The most serious problem facing the myriad organized youth sports leagues, however, involves a landmark case in which the Illinois Supreme Court is expected to decide later this year whether children's leagues can be held financially responsible for injuries resulting from adult violence at their games. The case grew out of a grotesque incident 10 years ago in which John Hills, the father-coach of a Little League player in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, complained to umpires that a rival coach, 16-year-old George Loy Jr. of suburban Bridgeview, was loudly making calls before the umpires themselves could make them. By the third inning Loy's father, George Sr., also a Bridgeview coach, was baiting Hills, calling him a "four-eyed mother——er" and promising to "get him after the game."
After the sixth inning, as Hills bent over to pick up his score-book, George Loy Sr. jumped him from behind, punching and kicking him as he drove him to the ground, and then circled the prostrate figure, looking for places to kick him again. George Jr. soon joined his father in pummeling Hills. Finally, George Sr.'s brother, Bridgeview manager Ted Loy, joined in the thuggery, kicking Hills between 10 and 15 times, witnesses said. Lemont's third-base coach, Harry Keeler, interceded and helped Hills to his feet and was hit himself. Then the Loys launched one last attack on Hills. George Sr. stepped in and dropped Hills with a right to the face that broke his nose, while George Jr. smashed Hills's left knee with an aluminum bat.
Hills did not wake up until he was in intensive care. Along with the broken nose, he suffered fractured ribs, a bruised kidney, a concussion, a scratched cornea and the injured knee, which still ails him. A plumber by trade, he returned to work only this year.
The Loy brothers were arrested, charged with battery and sentenced to supervision and 40 hours of community service. Hills sued all three Loys, the Bridgeview Little League Association and the Justice Willow Springs Little League, which sponsored the tournament and owned the field. After a two-week trial in which 19 witnesses described what had happened, a default judgment was entered against the Loys, who never responded to the service of legal papers. (Nor would they comment for this article.) A Chicago jury awarded Hills and his wife a total of $757,710, finding not only the Loys but also the two Little League associations liable for the damages. The Little League groups, whose insurance would pay their share of the award, appealed, but the three-judge Appellate Court in Chicago upheld the jury's judgment.
The outcome of the case created such anxiety at Little League's national headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., that the league hired a law firm to file an amicus curiae brief urging the seven Illinois Supreme Court justices to vacate the judgment. Little League has 2.7 million child-athletes and sponsors 186,000 teams in the U.S., and it sees a far-reaching danger if its local organizations are held accountable for the actions of parents and coaches. In a defense of its position, Little League declared that making its associations responsible for adult violence would put their playing fields in the same legal category as dens of potential mayhem like "taverns, discos and dance clubs." The brief notes that Little League games are alcohol-free events attended by children and their parents, and it asserts, " Little League baseball does not attract the less savory elements of the communities in which it thrives."
Remember that this brief grew out of an incident in which two men and a bat-wielding boy beat another man senseless while two teams of Little Leaguers stood and watched. If the Illinois Supreme Court sustains the jury verdict, thereby holding Little League's cleats to the fire, the whole topography of adult violence at children's games will change—just as court action altered the landscape on the issues of handguns and tobacco.
Outside the courtroom, as evidence of a national groundswell on the issue, various youth leagues and other groups have been at work to curb violence and encourage mature behavior at games. Over the last year and a half three U.S. government classes at Deer Valley High, outside Phoenix, initiated and nearly pushed through the Arizona legislature a bill called the Youth Sports Official Protection Act, which would stiffen penalties for violence against youth-league officials. The bill passed the state house of representatives 38-18 but was defeated 22-8 in the senate. The class will again lobby to pass the measure in the next school year.
Before the widely publicized class on sportsmanship held in February in Jupiter, Fla.—at which about 2,000 youth-league parents were required to sign a pledge to behave themselves at games—a soccer league outside Cleveland held a "Silent Sunday" last October in which parents were under league orders not to yell instructions to kids, not to question officials' calls and not even to let out a cheer. Many parents either sucked lollipops or put duct tape over their mouths.
West to east, meanwhile, youth-league violence kept police and lawyers working all last year and in the first half of this one. On April 27, 1999, in a slow-pitch softball game for 12-and-under girls in Albany, Ga., Ray Knight was coaching third base for the Magic, the team on which his daughter Erinn played. With the count 3-2 on a Magic batter, the pitcher for the opposing team, the Hot Dice, lofted a ball, and Knight, before the ump could make his call, loudly urged the batter to first: "Get on down there, atta baby!"
From behind the third-base dugout, a 47-year-old construction worker named Jimmy C. Smith, the father of a girl on the Hot Dice, yelled to Knight, "Let the umpire call the game!"