It was all over by the time the cops arrived. The local district attorney, after interviewing witnesses, charged both Knight and Smith with two misdemeanors. Knight was also charged with simple battery for landing that punch. The charges are pending, and more than a year later Knight still regrets his loss of control. "I feel awful about it," he says. "I'll tell you how much it hurt me. My girls didn't play in that league this year. I didn't want any part of it. My remorse is immense."
Twelve days before Knight belted Smith, a more violent incident occurred at a Little League game involving seven-and eight-year-old boys and girls in south Sacramento. Lawrence Bahrs, the father and coach of a seven-year-old boy, became so disruptive that the 16-year-old umpire asked him to leave the field. Bahrs, a 40-year-old welder, was calling balls and strikes over the ump's voice. Bahrs says he had gotten angry at the other team's manager, James Solari, then 39, for allegedly instructing the umpire and for using abusive language. After the game, according to Sacramento Deputy District Attorney Scott Triplett, Bahrs lay in wait for Solari.
As Solari left the field, Bahrs recalls, he told Solari," 'You might think you're some kind of coach, but you're an a———.' That ticked him off, and he took a swing at me. I deflected it, and he backed away. I walked up to him and I decked him, and I punched him a couple of times and I kneed him in the face."
Solari says he suffered a concussion and had the braces on his teeth broken in the attack. Bahrs pleaded no contest to felony assault and served six months of work furlough. After his release, Bahrs attended court-ordered anger-management classes. He was also put on five years' probation. "I'm sorry it happened," Bahrs says, "but it's pretty prevalent. You think it's bad at baseball games, you ought to see it at soccer games."
Or midget football games. In Swiftwater, Pa., last Oct. 10, right after the Pocono Mountain Cardinals had defeated a team from Allentown's East Side Youth Center 14-7, the two teams of 11-to 13-year-old boys had met to shake hands when some of them began exchanging taunts. One angry lad shoved another, and Allentown's 13-year-old Nicholas Davis got whacked on the head by a helmet. Coaches tried to break it up, but the "footbrawl," as the Pocono Record would call it, ultimately involved 50 to 100 players and parents, most of whom were trying to break up the fight. A few of the parents joined the melee after they charged onto the field to rescue their kids. The police were summoned, but only three people were charged, one adult and two kids. Two people were injured; one, a Cardinals assistant coach, Michael Bartell, suffered a cut above his right eye that required seven stitches.
When asked in studies why they play sports, children invariably say they enjoy the fun, they like being with their friends, and they enjoy learning the fundamentals and improving their skills, according to Thomas Tutko, professor emeritus of sports psychology at San Jose State and a member of the NAYS board. "Kids rank winning about seventh or eighth down the list," says Tutko. Unlike pro and college sports, in which winning often translates into money, children's games are supposed to teach skills and values—such as fair play, working with others and dealing well with adversity—that kids can draw upon throughout their lives.
"The main purpose of youth sports is to emphasize effort, participation and skill development," says Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia. "So we are sending the wrong message when we get too invested in the outcome of a youth game—who won, who lost, who scored the most. You start to get away from what the mission of it is."
For more than 100 years, that mission has gone far beyond sport's chalk boundaries. In the 19th century, most immigrants to the U.S. came from industrializing countries in northern Europe, and they fit well into the newly industrializing America. After 1880, however, most immigrants were coming from small rural communities in southern and eastern Europe, where the agrarian economy did not prepare them for the regimentation of factory life. So across America, in schools, churches and playgrounds, games were organized both to get growing numbers of rowdy children off the streets and to teach the values of industrial production to recently arrived workers and their children.
"The organized playground movement and the emergence of organized sports were, in part, tied to the Americanization of workers," says Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist at the University of Colorado. "The playground movement was motivated strongly by the belief that you could use team sports to acculturate immigrants. You made them understand the notions of setting goals, of keeping records—the things that the assembly-line supervisor kept track of." After World War II, Coakley continues, games became instruments of organizing and controlling children as millions of urban Americans fled deteriorating cities, settled down behind white picket fences and bred like rabbits to produce the Baby Boom, perhaps the greatest population surge of any nation in Western history. "The average parents moved to suburbia to control their environment and to raise the kinds of children they wanted," says Coakley. "This led to the formation of supervised environments for kids."
Out of this singular set of circumstances emerged the vast, dust-choked world of youth sports. Armies of kids joined thousands of youth leagues, and their parents came out to watch them play. Indeed, the 1950s ushered in an epochal change in the nature of play in this country. For decades, unwatched and unfettered by adults, children had passed the time playing made-up street and schoolyard games—from stickball to kick-the-can—and in playing them had learned how to arbitrate their conflicts and needs, how to compromise, how to build a consensus and make their own rules. Which is to say, how to get along in a democratic society.