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Blubaugh: Nutty sports parents a reflection of a larger societal trend

A few weeks ago, our longtime rec sports columnist, Bird Brown, wrote about the growing vitriol coming from parents in the stands — directed mostly at officials but also toward kids.

While we have a tendency to believe everything is getting worse these days, as a parent of two kids who’ve been involved at various levels of about six sports for the last seven years or so, Brown is absolutely right about this.

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I’ve listened to parents yell insults at my daughters and their teammates that I wouldn’t yell at the New York Yankees or Pittsburgh Steelers. I’ve seen parents lectured by tournament directors for the abuse of officials, pointing out how their behavior affects their children. And while I haven’t personally seen fights break out in the stands, I’ve read and heard numerous accounts and I’ve seen games where I was positive a melee was about to ensue.

Of course, there have always been “nutty” sports parents. But it was usually just one guy who screamed excessively that everyone else sort of avoided. Now, it’s far more likely for multiple parents to join in. There’s a group dynamic at work that empowers people. And, for sure, as has been said, watching your kid play any game is, emotionally, like watching your favorite pro team play in a championship game — multiplied by about 100.

Brown was writing about soccer, but it’s all sports. (Although maybe it happens a little less in field hockey because, frankly, nobody understands the rules in field hockey.) In his column, he was asking the key question: Why is this happening more now? He posited a few possible answers.

He wondered if perhaps it’s because of the money parents have to invest in training and fees for leagues and coaches and tournaments and accommodations. It certainly is a huge investment. I don’t even want to contemplate the percentage of my paycheck that goes toward teams and leagues and gyms and tournaments and hotels. But, honestly, I’ve seen parents way, way out of control at rec games in leagues costing less than $100 for entire season.

He also wondered if it’s a case of frustrated former athletes living vicariously through their children. Probably part of it, too, but it seems to me parents who had zero interest in sports in their youth and parents who were themselves star athletes can be equally guilty.

I wonder if this isn’t a part of a much bigger societal issue.

More and more, overprotective, hyper-involved “helicopter” parents try to control every aspect of their kids’ lives. And they — we? — are pretty much able to.

Parents overschedule kids. And dictate which friends they can associate with. And what activities they can participate in. And keep constant tabs on them, thanks in part to technology. They are used to getting their way with teachers and schools and doctors and other parents, doing everything they can to protect their kids from failure.

Hey, we live in a society where the rich, whose kids already have every advantage, pay others to take standardized tests and bribe admissions officers in colleges, right?

Theoretically, sports is one area where parents have to give over control. The coaches decide who plays for how long and in what situations. The officials make all manner of decisions on the field. The kids have to succeed on their own merit and, often, have to deal with failure.

That’s part of what’s so great about youth sports. A meddling mom or difficult dad might be able to get a grade changed, but no amount of arguing is likely to get an official to reverse a call.

Yes, we need to be advocates for our kids. But we also need to let them learn and do on their own. Parents, if your kids are constantly looking into the stands for your help, or they’re pretending not to know you out of embarrassment, or they’re trying to avoid seeing you soon after games, you should probably look in the mirror and do some serious reflecting.

I know I have. After spending 25 years covering sports silently — there’s no cheering in the pressbox — I honestly didn’t think this would ever be a problem for me. But it is. Our urge to protect our children is great and I’ve had some moments I’m not proud of. I’ve gotten better and I actually thought I had completely put any and all loutish fan behavior and helicopter sports parenting into my rearview.

But, then a few months ago, when one of my daughters got seriously hurt in a game, I screamed at an official: “That’s your fault!” And I got tossed. Deservedly so. Officials certainly play a role in how physical games get, but injuries can happen at any time, even without any contact whatsoever. Typical parent, trying to pin blame on someone when something bad happens to your kid.

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That was my low point as a sports parent and I’ve kept my mouth shut since, having learned from it. I’m really trying to stay as far removed as possible and watching, as best I can, what I say to my daughters — doing my best not to undermine coaches or blame officials or criticize teammates or opposing players, and, hopefully, emphasizing that it’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun.

But it’s a work in progress.

One of my daughters has a tournament in Philadelphia today. I think everything will be fine, I truly do. But I also know I’m just one really egregious call away from falling off the wagon, er, bleachers. And giving Bird Brown fodder for his next column.

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