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Angry Grownups Are Real Spoilsports

Field of Screams
By
WebMD Feature

April 2, 2001 -- El Paso youth football games were always rowdy events. But in one memorable year there were two stabbings, a gunfight, and numerous attacks on officials -- all caused by parents taking their children's games too seriously.

After one huge melee -- in which one parent stabbed another in the head with a down marker while 8- and 9-year-old players watched in horror -- Paula Powell knew she had to do something about the Wild West atmosphere at the games.

"It was like parents had lost what they were there for," says Powell, El Paso's sports operation supervisor. "I've been attacked by parents two times, and once by a referee. There were lots of brawls and drinking. Youth games were just not healthy places to be."

Powell admits to getting caught up in the win-at-all-cost frenzy. She once was evicted from her daughter's softball game for walking onto the field to complain to the umpire.

"I've done things I'm not proud of," says the mother of three. "Not violent things, but stupid."

Disgusted with the heckling, temper tantrums, and violent outbursts from parents, the city decided to play hardball.

Last August, El Paso began mandatory parent-training classes for those whose children play sports. The three-and-a-half hour program includes videos of parents acting up at games, essays, and artwork from children explaining why they like sports, a review of how each game is played, and a psychotherapist and child crisis counselor talking about problem behavior and child abuse at sporting events.

At the end, parents must sign a code of conduct that calls for suspensions -- even lifetime bans -- for breaking the rules.

"It's made a big difference," says Powell, adding that not one of the 6,000 parents who have taken the course has had to be disciplined.

Alarmed by the escalating epidemic of aggression at kids' games, thousands of organizations around the country are adopting similar programs aimed at quashing bad behavior and restoring civility to the playing fields. With some 30 million kids ages 4 to 14 involved in organized sports in the U.S., athletic organizers say parents increasingly are clashing with coaches, other parents, and at times even their own children.

"When I went to high school and played sports, I just wanted to have a good time," says Steve Gompertz, director of boys' basketball in Andover, Minn., which instituted mandatory parent training after a father punched a teenage basketball player in the chest. "When did it get so critical?"

Within the past five or 10 years, according to Douglas Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri and longtime hockey coach. Hardly a day goes by when "some parent isn't yelling and screaming and acting like a lunatic" at their child's game, says Abrams, who tracks incidences of violence at youth games.

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