From Little League Baseball to Pop Warner football, Reading, Mass., is a middle-class suburb of steepled churches and maple-lined streets that has long been a haven of youth sports.
But in recent days, public focus has shifted away from rollicking soccer games and the new swimming pool at the local YMCA to the community's zeal for organized competition itself.
In the wake of a fatal fight between parents over their sons' hockey play - and a growing national trend of violence by parents in youth athletics - the town is facing the infelicitous glare of parents, press, and pundits armed with sobering questions.
Among them: What is the role of parents in nurturing the proper competitive values in their kids, as well as providing role models by containing their own emotions? How much do passions to win at all costs reflect the highly competitive adult culture?
"There is a needs gap," says Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player with the Boston Celtics and a youth sports reformer. He argues kids are not well served in a climate in which parents have completely taken over kids' sports as a reflection of their own, highly contentious, professional worlds. "Whose needs are going to prevail, the kids or the parents? Now it's all top down from the parents [but] what most kids want is just to have fun, develop their skills, run around and socialize."
What contributes to overwhelming the fun in sports for kids, says Mr. Bigelow, is the constant visibility in the US of high level competition in professional, collegiate, and Olympic events. Dominant role models more often than not emphasize winning at all costs and not the enjoyment of sportsmanship. Players and coaches openly seek an edge or an advantage and parents often extend the pursuit with commensurate expectations and attitudes.
Roots of a rink tragedy
Perhaps the most egregious example of such a parental-attitude-turned-to-rage came at the local rink in Reading. During a pickup hockey game at the Burbank Ice Arena, Thomas Junta, a parent of a 10-year-old playing on the ice, began to argue with Michael Costin, who was supervising the game in which his son was also playing. The two men argued about the level of body checking going on between the boys, and Mr. Junta came on the ice and allegedly assaulted Mr. Costin.
Junta was ordered out by the manager of the rink, but came back minutes later. The two men fought in a hallway.
Because Junta outweighed Costin by 100 pounds, he is alleged to have overpowered him, hitting him in the face repeatedly and leaving him unconscious on the floor. Costin died two days later. Junta has been charged with manslaughter. He says he acted in self-defense.
Though the Reading episode was unusually grisly, violence among parents in youth athletics has risen threefold since 1995, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, Fla. It also follows a spate of recent incidents.
On Memorial Day, police arrested two parents in Amherst, Mass., for disorderly conduct and assault after a fight at a soccer game. At a separate soccer match in Virginia, a mother was fined after attacking a 14-year-old referee. In Hollywood, Fla., Wednesday, a youth baseball coach was charged with breaking the jaw of an umpire whose call he disagreed with. Experts who monitor such incidents say such parents are acting out of fear, ego, and greed, often causing physical, psychological, and emotional abuse to children.
"The worst example," says Bob Still of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), "is the player on the US woman's soccer team who said, 'It's not cheating if you don't get caught.' " He also decries the recent comment of a pro-aspirant who said he would only play for a team that has a chance to go to the Super Bowl or the World Series.
"One says its OK to cheat, and the other says his personal desires are above everything else," laments Still.
Many parents, hoping to see their youngster eventually win a sports scholarship, sacrifice time and money to encourage the dream. "Parents get upset at games because they believe sports are really, really important," Bigelow says. "It's a strategic arms race. If little Johnny plays 50 games, then my little Billy has to play 60 games."
He cites the recent national basketball championship for kids 10 and under held in Florida. "Have you ever seen fourth- graders play basketball?" he says, challenging the worth of an event at such a young age. "It's like watching basketball played on ice. But the parents have paid thousands of dollars to go there... Do you think they are going to sit quietly in the stands?"
Why some kids quit sports
Some 30 million kids ages 4 to 14 are involved in organized sports in the US. Many programs are low key, encourage all skill levels, and remain fun to kids. Yet, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a countervailing trend has youngsters dropping out of organized sports, some 70 percent by the time they reach 13. Among the reasons: no fun, too much pressure, angry coaches, and embarrassment over their parents' zeal.
Mr. Wolff urges caution in loading too much blame on masculine bravado. "Don't think it's just dads out there," he says. "Moms are going crazy too."
Officials at NASO became so concerned about the hazards of officiating at youth events that they now offer a $3 million assault insurance package to their 19,000 members. Fourteen states now have laws that place sports officials in a special category like police or firefighters.
In Reading, David Chase, a soccer-playing engineer, says his town is like a lot of other American suburbs. "The emphasis on sports may be a little unbalanced, with enthusiasm running high," he says. "And this incident is disturbing and disappointing. But things will probably drift back to what they were after six months or a year passes."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society