Even the fatal encounter between two fathers at a Massachusetts hockey rink — and Thomas Junta's subsequent manslaughter conviction in the death of Michael Costin — may not be enough to teach parents how to be good sports.
According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports — a Florida-based organization that provides training to adult volunteers for youth sports teams — adults seemed to have learned nothing since the deadly encounter between Junta and Costin during their sons' hockey practice in July 2000.
There are no official statistics on the amount of violence involving parents at youth practices or sporting events, but NAYS believes the problem has not slowed down.
"Since the Massachusetts incident, the rash of violence has only continued," said NAYS President Fred Engh. "We'd love to be able to say that, with all that we do, that these kind of incidents were in decline but that just isn't the case."
In November, NAYS officials say, a Sarasota father was arrested after storming the field and punching the referee during his son's flag football game. Other incidents involving bad parental sportsmanship last year have included, among others: a brawl involving approximately 30 adults following a youth soccer tournament in Los Angeles; two Salt Lake City women allegedly beating a woman unconscious after a youth baseball game; and a Wisconsin father accused of hitting a coach's 10-year-old son during practice.
Experts fear that Junta's conviction in Costin's beating death will not deter parental violence at all in youth sports. The only solution may be to require parents to take training classes before allowing them to attend their children's events.
"I don't think you can train parents and coaches enough," said Jill Gattinella, a member of the Executive Board of the New Castle County Football League in Delaware, which last year required that parents attend a training class before being allowed at games and practices. "And I would make it mandatory. … I would make it clear that certain behavior just won't be tolerated. And everyone knows that the more you know about the league, the more you know, the less anxiety you'll feel."
Mandatory Training, Startling Results
Gattinella said the parents of children in New Castle County Football League were required to attend mandatory training classes, which included a video on proper behavior at youth sport functions and practices. The video is based on the training video volunteer coaches are required to see before being allowed to take over a team.
In previous years, attendance of the classes was not mandatory. But when New Castle League officials found that their problems with parental incidents at games were not abating and in danger of getting worse, they decided to make class attendance a requirement.
If parents did not attend the class — and did not show a parent awareness card that proved their attendance — their children could not receive their football equipment. The league, Gattinella said, adopted a no-tolerance policy for disruptive behavior involving parents, coaches and referees at all games and practices.
The mandatory classes and no-tolerance policy yielded results. In recent precious seasons, Gattinella said, there was an average of 10 to 15 incidents of parental sports rage. Last season, she said, there were only one or two incidents. And the mandatory classes didn't keep parents from enrolling their children in the league. Last year, the league had more than 1,300 children.
"It didn't deter people from enrolling their kids in the league," Gattinella said. "We got thanks and positive feedback from parents who were not problems to begin with. The only hesitance we received was from parents who were problem parents."
Push for Parent Accountability
NAYS also believes in requiring behavioral training classes with parents and has joined the National Recreational and Park Association in a national program aimed at curbing violence at youth sport events.
In a program called "Time Out! For Better Sports for Kids," NAYS and the NRPA recommend that volunteer parents and coaches who use public parks and facilities for games and practices be required to undergo training in the proper behavior at youth sporting events and the value of youth sports. A professionally trained youth sport administrator would oversee a parent-run league, and parents and coaches would be required to follow a code of conduct.
"An overwhelming number of parks and recreation facilities, which are largely funded by community tax dollars, are used by volunteers who organize and administer sports programs for children," said Destry Jarvis, executive director of NRPA. "Even though these volunteers have the best intentions, in many instances there are no standards that these leagues are required to adhere to in order to use these facilities."
Parents and coaches — and their children — Engh said, would be held accountable if they did not undergo their training. Children of parents who refuse to undergo training may not be allowed to play in the games.
"If they [problem parents] can't see the value of sports to their children, then they should not be allowed at the games," Engh said. "Sports are more than about winning or losing. The rules of sports are the rules of life: they're about learning sportsmanship, learning to lose with grace."
"Children are our most prized possession," Engh continued. "We can't condone trash-talking, criticizing officials … it's unacceptable. And those who don't adhere to codes of conduct should be banned."
Troubleshooting for Troublemakers
In addition to a code of ethics and required training courses, experts believe that coaches and perhaps other parents must act as troubleshooters and report potential problem parents. Engh said the "Time Out!" proposal would have a task force comprised of parent volunteers who would report disturbances or potential disturbances to sport administrators.
Jill Gattinella said some parents in the New Castle children's football league have already acted as troubleshooters and believes coaches and league officials must take an active role in looking for warning signs for trouble parents and coaches — those who seem to put an extraordinary amount of pressure on their children or seem very hostile towards coaches.
Some fear that, no matter its outcome, Thomas Junta's case will cast an even darker cloud over youth sports.
"It sends a horrible message. It makes parents hesitant to enroll children in youth sports, one of the few good activities that are left for kids to do," Gattinella said. "Parents must learn how to conduct themselves at events and that they can't try to live out their fantasies through their kids."
Gattinella does not believe removing the competitive nature of sports would squelch violence at youth sporting events. Sports are competitive by nature, she said. A solution may lie in making parents control their own competitive nature and making them remember that sports is supposed to be fun for their children.
"I don't think youth sports is too competitive; it's very difficult to keep the competition out of sports," Gattinella said. "I think parents have to learn not to take it [the games] too seriously and not take the fun out of the games."