'It's only a game.' Do parents believe it yet?

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It's hard to recall, with the talk of impending war in Iraq, that the news story that dominated front pages this time last year had nothing to do with politics or even celebrities.

Instead, it was what you might call a domestic story. In January 2002, the youth-hockey murder trial of Thomas Junta in a Cambridge, Mass., courtroom transfixed the nation with its harrowing account of a sideline father pummeling another dad to death as helpless child-athletes looked on in horror.

It would be nice to say that the Junta trial, reportedly the most widely viewed case in Court TV history, provided the necessary wake-up call regarding the volatile emotionalism surrounding youth sports. But this past year has seen an eruption of ugly incidents:

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• Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: A spectator bit off another man's earlobe after a brawl at a youth baseball game between Deerfield Beach and Pinellas Park.

• Milwaukee: A self-professed soccer mom hired a lawyer and went to court after her daughter's team was demoted from the top division of a state girls soccer league.

• Indianapolis: A man screamed profanities at a Pee Wee League baseball mom during a game, and afterward grabbed and punched the woman's husband, the team's coach.

• Kearny, N.J.: Little League officials confirmed that a team was told to throw a key game against a rival.

In fact, there has been such a steady stream of eye-popping reports about parental excesses - from the escalating practice of hiring high-priced private coaches for fledgling 8-year-olds to the New Jersey town that's digging a moatlike ditch along the sideline to keep parents at bay - that it almost constitutes a regular feature of the news.

What is interesting, however, about over-the-top behavior is not that we disapprove of it (most do, at least when we observe it in others), but that we are so reluctant to explore its root causes.

Rather than looking inward, we seem to prefer pointing the finger at easily caricatured scapegoats. In youth sports, the obvious targets tend to be: (a) potbellied dads desperately seeking to relive imaginary past glories through the feats of their children; and (b) wishful parents deluded about the long-shot odds that their child might grow up to earn some tangible reward, such as a professional career or a college scholarship.

Sure, there are plenty who fall into these categories. But the circumstance that has ratcheted up the pressure in the world of youth sports is, sadly, far more ordinary and pervasive: Parents today are confused about what it means to raise children in a hypercompetitive society.

Youth sports are where all the contradictions collide. We want our kids to be playful and curious. We also want them to be focused as middle linebackers on the daunting challenges charging their way.

We want them free as butterflies to explore the myriad fascinations of their environment. Yet we insist they hunker down to the tough task of mastering critical skills.

We want kids to develop at their own pace according to their individual talents and capacities. Yet they should possess the single-mindedness of Barry Bonds when facing the curveballs bound to get thrown at them.

We hope they learn to collaborate and share generously with others. Yet we're compelled to remind them that the train only has a limited number of seats, and the first in line have a better chance of getting on board.

We properly recoil from the simplistic notion that this nuanced, tricky experience we call life is, like sports, ultimately a win-lose proposition. Yet we can't shake the apprehension that our kids might fall behind or fail to get their shot.

Thus youth sports have become for many adults nervously pacing the sidelines - not just the convicted Thomas Junta - to be less about recreation and more about gaining a perceived advantage in the tenacious competition of American society.

"It's only a game" is the phrase you hear a lot. How many grown-ups still believe it?

Bob Katz writes frequently on youth sports and is coauthor of 'The New Public School Parent.'

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