FAMILY GAMES: Aggressive parents make poor sports

by Lisa Renze-Rhodes

As a referee for youth sports leagues at The Sports Center in Plainfield, James Ross spends a lot of Saturdays with parents, coaches and players of all ages and skill levels. He also hears all kinds of trash talk and taunts from parents. “It’s out of hand,” Ross said. “If you sit in here all day, you’ll hear all kinds of unruly parents.” Experts say the number of parents crossing the line between competitiveness and aggression is growing alarmingly nationwide. Just over a week ago, a Massachusetts jury found Thomas Junta, 44, guilty of involuntary manslaughter for beating another father to death at their sons’ hockey practice. In Indiana, two Wayne County brothers were arrested last May on charges that they assaulted a high school golf coach because one man’s son wasn’t playing. The same week, Bradley L. Lindemann, 44, of McCordsville was charged after he accidentally struck his wife while taking a swing at another parent during an altercation over a soccer referee’s call. That case is pending. Altercations like these have drawn so much attention that Zionsville school administrators are considering implementing a conduct policy that parents and athletes would have to sign before the students could play. The guidelines would address appropriate parent-coach interaction, as well as when and where discussions regarding play could take place. The incidents and the need for such policies have University of Notre Dame Professor F. Clark Power “very concerned.” “We’ve got to get together to say there’s a certain amount of craziness going on here and we need to figure out a way to stop it,” said Power, co-founder of the university’s Mendelson Center for Sport, Character and Culture. Power was the speaker Saturday at a conference titled Sport, Character and Culture: Promoting Social and Moral Development through Sport. Organizers say the turnout alone speaks volumes about the situation of sports in the country. More than 1,000 invitations were sent to parents, coaches and athletic directors at public and private schools throughout central Indiana. But only about 50 people showed up for the half-day event at the Ritz Charles in Carmel. “People are so immersed in sports, they couldn’t cancel sports to be here,” said Denise McGonigal, religious education director at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, which sponsored the workshop. Power said the combination of parents’ good intentions — cheering for their children — and their desire for success can produce high drama — especially for those who believe sports offer a ticket to financial rewards. “Some parents hope or entertain thoughts these children are stars and they are investing in stars,” Power said. But the reality, he said, is that only one in about 12,000 players ever makes it to professional-level competition. And while a higher percentage of high school students move on to collegiate play, Bob Morgan said, scholarship seekers are playing for the wrong reasons. Morgan, head baseball coach for Indiana University, said the number of athletes is much greater than the number of scholarships available to make money a realistic motivator. Worse yet, he said, parents get so focused on the future, they forget about the present. “Things get too structured too soon,” he said. “By the time (a player) is 15 or 16, they’re burned out.” Sara Pedroni understands how easy it is for parents to get caught up in the moment. Her son Willie, a fifth-grader, plays basketball in the Avon Junior Athletic Association and has his sights set on the big prize: a pro career. “What do you say to a child? That that could never happen?” she asked. It’s that balancing act for parents — supporting a child’s dreams while keeping sports in perspective — that experts say might be the toughest game of all.

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