Violence in Youth Sports: A growing trend? A downward spiral, and a young man’s brutalization

It is becoming more prevailing in our society, the “win at any cost” mentality. Sure, that’s what competition is based on at any level. As coach Herman Edwards once said “you play to win the game.” But when is that mindset “Overkill?” At the professional level we expect athletes to give 110% all the time because it’s their profession. At the college level we expect the same for a variety of reasons, mostly because most college players desire to play professionally if they can get the chance, and because they should be playing their “hearts” out for the school colors. At the high school level, there is an inordinate amount of pressure to be successful, both for the players and for the coaches and school officials. For players it’s to be accepted, to be a “part” of a winner. For the adults again, it’s a variety of causes that keep them “in the heat of the pursuit.” of athletic immortality, and financial security for their families and their schools’ athletic programs.  As a moral society for the most part, we expect athletes to give their best all the time, just as workers are supposed to do their jobs to the best of their ability all the time. We also expect them, their coaches, and the fans to follow the rules at all times, and we decry anyone who does not put their best effort into whatever they are doing.

But what about youth developmental programs, and why does it matter? Every football player gets their start in “Pop Warner” youth style football, much like baseball players get their start in “Little League” play. It’s supposed to be a place where, like school-based programs, learning takes place. Learning about the sport and it’s proper play in a safe environment where basic fundamentals are taught that will, we hope, carry the student athlete through the rest of his/or her life. Integrity, honor, sportsmanship, respect for each other and the rules of the game, and above all, fair play. At least that’s what my contemporaries and I were taught growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s. So why should it be different now?

Incidents of a violent nature at youth sporting events is not new, but has always been isolated to a few “bad days” here and there. Or is it? Is there a growing trend here, among the communities of our country? Are parents pushing their kids too hard to “win” at any cost? And who should take responsibility and control? We expect ourselves to hold each other to a high standard of behavior, but what about when that standard breaks down? If we are as a people, going to police our own on this, we first have to be aware of the danger signs. When a parent or a coach tells a player to “Get That Kid” at the top of his lungs, is he really saying “cover that kid” or “Stop that kid from beating us at any cost”? Where does the rage come from? Is it simply from being outplayed, or is the desire to please the parental figures in a youth athlete’s life pressure them to “win at any cost,” even if the rules are broken.

An ongoing study project at Rutgers University’s Youth Sports Research Council asserts that while there is still no evidence to support “Sports Rage” as an out of control “epidemic” situation, the instances are happening more often and leading to serious injury among those involved. The research at Rutgers points to two different areas: fan violence at events, and instances on the field of play. On Field instances are broken into three different incident types: athlete on athlete, violence against officials, and other situations such as assaults on coaches by parents and other bystanders. The following is quoted from a finding by the council, led by Professor Gregg Heinzmann, the council’s director, on the topic of parent behavior at youth sporting events (in larger type):

Why Do Parents Misbehave?

To date, many of the explanations given for “why rage occurs” have been too shortsighted to be of any practical value. For example, in response to the important and legitimate question, “why do some parents behave so poorly at their child’s sporting event,” the often parroted answer has been, “because no one told them they couldn’t.” Such simplistic analysis fails to provide direction for reforming youth sports, in terms of preventing sports rage, because it doesn’t address the underlying reasons for poor parental behavior.

To our credit as a society we have tried to do better in this decade, but it seems we still have a long way to go in some areas of policing our own behavior at youth sports events.

Still, when there is a connection between an overzealous parent shouting at his child or children to “get that kid,” and an incident that leads to serious injury of a youth athlete that was sparked by actions on the part of parents or coaches, we as a society have a moral obligation to prevent it from getting out of hand. Regardless of the fact that laws are in place or not, we should feel a duty to protect our youth and place a binding code of conduct on athletes, coaches, parents and fans of ANY youth sporting event at any level, with serious punishment to those that violate the code of conduct and the law.

There also has to be a concern that behavior of this type if allowed to go unchecked, leads to far worse incidents of violence as the athlete grows up, along with an increase in anti-social, and even possibly sociopathic action on the part of some. While we always commend the athlete for having a “winning” attitude or a great “game” face and playing with emotion, there is a clear line between what is acceptable and what is not on the field of play. While no clear relation exists between a youth athlete who gets into trouble for taking things too far on the field and the excesses of some current professional athletes and their behavior and “Self-Entitled” way of life, it’s not too far off base to surmise that poor sportsmanship and behavior on the part of youth athletes that aren’t “behavior modified” can lead to far worse actions in later life. The police blotters across the country are filled with current and ex-pro athletes running amok and tarnishing their reputations and the great game of football. The only way this can be combated is through early intervention on the part of parents, coaches, and administrators.

Not long ago a parent reached out to me to get my feelings on one such incident that took place last fall in a Denver suburb. My first thought was “these things happen all the time” but once I viewed the video (attached with the families’ permission at the end of this article) you will see that this is not the kind of thing that should be allowed to be explained away as “just football” or “it happens all the time.” I was compelled to get involved because of my background in football, and a moral standard I adhere to.

It’s because of an incident like this, where a young man could have been crippled for life, or worse, died on the field from a broken neck, that assurances must be granted that no incident goes by without an appropriate reaction from a league’s administrators no matter what the level. Youth football is about teaching skills. It’s about learning what a 2-5 sweep is. It’s about how to hold and carry and throw a football. What it is not is your coach or your dad telling you to “Get that Kid” and you punch him 4 times in the head and through his facemask and then grab him by the mask and twist his neck and head like your taking the lid off a jar, then walk away sneakily hoping you don’t get caught when most everyone clearly saw what you did. There is just no just excuse for this on any level. Not “its just football” or “it was in the heat of the game.” In the state where I live, what you are going to see on this video would be classified as a violent felony (assault and battery to be exact), which would and should cause anyone tried as an adult for such crime and convicted be jailed for said crime. Clearly we can’t do that in the case of a 10 or 11 year old child, but steps must be taken to make sure this never happens again, and proper behavior is reinforced at all times on the field of play.

This past week on our radio show we brought this situation to light by having the parents and coaches of the injured player join us for the last two segments of our show, along with their legal counsel, to take questions on air from myself and my team of co-hosts. We can’t believe for the life of us how these parents are in the minority in their feeling that something is wrong with this situation, and that there is the possibility of a “cover up” of some sort going on here, especially when I receive a reply via e-mail by way of a “statement” from the current president of the league where this incident took place the next day.

In this e-mail I was given a detailed account of the league’s sincerity and that “Trust me.

If we have the video, and it shows what it purports to show, swift, direct and appropriate action will be taken by me.” That is all well and good intentioned, and we are glad that it’s possible that common sense could win out here. But it should have been done when the incident took place, not six and a half months later, and only because the mother of the athlete involved came on my show because her and the few parents supporting her could not get any supportive action from the league’s administrator’s at the time of the incident and felt they had no other recourse to get assistance. That being said, I’m happy the current president of this league wants to move forward and get this rectified in a proper manner. In the interest of fairness I have invited him (and the league’s legal counsel if he feels threatened by the truth of this situation) to come on our show as guests two weeks from now, to explain what steps will be taken to make sure this never happens again.

These parents also feel that much as been done to smear them up until now, that they have been painted as “crazy malcontents” bent on destroying the league. I have been personally accused of “ getting involved in something that is none of my business” and “doing this to get the ratings of my show up.” As a matter of fact, while we were conducting the show this past Thursday night I was getting support from a few people in our show’s chat room. At the same time I was being harassed by someone via instant message telling me “what do I care about a few crazy parents for” and “since when does the “New York Based” sports media even care about youth football in Colorado.”

My Answer to these people is plain and simple: Any time anyone tarnishes the great game of football by their actions or lack there of, it’s my business. No matter where it is, New York, Colorado, or anywhere else, and I will stand up for these parents and their children until justice is done. It’s not about my show ratings. I get plenty of good guests, mostly retired NFL players, current college players or coaches, player agents, and fellow football media. I don’t need a story like this to get up my ratings. This story needs to be told and the issues addressed. No one is looking to keep these kids from playing football. That’s the last thing we want. But we want the athlete who was injured to never have to worry about getting hurt like this ever again because an opponent took it a little too far, or because a parent of the opposing player pressured him into beating up an opponent for no reason other then he was frustrated over being outplayed at that moment or because he didn’t like the way he was blocked. Anyone who needs to question that shouldn’t be involved in sports.

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