Parental involvement in youth athletics at the coaching and spectator levels is clearly on the rise and has yielded a unique nomenclature. The phrases “soccer mom” and “hockey dad”, for examples, capture a lifestyle and simultaneously explain one’s choice of automobile. Bumper stickers no longer boast only of one’s “honor student” or team loyalty but they describe a daily existence and the driver’s at-all-costs dedication to his/her child’s athletic pursuit.
A number of factors seem to be driving this phenomenon. Parents are providing advantages and opportunities that they never had, are committing time to nurture the family relationship, and are hoping their children will develop skills, discipline, friendships and positive attributes. At the same time, they are guarding their often-exorbitant financial investment, they are crossing their fingers for athletic scholarships, and of course, they are seeking vicarious fulfillment. Many baby-boomers, disenfranchised with professional sports and their favorite teams’ performance, project their ardor onto youth sports. Society plays a role by placing unprecedented emphasis on the need for parents to supervise their own and making it increasingly unacceptable to entrust children to another’s even temporary care.
It is safe to say that the more organized, time-consuming and costly the endeavor, the higher the stakes and the more likely are participants and parents to embrace a win-no-matter-what attitude. A parent’s stress and fatigue levels are directly proportional to his child’s and his own degree of involvement in the sport. The desire to juggle (rather than forsake) academics and a multitude of other familial and social obligations to accommodate hectic athletic schedules alone can create a highly volatile environment.
All too often, passion, frustration, exhaustion and competitiveness combine to produce explosive results. A number of sources have reported, in fact, that aggression in general, and assaults by parents in particular, have sharply increased over the last several years. The manslaughter of Michael Costin at the hands of “hockey dad” Thomas Junta in 2002 is the most tragic example of many factors gone mad. Such cases have brought the topic of violence in amateur sports to the forefront of public awareness and debate and the related issues of liability into the courtroom.
Recognizing the surge in physical assaults and abuse, municipalities and many amateur organizations have developed programs and have promulgated rules to diffuse sideline rage. Nassau County has a Local Law (13–2002, 10/21/02), that require participants, their parents and coaches to sign a “Fair Play Agreement” committing to support the goal of good sportsmanship. The law also requires each sports organization to send a volunteer “Fair Play Representative” to a County-run seminar and encourages teams to appoint a parent to attend games and monitor interactions off the surface of play.
The National Alliance for Youth Sports holds workshops for parents and coaches, a program in which some 400 communities have enrolled. Many clubs require parents to attend a class on proper behavior as a precondition to allowing their children to play, and some maintain databases to track violent behavior. The Long Island Junior Soccer league maintains a “zero tolerance” policy and a sportsmanship protocol pursuant to which referees evaluate and report on player and parent conduct at every game. The Long Island Lightning Basketball League enforces a code of conduct and expels anyone who violates it even once. And the Long Island Amateur Hockey League (“LIAHL”) enforces a code of conduct for players, coaches, parents and spectators which emphasizes good sportsmanship, respect, appropriate conduct (i.e. “do not taunt or disturb other fans”), skills development, team work, enjoyment, safety and fun, and being supportive of all participants. The LIAHL has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy aimed at eliminating “verbal and physical abuse of officials and inappropriate spectator behavior”, while “still allowing communication in a calm and reasonable manner.” The section directed at “spectators” defines and prohibits “inappropriate and destructive behavior” as using obscene, racial or vulgar language in a boisterous manner to anyone at any time; taunting players, coaches, officials or other spectators by means of baiting, ridiculing, threatening physical violence, or physical violence, and; throwing any object in the spectators viewing area, players’ bench, penalty box, or on-ice surface, that in any manner creates a safety hazard.
The courts have not had to deal with the legal implications of any of these extra-judicial promulgations. To the extent that they attempt to put the onus on participants and spectators, it is unlikely that they will support findings of liability against the owners of park, rinks, fields and the like. If anything, making people sign promises to behave and to be accountable for their own actions may increase the degree to which parents and children will be viewed to have assumed the risks of involvement.