Are Youth Athletes Becoming Bad Sports?
With Cues From Adults, Are Kid Athletes Getting More Aggressive?
By MICHAEL S. JAMES and TRACY ZIEMER
August 8, 2000
Just last month, a father was charged with beating another
dad to death in an argument over their sons’ youth hockey
Like father, like son, some say.
As a teen hockey player from Illinois pleaded guilty today
to a misdemeanor charge for giving a rival player a paralyzing
injury, youth sports officials say violence among adults at
youth events appears to be affecting the kids.
Good sportsmanship seems to be falling out of fashion, youth
sports officials note, as overaggressive adults prowl the
sidelines and grandstands screaming at officials, coaches
And some believe win-at-all-cost coaches, violent parents
and poor role models in professional sports may be making
child athletes more aggressive and violent, although no hard
statistics on assaults at youth sports events exist to prove
or disprove it.
“There has been a tremendous upsurge in violence in
the last five years,” says Fred Engh, president of the
National Alliance for Youth Sports, which advises recreation
programs around the country. He says he is hearing of more
and more violent incidents.
“We’re beginning to see the trickle-down effect
[from adults’ misbehavior] & where children that
are involved are becoming part of the bad behavior,”
Engh says. “Far too often, we tell [kids] it’s
OK to cheat in order to win, to taunt the players on the other
team, to criticize officials.”
In the Illinois case, the 16-year-old pleaded guilty to misdemeanor
battery, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail.
In return, prosecutors dropped two counts of felony aggravated
battery. If convicted of those charges, the boy—whose
name was withheld because he is a juvenile—could have
been confined in a juvenile facility until he was 21.
Under his plea agreement, the teen acknowledged he used his
stick to push Neal Goss into the boards a second after the
buzzer sounded during a junior-varsity game in Gurnee on Nov.
3. Both players were 15 at the time.
Goss was left paralyzed below the waist and has limited use
of his arms.
The Illinois case is not the only recent example. Waves of
head-butting, elbowing and fighting have been reported at
youth sporting events across the country.
Youth sports officials believe increasing complaints of violence
among and between children, their parents and their coaches
reflects a change in youth sports.
“Not only has the language gone more in the gutter,
but we’ve also seen a rise in the number of incidences
reported where physical violence has occurred,” says
Bob Still, public relations manager for the National Association
of Sports Officials.
Has Youth Violence Increased?
But the fact that there aren’t hard, impartial statistics
to prove an upsurge in youth sports violence has some people—Still
included— wondering whether there really is a trend
toward violence, or just an increase in reported cases.
Dan Macallair, vice president of the Center on Juvenile and
Criminal Justice, says it appears to him there is an increase
in violence at youth sporting events—particularly among
adults—but that does not necessarily make it so.
“We really don’t know because we don’t
have the evidence,” Macallair says. “My guess
is that it’s probably less than we think. & My gut
is that it’s being reported more frequently and more
widely just because of modern-day media practices and media
Macallair s group, whose goal is to find alternatives to
incarceration, points to the public furor over school violence
as an example of such a phenomenon. Despite the recent media
attention, his group cites statistics indicating that the
level of school violence in America actually is lower than
it was in the early 1990s. Older statistics on school violence
do not exist.
Additionally, federal statistics indicate that violent crime,
including juvenile violent crime, has been declining for years.
“Too often, the evidence does not support the perception,”
Macallair says. “You see that all the time—that
kids today are worse than they were 10 or 20 years ago. And
then you go back and see that people were saying that about
kids then. People have very short memories.”
Sportsmanship Takes a Back Seat
But in a society where winning is rewarded and athletes are
worshipped, experts agree that the atmosphere at youth sporting
events is intense.
A 1996 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill indicated that many high school athletes in that state
believe on-field intimidation and violence are normal parts
Edgar Shields, a professor of exercise and sport science,
says his study of more than 2,000 male and female athletes
in a broad range of sports showed 80.7 percent accepted intimidation
and 44.9 accepted on-field violence as part of the game, even
though 56.4 percent thought physical, verbal or gesture intimidation
was bad sportsmanship.
Still says sportsmanship needs to be taught to young athletes,
many of whom may be emulating behavior by professional athletes
as well as their parents and coaches.
“Kids & will definitely take their cue from their
heroes on TV,” Still says. “Four years ago, when
Roberto Alomar spit on umpire John Hirschbeck, we had never
had an incident like that before at the youth level. But after
that, we had three calls reporting spitting incidences”
directed at youth sports officials.
Going Too Far?
Still’s organization encourages officials to seek criminal
prosecution of on-field violence against them. But some wonder
if the urge to prosecute is being taken too far.
“If they start doing that, then do they also start
doing that for NHL players,” Macallair says. “If
you’re talking about people who have other redeemable
qualities, putting them in prison serves no purpose.”
However, Macallair agrees something should be done about
the state of youth sports.
“I’m appalled at some of the things I see at
some of these [youth sports events], no matter what the statistics
show,” he says.
“I think that we do a bad job of teaching kids the
value of sportsmanship and how to enjoy sports. Too often,
parents are using their kids in sports to fulfill their own
Families to Blame?
One psychologist says pressure from parents may be influencing
kids’ behavior on the playing field.
Shari Kuchenbecker, a California research psychologist and
author of the book Raising Winners: A Parent’s Guide
to Helping Kids Succeed On and Off the Playing Field, believes
part of the problem rests in the changing dynamics of families.
She sees some parents overindulging kids, which may create
me-first attitudes and lead to emphasis on winning by any
“So many of our kids are growing up feeling entitled,
and they’re brats,” she says.
Additionally, with parents spending more time at work and
less at home with their kids, they may put too much stock
in the importance of their children’s organized activities,
she says. That may put pressure on kids and cause parents,
children and coaches to overreact.
“The daddy bear, the mama bear, wants to take care
of their child, and in the heat of the moment they forget
it’s just a [sports official’s] call,” Kuchenbecker
Media to Blame?
Frank Smoll, a Seattle-based University of Washington psychology
professor and co-author of Sports and Your Child, lays a good
share of the blame on sources outside the family—particularly
professional athletes, the media and society.
“I’m surprised there isn’t more violence
in youth sports given the current underlying phenomena that
feeds this violence system, particularly in hockey,”
Smoll says. “During the hockey season, the sportscasts
& are going to show the fight of the night.
“That’s sick, flat out,” he adds. “Is
it any wonder kids are going to see that and say, ‘Hey,
I’m going to be a better fighter, I’ve got instruction’?”
Engh sees support for Smoll’s position on the playing
fields and in reports of kids imitating violent and dangerous
professional wrestling moves.
“They’re seeing that kind of behavior on television,”
Engh says. “Look at the World Wrestling Federation.
Look at the Jerry Springer Show. This is the mentality of
a growing number of dysfunctional people that is creeping
into youth sports.”
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