Adults Behaving Badly

Why do full-fledged grown-ups, many with responsible jobs and mortgages and whole families to look out for, mutate so easily into cry-babies and insolent, sometimes aggressive, brats when it comes to youth sports?
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The severe woman in the row behind me had to know I supported the opposing team, but my presence didn't make a difference. "Just watch, he's not gonna make the shots," she said to her husband when one of the players on my son's 7th grade basketball team went up for foul shots. She clapped loudly after he missed. About five feet from her, a Dad in a tight red sweatshirt from the other team let the referee know what he thought of the officiating.

"C'mon, you're not gonna call that?" he bellowed, an angry bull. Within seconds, the ref called another foul on their team. "God, these refs must live in this town," the same woman told her teenage son, four minutes into the game. When the quarter ended, I moved to the other side of the gym.

These parents were no rarity, an aberration from the ordinarily well-behaved adults who come to watch their children compete. Ask any adult who regularly attends her kids' sporting events and she will share her own horror stories involving parents berating their own kids, mocking players on the opposing team, skewering the opposing coach, and cursing out officials. What else is new?

What's new is that more boys and girls are participating in high school sports today than at any other time in recent history -- at least going back to 1971. According to the Federation of State High School Associations, in a 2007-2008 survey of high school athletics, almost 7.5 million teenagers took part in public school sports during that academic year, nearly twice the number who played when the survey began. Female athletes are responsible for most of that growth: only 294,000 took part in 1971-72, whereas more than 3 million participated 35 years later. These numbers leave out the thousands of kids playing sports in private high schools, as well as elementary and middle school children who bounce from team to team year round, prepping themselves for future greatness. In all, an enormous and growing number of children dribble, run, hit, jump, throw, catch and swing in this country, which means more volatile parents loitering on the sidelines, ready to lash out when things go wrong.

Coincident with this spike in participation is America's top position in a survey of 22 countries that measured the number of adults who'd witnessed abusive behavior at a child's sporting event. According to the April 2010 Reuters News poll, 60 percent of American adults who'd been to youth sporting events said they'd witnessed parents "become verbally or physically abusive towards the coaches or officials." In Mexico, just 25 percent of parents said they'd seen such abuse.

In recent years, athletic clubs, schools and non-profit organizations have tried with varying success to take on this misbehavior. Where I live, in Summit N.J., two of the town's more prominent youth athletic organizations require parents to pledge they'll be good. The Summit Lacrosse Club's code of conduct includes 14 specific directives for parents, including "I will tell my child that the official is human and sometimes makes mistakes," and "I will not use foul language, ridicule or criticize the referee, coaches or other players, by yelling from the sidelines, or by making dramatic arm movements." (A silent furious fan, flapping his limbs and digits from across the field, must have prompted the latter.) The Summit Soccer Club recently posted a two-page letter to parents reminding us nicely to get our kids to practice, butt out, and shut up, while offering helpful tips on how to cheer appropriately. The idea here, it seems, is to have parents commit to common decency to remind us of what's at stake -- this is kids' sports, idiots!

A handful of non-profit national organizations also have sprung up over the years to educate various constituents in the youth sports boom, including coaches, administrators, and parents, and a part of this work is aimed at teaching grown-ups to act their age. The National Alliance for Youth Sports, founded in 1981, "seeks to make the sports experience safe, fun and healthy for ALL children," according to its mission statement, and includes educating parents as one of its primary purposes. Another, Positive Coaching Alliance, emphasizes the character-building opportunities of youth sports, and helps parents focus on life lessons rather than the scoreboard. David Jacobson, who runs communications there, estimates that their organization affects roughly 1 million kids a year -- or a tiny fraction of the population of kids who play.

As a coach, parent and fellow fan, I applaud these efforts to reign in the ugly mob. At the same time, being on the receiving end of a thinly veiled warning from a youth sports organization sticks in my craw; it feels vaguely pathetic and somewhat infantilizing to have to sit down with my 13-year-old and co-sign documents with him, promising I'll be good. How did we get here? And why do full-fledged grown-ups, many with responsible jobs and mortgages and whole families to look out for, mutate so easily into cry-babies and insolent, sometimes aggressive, brats when the call doesn't go their way?

Professor Daniel Wann, a recognized authority on the psychology of fan behavior and a professor of sports psychology at Murray State University, has studied the problem in depth. He told me that the best predictor of abusive behavior on the part of fans is how closely the fan identifies with the team. "You might feel like the Red Sox are part of your family," he said, "but if you're watching your son or daughter play, they really are your family." That closeness can raise the stakes of any given sporting event way beyond the actual significance of the competition. Some parents get overwhelmed by the excitement of the event and lose control of their ordinary sense of propriety. "They feel like they're out there on the line with their child," he said. Plus, as any honest parent will confess, we see our worth reflected in our children's abilities on the court or field or track. Watching our children sink or soar in a public arena can ignite a regression back to our most primitive selves.

All this sounds about right to me. But I think there's something else at work having to do with norms. The yelling and screaming that's tolerated or even expected at some sporting events would be considered absurd in other settings. Think of your child's school play, or orchestral performance, or debate competition. Now imagine a proud parent jumping up out of his seat at the auditorium: "That's a D flat, not an E!" or "This conductor knows nothing!" (We've all suffered through the 4th grade band concert and begged for mercy, albeit in silence, from the squawking clarinets.) Bad behavior in sports is tolerated because the norms allow it -- except in high brow golf and, until recently, tennis, where pro players expect and usually receive silence from adoring fans. Without a change in norms, it's hard to imagine fan behavior at most kids' games changing for good.

Though admitting that "we're in a worse spot now than we were 30 years ago" for fan misconduct, Professor Wann is optimistic about parental enlightenment. When parents buy in to the top-down instruction to act civilly, they stop hollering and act as role models for others. It's a slow process, he says, but the strategies promoted by local and national sports organizations to change behavior do work.

In the meantime, while waiting for these lessons to sink in, we can count on the basic human instinct to fight humiliation as a way of restoring order. What finally shut up the bully at my son's basketball game was the beleaguered referee, who at last grew tired of being told he was a blind moron with an obvious pro-Summit bias. "You say one more word, you'll end up in the parking lot," the ref snapped, inches from the fan's face but loud enough for everyone to hear. "This is 7th grade basketball." For the rest of the game, the sheepish fan (mostly) just clapped.