Are Youth Athletes Becoming Bad Sports?

Just last month, a father was charged with beating another dad to death in an argument over their sons’ youth hockey game.

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 players.

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.”

Bad Behavior

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 technology.”

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