By John O'Sullivan
Imagine the perfect summer day. The sun is out, The birds are chirping. And a bunch of 7 year old boys scurry about a baseball diamond, trying to hit, run, throw and catch, all the while smiling and giggling and doing what 7-year-old boys do. But then the game gets tense. Parents and coaches started chirping at each other, at the players, and at the umpire. A call is missed. Then another. The situation worsens.
The umpire, a 13-year-old named Josh Cordova – who umpires so he can pay for his own baseball equipment by the way- warns both coaches and their fans. Yet the tension escalates. Parents are dropping F-bombs, and pointing fingers trying to get others thrown out. Finally, all hell breaks loose. Coaches argue. Parents get into it with one another. And it ends in a fight that goes viral across the globe. Five people are arrested. Two are suspended from their jobs. And Cordova, when interviewed after the game, said the following: “I was scared not only for me but the 7-year-olds who happened to be on the field at the time. We never thought anyone would fight at a little league baseball game. I thought maybe by issuing a warning everyone would just chill, take a step back and realize how stupid they were acting … but [I] guess not.”
This isn’t made up. This just happened at a youth baseball game in Colorado. A perfect summer day ended in assault charges and public shaming. Why? Why? What is wrong with us when people go to jail over things that happen at a 7-year-old baseball game? Since when did the results of a 7-year-old baseball game matter? Do they even matter? Most of those kids don’t even know all the rules of baseball, most cannot even throw from the pitcher’s mound to home plate without a bounce, and certainly, most of them wouldn’t dare argue with the umpire. Now their season is canceled. They don’t get to play baseball, maybe ever again, and some families lives are ruined. It is 7-year-old baseball!
It is time for a zero tolerance policy for official abuse and poor spectator and coach behavior at youth sporting events. It is time for state laws because clearly most leagues and clubs are not able to deal with the issue. They are so afraid of being sued for kicking a parent out of a club or school program that they need the help of state legislators. Officials are so afraid for their safety that many are walking away, and nearly 80% of first-year officials in some places do not return for a second year. We are reaching a tipping point that requires drastic action.
And it starts with every one of us knowing our role.
When you attend a youth sporting event, you can be one of four things:
Coach: leads and organizes the athletes
Athlete: participates in the competition
Fan: cheers on the participants
Official/referee: applies the rules to the best of his/her ability
That is it. You cannot be more than one at the same time. Each one has certain roles and responsibilities, and if you try and be a fan and one of these, things get messy and stress levels increase. For example, I see this a lot at youth sporting events:
The Fan Coach: You all know the parent who keeps a running dialogue with their child and gives instructions on every play. If you are not the team coach, and you have dropped your daughter off at training all week and gone about your business, then do not coach her come game time. It does not help her if you arrive on Saturday and start telling your daughter and her teammates where to run, how to hit, where to pass, or when to shoot. The reason we only have one teacher in school is so kids do not get confused by conflicting instructions in the classroom. Imagine there were twenty-eight sets of parents there each day during math. Come game day, though, oftentimes the head coach is drowned out by the sixteen parent- coaches yelling conflicting instructions to the players on the field. The result, more often than not, is not action but inaction from the player. She doesn’t know who to listen to, the adult her parents have told her is the coach and should be respected, or mom and dad screaming their lungs out, living and dying on each play and often contradicting the coach’s instructions.
The Fan Official: We all know this person as well. He may be 75 yards away from the play, while the actual umpire or referee is a few feet, but clearly he saw it better. When you go to watch your child’s sporting event, you must remember that you are going there as a fan and not to officiate. When you live and die with every call, when you scream in disagreement at an official decision, you not only make the environment a negative learning one for your child, but you set an incredibly poor example for him. I cannot count how many times I have heard parents correct their kids for receiving a yellow card in soccer for talking back to officials, while at the same time they berated that official for ninety minutes from the opposite sideline. We cannot expect young children to respect the officials if they spend the entire game listening to their parents disrespect them. We cannot expect officials to continue refereeing our children’s games if all they get is grief. So the next time a ball goes out for a throw-in or a corner kick and you think it is the wrong call, ask yourself “does it really even matter? Will anyone actually remember this game 6 months from now?”
The Coach Referee: Instead of coaching his or her players, the coach-referee lives and dies with every call, argues for pointless strikes or outs, and often makes a fool of himself, embarrasses his players, and gets everyone riled up about nothing. Its youth sports. It’s about the kids. If you want to referee, then please by all means referee. You are needed! But if you are going to coach, then coach and leave the refereeing to someone else.
We need to know our role. We can play, we can coach, we can officiate, or we can be a fan. In my experience, every incident that happens at a youth sporting event usually arises when a person, usually an adult, tries to take on multiple roles. It may be innocuous sideline coaching that infuriates a coach or another parent. It may be a seemingly innocent comment directed at an opposing player. It can be vocal disrespect for a referee. It usually starts small, but oftentimes, these things escalate, and next thing you know, you have police at a 7-year-old baseball game, leading dad’s away in cuffs. A day that started like any other beautiful summer day ends in a tragedy for those poor kids playing and a young umpire trying to earn a few extra bucks. This day will be remembered forever by all who attended. Sadly, it will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Remember the change starts at home. Next time you attend a youth sports event, know your role and stick to it. Let the kids play! Let the coaches coach. And let the officials officiate. The children will appreciate you for it.
John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and , and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”