Fences Make Good Neighbors, But This Is Crazy

All sports leagues have to deal with unruly parents from time to time.  Some more than others, but we all face it. Youth sports leagues come up with a variety of ways to handle it with varying results.  Our worst moment was when a grandparent at a U6 match came onto the field and grabbed one of our coaches by the neck.  Yes, a grandparent.  But we are not alone.  Other sports in our city have had their share of parent conduct issues too.  So we take a fairly tough stance.  Police are stationed at the field complex gates during every competition which was mandated by our city government.  The rules are very clear to our parents – if you physically assault or verbally abuse the coaches, or officials, you will be thrown out of the complex and depending on the severity, possibly not allowed to return for the rest of the season. I can’t say it prevents ALL parental problems, but we make it very clear each season that this is the penalty and parents understand the consequences. We send very detailed and frank information to parents each season about proper conduct, though we don’t yet have parents sign a parental code of conduct, but expect to do this soon.

So that’s just one way of trying to cope with the small minority of parents who would cause trouble. But a youth football league in Raleigh has taken it to the next level, for better or worse


Players in the Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department’s football
leagues are now competing within 6-foot-tall chain-link confines — to
keep overeager spectators off the sidelines. One reason for the move
was a game last fall marred by penalties and parents screaming at
coaches and officials.

"It’s a good thing, keeping the parents off the field," said Eugene
O’Neal, an assistant coach for the city’s Little League Rams. "It kind
of has that prison feel going on now."

I’m sorry, but this is wrong on so many levels.  Yes, little league parents have watched their kid’s games from behind fencing for ages – but that’s for THEIR protection from foul balls, etc. But erecting a six foot high fence to keep the parents off the field? This isn’t a high school football game.  This is pee-wee football. I can’t help but feel this is a serious over reaction to a previous parent problem.  I would be furious if I was forced to stand behind a fence to watch my 8 year old’s game.  Parents are bringing ladders to get over the fence and video tape their kids.  You have to wonder what they are paying to erect these temporary fences each weekend and if it’s close enough to paying another security guard or off duty police officer.  Can you imagine the questions the kids are asking their parents about why they are stuck behind a fence?  I think about how my kids run to the opposite sideline once their soccer match is over to give their parents high-fives and run through parent tunnels.

Let’s be realistic.  Of most parental confrontations at youth sports matches, most are verbal. A parent physically assaulting an official or coach is extremely rare and most often its a shove or a grab.  So is the fence going to stop verbal abuse?  Hardly. Will it stop an assault?  Maybe during the game.  But afterward?  Not likely.  Just looking at that picture with parents behind a huge barrier – all I can think of is a jail or refugee camp. Just looking at the picture of this Mom cheering for her kid through a fence like that is sad.

There is no easy answer to dealing with unruly parents.  But the risk of expulsion from a facility and a police presence should be good enough.  Doing something like this just ruins things.  Yes, I know, its not the fault of the recreation departments, it’s the parents.  But how many things will we have taken away from us because of a tiny minority of people?  Because a few parents act up we have to be penned like dogs?

This is a wake up call for parents. I know the majority of you behave at youth sporting events.  But if things like this catch on it will ruin youth sports for parents and kids alike.  So the next time a parent starts to get near that line, especially if they are part of your team, don’t just glare at them. Step up and ask them to calm down or they’ll ruin it for everyone else.  If they keep it up – don’t wait for the officials to notice it and take action.  Let them know its going on. You might feel like a snitch, but think about what might happen if they go unchecked.

Another thing to consider is that most severe parent events (charging the fields, assaulting officials) result during matches where officiating doesn’t keep control of the game.  I remember a soccer game in our league where players on one team were playing VERY rough.  One boy threw a punch at a girl and we almost had a rumble as parents crept onto the field.  Had the coach of the assaulted team not stepped out in front of them, there would have been fist fights.  So if you are an official or coach, you cannot forget that you control the game.  You cannot let the parents get riled up or things will happen.  The combination of the coach stepping out to calm the parents along with the fighting player being ejected calmed things down.  But it was a scary time.  So if you step up to volunteer as a coach or an official, you must be prepared to handle an escalating situation, otherwise you need to consider if coaching or officiating is right for  you.

But if you are an officer in a sports league, I cannot stress strongly enough that fencing off the spectators like this is a drastic measure.  Now maybe the city officials here are only doing this temporarily to show parents they need to behave, I don’t know.  But if you think this is the solution, I fear you will begin to ruin youth sports for thousands of families.  Youth sports in America are meant to be up close and personal – save the fences for college and the pros.

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