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.”

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 of sports.

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 ego needs.”

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 means.

“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 says.

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.”