sense. Intuition and common sense suggest that, particularly in contact and collision sports, adults create a toxic atmosphere that heightens the risk of injury whenever they tolerate or encourage dirty play and other violence outside the rules of the game.
A “Hotbed of Chaos, Violence and Mean-Spiritedness”
Safety in youth sports begins with responsible adult supervision. Parents are their children’s most influential role models; referees apply the rules and call fouls throughout the game; and coaches lead and control their team on the bench. Before, during and after games, most players accept instruction from adults and respond to both the adults’ conduct and their misconduct.
The high rate of adult misconduct is underscored by a poll that Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos jointly conducted in 22 nations in 2010. The poll reaffirms what many of us already sensed about the unfortunate – and indeed, the unnecessarily dangerous — state of organized youth sports in the United States.
The Reuters-Ipsos poll ranked parents in the United States as the world’s “worst behaved” parents at children’s sports events. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials; runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), Canada (53%) and Australia (50%).
“It’s ironic that the United States, which prides itself in being the most civilized country in the world, has the largest group of adults having witnessed abusive behavior at children’s sporting events,” said an Ipsos senior vice president.
The poll confirmed earlier disturbing estimates of adult misbehavior in children’s games in the United States. In a Survey USA poll in Indianapolis, Indiana, for example, 55% of parents said that they had seen other parents engaging in verbal abuse at youth sporting events, and 21% said that they had seen a physical altercation between other parents. In a Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission survey of youth leaguers, 45.3% of the athletes said that adults had called them names, yelled at them, or insulted them while they were playing in a game; 21% said that they had been pressured to play with an injury; 17.5% said that an adult had hit, kicked or slapped them during a game; and 8.2% said that they had been pressured to harm others intentionally.
The National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that about 15% of youth league games feature a confrontation between parents or coaches and officials, and a national summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports concluded that youth sports is a “hotbed of chaos, violence and mean-spiritedness.” In a survey conducted by Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine, 74% of youth athletes reported that they had watched out-of-control adults at their games; 37% of the athletes had watched parents yelling at children, 27% had watched parents yelling at coaches or officials, 25% had watched coaches yelling at officials or children, and 4% had watched violence by adults.
Catastrophic injuries like Neal Goss’ are thankfully rare, but these consistently high poll and survey numbers nonetheless sound a national wake-up call for adults who want organized sports to play a positive role in their children’s upbringing. The message is that when ill-tempered adults tolerate or incite rules violations, the adults neutralize national safety standards that seek to protect youth athletes from avoidable injury.
Too often, however, adults today seem to be moving in the wrong direction as they supervise their children’s organized games. Hal Tearse is right that we need to do a better job.
[Sources: Douglas E. Abrams, Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy, Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, vol. 22, pp. 1-27 (2012); Doug Abrams, A Winning Equation: Sportsmanship Plus Respect Equals a Safer Game, USA Hockey Magazine, p. 20 (Aug. 2011); Rachel Blount, Despite Tragedies, Hockey Reformer Finds Resistance to Change, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 10, 2012, p. 1C; ABC News, U.S., India Parents Seen as Worst Behaved at Kids’ Sports (Apr. 10, 2010)]