Sport Safety

SPORT SAFETY: Violence in Youth Sports Spreading All Over the World


New Zealand High School Rugby Match Ends in Vicious Brawls

By Doug Abrams

Last summer, I wrote columns that surveyed newspaper accounts of youth sports violence in other western nations, including New Zealand.  Within the span of only a few months, New Zealanders had read about a high school rugby player who was suspended for kicking an opponent in the head during a U-15 match; a father who blindsided a referee and grabbed him by the throat during a U-10 rugby match; a coach who threatened to kill the referee during a soccer game for 11th graders; and a U-15 rugby team that started a brawl in the handshake line after a sound defeat.

In each of the foreign nations I surveyed, news accounts resembled ones that sometimes reach the headlines here in the United States. “[R]eports of violence at youth sports games,” the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel said earlier this week, “have become all too common in recent years.”

The Sentinel reported that after losing a close, hard-fought championship U-16 soccer game in Orlando last weekend, “parents and players from a Miami team storm[ed] the field, punch[ed] an elderly man and repeatedly kick[ed] a downed player in the head.” In just the last month or so, Americans have also seen stories about two coaches whose bloody fight during a South Bend, Indiana T-ball game left the five-year-olds in tears; and a coach charged with attacking a 17-year-old official during a flag football game for 12-14-year-olds in Valencia, California.

The foreign newspaper accounts I surveyed last summer did not suggest that most parents, coaches or players were troublemakers, and neither did I. Experience in the United States suggests too that youth league violence here, if “all too common,” nonetheless remains the exception rather than the rule. But experience in the United States also suggests that the media typically reports only the most serious violence because other incidents no longer seem newsworthy.  I suspect that many readers of my weekly columns can recall witnessing nasty unreported confrontations that leagues or associations overlooked or resolved informally.    

Yet another violent incident put New Zealand youth sports back in the news again on June 29. In the second half of a high school rugby match between archrivals Bishop Viard and Newlands in Wellington, the referee stopped play after the second of two brawls pitted most of the teams’ starters and reserve players against one another.  The second brawl, which local media described as “particularly vicious,” descended into fist fighting and verbal abuse of spectators before a semblance of order was restored.             

Youth Sports In the Age of Globalization

American parents, coaches and league administrators concerned about conditions in youth sports should pay attention to news reports from fields and gymnasiums in New Zealand and elsewhere around the globe.  Foreign perspectives can help explain some problems that arise here. In this age of globalization, Americans’ responses to a wide range of economic, political and cultural challenges benefit from watching how other nations meet similar challenges. In turn, other nations can learn from the United States. Technology and instantaneous communication have made the world a smaller place, so the globalization of youth sports — its successes and its shortcomings — can help inform our own communities.  

The title of one of my international columns last year said what needed to be said to an American audience: “We Are Not Alone.” In many other nations, youth sports systems face stresses similar to ones we face here in the United States.  Sports offers a positive experience for most child athletes during and after their playing days, but leagues in various nations also suffer from parents, coaches and players who cross the line into violence that is clearly outside the rules of the game and standards of common decorum. 

“Significant Consequences”

Here and overseas, over-the-edge incidents such as the one in Wellington late last month carry a common thread. Each one besmirches youth sports, but each one also produces quick reaction from disgusted authorities and onlookers who find that the violence sullies the mission of youth sports.  Swift imposition of discipline on the offender usually followed.

The Wellington Secondary School Rugby Union, for example, registered “total condemnation of what occurred” on June 29. Within a few days, the Union held a hearing and declared the Bishop Viard-Newlands match a default by both teams. The Union also decreed that each team would forfeit its next game.  Six players were individually disciplined for their roles in the two brawls. A local league official explained that “the nature of the events leading to the match being called off, which brought the game into disrepute, required that a clear and strong message about such behavior by players must be made to both the teams involved and to the wider rugby community.” 

Authorities also moved to prevent similar future violence.  The Union called the sanctions “a timely reminder to both schools and the wider rugby community that such behavior is inexcusable and there are significant consequences.”  Newlands’ principal said that “we’ve looked at ways in which we can be proactive so that this doesn’t happen again.” Bishop Viard’s principal said that she would work with Newlands because “we certainly don’t want a repeat.”

Prevention and Reaction

In New Zealand as in the United States, prevention of sporadic violence in youth sports remains the best strategy, though we cannot expect even the most effective prevention efforts to eliminate all incidents.

Prevention begins with such measures as firm sportsmanship guidelines reinforced in pre-season meetings with adults and players. Because intensity does not suddenly emerge by spontaneous combustion only in the heat of a game, coaches and parents should carefully monitor teams’ temperament in the days preceding matches between known archrivals. League administrators should support referees who penalize players for violence outside the rules, and who remove these players from the game when penalties alone do not promote a game played by the rules. Swift discipline imposed by leagues or teams, or even criminal prosecution in extreme cases, remains for offenders unresponsive to reasonable proactive measures.  


[Sources: Rugby Brawl Behaviour “Inexcusable,” New Zealand Herald, July 10, 2013; Tim Donoghue, First XVs Suspended After Brawls,; David Breen, Felony Charge Might Come Later, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, July 22, 2013, p. B1; Doug Abrams, “We Are Not Alone”: The Globalization of Youth Sports, ; T-ball Argument Leads to Huge Fight Between Coaches, Assault Charges, ; Perry Smith, Castaic Man Charged With Assaulting Ref In Valencia Flag Football Game, Santa Clarita (Calif.) News, May 28, 2013]




  • It really is sad to see this type of violence in youth sports. I think that the reason this happens is simply because the coaches and players lose sight of why they are actually involved in the sport. Also I don’t think that the youth coaches do a good enough job of regularly reminding the players of why they are there. I have been a part of coaching youth basketball, and a youth coaches job is to provide an atmosphere where the players can learn to love the game through playing and also develop their fundamentals for when they get older. It is good to win, but that can’t be the only focal point.

  • Thank you very much for your input.

    Doug Abrams