Screaming, shouting and hitting -- abusive parents are spoiling their kids' sports
JAMES DEACON with BRENDA BRANSWELL in Montreal, SUSAN MCCLELLAND in Toronto and DARRYL SMART in Port Dover
|Illustration: Greg Banning for Maclean's|
When the Delhi Legion peewees travelled down the highway to play the Port Dover Pirates back on Feb. 25, there was a fair bit on the line for both teams. The series winners would advance to the semifinals of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association's AE Peewee playoffs. And local bragging rights were at stake -- there is a long-standing rivalry between teams from Delhi, a town of 3,900 that claims to be the heart of Ontario's tobacco belt, and Port Dover, 26 km to the southwest on Lake Erie, which boasts it's the world's largest freshwater fishing port. So about 200 parents and fans crowded into the arena in Port Dover and arranged themselves in the stands according to their community affiliation.
It was typical of peewee games at that level -- 12- and 13-year-olds a notch above house league -- enthusiastic if not always polished. Early on, the Pirates won most of the battles along the boards, and took the lead as well. The action got progressively rougher. Several Delhi supporters began hollering at the two referees to crack down on what they saw as the Pirates' overly aggressive body checking, and in fact, Port Dover incurred most of the penalties.
|Photo: Aaron Harris for Maclean's|
|Spectators enjoying the action at Port Dover arena: police called to protect the refs from angry parents|
That didn't satisfy some Delhi supporters. With five minutes left, when a Delhi player was penalized for hitting from behind, both of Delhi's coaches strenuously argued the call and were ejected. That provoked a couple of hotheaded fans, who hurled coins and a plastic water bottle onto the ice. Finally, with one minute and 38 seconds to go and Port Dover up 2-0, one particularly loud Delhi fan tossed a broom onto the ice. That was it for the officials. They halted play and, unable to identify exactly who the main offenders were, simply ejected all 200 spectators. The local provincial police detachment sent officers to protect the referees as they left the arena.
On the ice, the players were stunned by what they heard and saw coming out of the stands. "You don't pay attention to that stuff usually, but a couple of people in the stands were getting real mad at the refs," says Pirate defenceman Colton Organ, 13. When the broom hit the ice, Organ says, "we all just kind of looked at each other and shook our heads." The majority of fans did the same. It was, as one of the more composed Delhi parents said afterwards, "embarrassing."
No kidding. It was just a peewee hockey game, for crying out loud. It was supposed to be fun, yet it deteriorated into yet another recent example of out-of-control adults ruining their own kids' games. The bad behaviour is so common in hockey that it even has its own name -- rink rage. In recent months, some B.C. referees boycotted youth games to protest abuse from fans. A coach in Quebec was hospitalized after being attacked between periods by the father of one of his players. In Ontario, a coach was charged with threatening to kill a teenage referee. Last week in Winnipeg, a police constable -- already suspended from the force for a previous assault conviction -- was arrested and charged with threatening another parent during his nine-year-old son's hockey game. And the worst news is that rink rage isn't confined to the rink. Similarly ill-tempered adults can be found spoiling kids' enjoyment of youth soccer, basketball, baseball and football games, among others.
The offenders are few -- the vast majority of parents are supportive of their kids without being disrespectful of coaches, referees or other fans. And extreme behaviour is rare. There are tens of thousands of kids' games played every year in a variety of sports, and referees and sports associations contacted by Maclean's estimate that they are forced to eject spectators perhaps one per cent of the time. "Most of us just come out to support our kids," Delhi fan David Edmonds said about the incident in Port Dover. "It's too bad, really, because it's just a couple of people making the rest of us look bad."
While their shrill heckling may not always be profane or abusive enough to cause ejection, it poisons the atmosphere and drives volunteer coaches and low-paid referees out of the game. The Canadian Hockey Association says harassment is a major cause of attrition among referees, about 30 per cent of whom quit every season. In soccer, it's just about as bad: Manitoba soccer officials say that two-thirds of new referees recruited and trained in the province leave by the end of their first year.
|Photo: Michael Dwyer/AP|
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Not that there weren't leather-lunged louts in the good old days. But experts say hostile behaviour at youth games is far more pervasive -- and sometimes violent -- than it was a generation ago. Consider what happened last summer at a children's recreational hockey practice in Reading, Mass., north of Boston. One player's father was so abusive to the man supervising a pick-up game that the arena staff asked the father to leave the building. But the man, 42-year-old Thomas Junta, came back to confront the volunteer supervisor, 40-year-old Michael Costin. The hulking Junta, six-foot-one and 275 lb., beat Costin, a single father of four, into unconsciousness while a crowd of young kids -- including two of the victim's sons -- watched in horror. Doctors pronounced Costin dead at the hospital, and Junta was charged with manslaughter. "It is a terrible tragedy," says Fred Engh, president of the Florida-based National Alliance for Youth Sports. "But given what's been happening out there, it didn't surprise me."
On a flight home after the National Hockey League All-Star Weekend in Denver last month, a 10-year-old boy was going through his bag of loot. He had, among other things, trading cards, a bunch of autographs and a cool replica all-star jersey. "Have fun?" someone asked. "It was awesome," the boy replied. His dad, sitting next to him, frowned and explained wistfully that, because of the trip, the boy had to miss his team's Saturday game back home. "Dad, it was against the last-place team," said the son. "It's not like we were going to lose or anything." "I know, I know," the father said, "but you missed a great chance to pad your stats."
Huh? For the kid, a pass into all-star weekend was better than a blank cheque at Toys "R" Us. But the father saw a lost opportunity to bolster his son's CV and to impress higher-level coaches. Parents' inflated ambitions, experts say, contribute to the intensified atmosphere surrounding youth games. "We're out there to put on recreation programs for kids, so they can have their fun," says Orest Zaozirney of the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association. "But you get parents who think they've got the next Gretzky."
This isn't the first generation of sports parents with stars in their eyes. But now they have dollar signs, too. Even modestly successful professional athletes can make millions these days, and expansion in all leagues has provided more jobs than ever before. The kids begin to look like meal tickets, when in fact lottery tickets is a better comparison. The odds of making it to the pro ranks are infinitesimally small -- the Canadian Hockey Association estimates that less than one per cent of hockey- playing kids make it to the NHL.
|Photo: Todd Korol|
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"I think parents' expectations are greater than they ever have been," says Steve Larmer, a 39-year-old retired NHL all-star who, among other things, is now a volunteer coach of a novice (age 7 to 8) team in Peterborough, Ont. "They expect more not just from their kids, but from coaches and referees, too." Guy Blondeau, executive director of Hockey-Quebec, which represents about 350 minor hockey associations in the province, just shakes his head. "If parents stopped for a few minutes to think about the chances of their children having a career," says Blondeau, "I think they would reduce those expectations by a lot."
For a variety of reasons, modern parents are playing a bigger role than ever in their kids' recreation. "They are way more involved now than they were when I was a kid," says Larmer. "That's good in some ways, but sometimes they take it too far." As if to protect their "investment" in their future star, some adults hound their kids' coaches, demanding more playing time, all while pushing the child to excel. And that, says Jean Cote, a psychology professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., is likely the most counterproductive approach parents can take. There are exceptions, of course -- tennis's phenomenal Williams sisters and their all-controlling father come to mind. But Cote has studied the families of elite athletes and says the most successful competitors typically come from homes where parents are supportive without pushing their child too hard, or hollering at referees, or interfering with coaches. Parents who get too involved, Cote says, risk turning the kid off sport altogether. "It is quite consistent throughout our studies with elite athletes," Cote says, "that at a critical point, their parents let them choose what they wanted to do."
Beyond high expectations, experts say, the main reason for the sideline conflicts plaguing recreational sports is society as a whole. If otherwise sensible people can be enraged by traffic or by airline delays, why not by what they see at sporting events? "We are seeing an erosion of civility in society as a whole," says Engh, "and sports just mirrors what is happening all around us."
At a bantam (age 13 to 14) AA game in Thetford Mines, Que., last October, a father confronted his son's coach during the intermission after the boy sat out the first period. The man allegedly hit the coach, Pierre Morin, in the face and slammed him to the ground. The attacker was ejected from the building and the injured coach took his place behind the bench for the rest of the game. Afterwards, Morin was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder. Clement Lajoie was charged with assault and uttering threats of death or bodily harm. His bail conditions forbid him from entering an arena or attending his son's hockey games. The case has not yet gone to court.
Youth sport couldn't exist without its referees and coaches, yet for years the culture surrounding the games has, if anything, driven them away. Dick Derrett, technical administrator for player and referee development at Manitoba Soccer, says that, for officials, dealing with rowdy adults is an ongoing battle. "Some of these parents get it in their head to win, win, win, and they don't care about the kids," Derrett says. "A lot of foul language is used right in front of the kids. For a referee, it is very frightening to be subjected to someone like that, not knowing what they are going to do."
It's not like refs are getting rich. It's a big deal if they receive $20 each to call a game in minor hockey, and they have to supply their own gear, including the striped jerseys. Veteran refs say it can be a lot of fun when the kids play well, the game goes smoothly and the fans enjoy themselves. But too often there is harassment and verbal abuse. In Nanaimo, B.C., last month, local referees boycotted a weekend series of minor hockey games to protest the vicious taunting from so-called fans. Some attacks are not directed at the officials. "I've seen parents fighting in the stands, and heard people yelling racial slurs," says Cam Johnston, a longtime minor-hockey official in Mississauga, Ont. "One time, I saw two mothers pushing and shoving each other after a game, and there were their kids, just tykes, watching and crying. It was just terrible."
Before the start of the 2000-2001 season, the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association introduced something new to its player-registration process. Parents wanting to enrol their kids had to first sign a pledge to behave themselves at games. If they refused to sign, their children were not allowed to play. Simple as that.
|Photo: Todd Korol|
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Many sports organizations are reluctant to crack down on the hotheads for fear of alienating their members. Youth sports would simply collapse without the help of parents who volunteer as ticket-takers, drivers, fund-raisers, administrators and coaches. While practically every association admits there's a serious problem, they invariably claim their own group of parents is just fine.
Still, zero tolerance is spreading. The fair-play program adopted in Edmonton was pioneered by the Dartmouth Whalers Minor Hockey Association in Dartmouth, N.S., in 1994. It promotes sportsmanship and equal ice time for players, and respect and restraint among spectators. It has resulted in a dramatic decline in verbal harassment of players and officials, leading nearby associations, which were initially skeptical, to adopt the same rules. In Laval, Que., earlier this season, after police were called to break up a fight in the stands between two parents, Hockey Laval introduced a code of ethics for parents, players, coaches, administrators and officials, and promised that next year, parents will be required to sign the good behaviour pledge. "We want to sensitize people," says Dominique Roy, director of operations at Hockey Laval.
Experts say that approach will work over time. "One of the things we have to do," says Dale England, vice-president of officiating for the Winnipeg Minor Hockey Association, "is to teach parents to respect the game, the coaches, the players and the referees -- all the things that go into making this activity happen." Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, says proactive education of parents is the only way to restore order on the sidelines. "Why do parents behave the way they do?" Engh asks. "There are many reasons, but the main one is that no one has ever told them they can't."
That education process has been slow, so youth sport officials hope that the embarrassing string of incidents this winter might prompt more sports to introduce their own fair-play initiatives. Or perhaps they should just listen to kids like Port Dover winger Craig Pineo, 13, who was out there trying to play a game while adults were screaming epithets and throwing debris and ultimately causing the game to be stopped. "I couldn't believe it was happening," Pineo said. "We knew it had nothing really to do with us, but it got a little scary. We were winning the game, but we just wanted to get out of there." And that is just wrong.