When Lisa Licata brought her 5-year-old godson home from his first soccer game, his dad's question was classic: "Who won?" Puzzled, the child asked his mom.
"He knows he kicked and he played," she told about 75 youth sports officials at a statewide conference yesterday in Columbia. The topic - how to protect young players from adults.
"There's too much emphasis on winning, and no fun," said Licata, vice president of the Florida-based National Alliance for Youth Sports.
From the manslaughter conviction last month of Thomas Junta, the 270- pound ice hockey dad who killed Michael Costin, his son's much smaller coach, to the enraged Crofton parents who followed, threatened and cursed at a teen-age referee, "sideline rage" is a major, growing problem in youth sports.
Alarmed by the trend, representatives of 26 city, county and private sports groups from across Maryland and Northern Virginia attended yesterday's conference, called "Creating a Shield to Protect the Youth Sports Environment," in search of answers.
Overcompetitive parents and coaches who live vicariously through children, or believe a referee's call will sabotage their kid's sure professional sports career, are ruining games and occasionally causing violence, Licata said.
"It's not a once-a-week or once-a-month thing - it's almost daily," she said.
Seven Baltimore County officials attended the conference at Howard County's Recreation and Parks headquarters.
"We feel very strongly about this issue," said Keene L. Gooding, assistant director of the Baltimore County department.
A Maryland Youth Sports Task Force is to convene March 27 in Columbia to create a list of ways to improve Maryland youth sports.
Parental anger is a key challenge, said Licata, who noted that a recent Michigan University study found that about 70 percent of the 20 million kids nationally who participate in youth sports quit by age 13.
Draining the fun
Fun is the main reason children play organized sports, after all, and when the fun goes, so do the kids, she said.
"We need to change the culture of youth sports," she said, noting that until about age 8, the thing most kids like best about sports is the after-game pizza or ice cream.
"It's shameful to have to deal with this," she said, showing video of parents and coaches berating their kids, referees and opposing coaches from the sidelines.
She showed a security camera video from Florida in which a referee who canceled a game because of a parent's behavior was followed to his office door, bumped and head-butted by a much larger man, who then walked away.
A football coach for 10-year-olds ridiculed their play, made fun of them and screamed continuously from the sidelines.
"Look at America," said Sheila Franklin, executive director of the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association. "Look how fat we've gotten."
Children don't just go outside and choose up sides anymore, she noted. People are out on their decks, or inside playing video games or watching television. Athlete role models now are professionals making millions of dollars who can't tolerate failure.
"Everybody wants to win," said Gary Wynn, president of football
and cheerleaders for the Solomon's Boys and Girls Clubs in Calvert County. The results are sometimes the opposite of what is desired.
Steps to take
An out-of-control parent should be reported to the league official in charge, and any threat of violence should prompt a call to police, Licata said, but youth sports programs have to work to prevent confrontations with a series of steps she outlined during the four-hour seminar.
Parents must be provided with written policies and rules before the season starts, and sign a pledge to obey them. Then, she said, a parent's anger at an official can be deflected by simply referring them to the written policies and saying, "I'm just doing my job."
Coaches and volunteers should be screened, perhaps interviewed and, where possible, have a criminal background check.
In those "warm body" moments, when a league is about to begin but has 10 teams and only eight coaches, seemingly anyone will do. But that is when officials could be most vulnerable to a child sexual predator who may walk in and volunteer out of the blue, Licata said.
Screening, record checks and interviews can help prevent disasters, she said.
"The more you do, the thicker your shield is," Licata said.