That era ended with the rise of youth sports organized and controlled by adults, who set up the leagues and the schedules, resolved disputes and made and enforced the rules. Children lost control of their games—along with all the skills they had learned by playing on their own—and the games themselves became extensions of the parents' lives, often more important to them than to the kids. So it was that a new species of bird was hatched in the aviary of U.S. sports: Parentis vociferous, the loud, intrusive moms and dads unable to restrain themselves.
The species has been sighted everywhere; it's native to all states, and anyone who has been involved in youth sports has a story to tell. Refs and umps are the easiest targets, particularly if they are young. Typical was the experience of Jesse Weber, 19, a sophomore microbiology major at Colorado who umpired Little League for five years in Shaw Heights, outside Denver, and who remembers the stream of catcalls from the stands. "It was ridiculous," Weber says. He remembers having to walk to the fence and tell adults twice as old as he, "You're out of line. Have some respect for the game and the players in it." He remembers parents who called him a "jackass" and followed him to the parking lot, as if to pick a fight. And he remembers the shame the children felt at their parents' behavior. "You could see it in their faces," Weber says.
Coaches and parents have been baiting youth-league umps for years. Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, was a 16-year-old umpire in a rec league for 10-year-olds when, after a championship game in 1966, he was followed by several parents as he walked, nearly in tears, the 100 yards from the field to the rec hall. "It was like 100 miles," Schwartz says. "They kept yelling, 'You're a piece of s—!' Nothing in my experience had prepared me to be called what I was called by those adults."
The umps aren't the only people in authority at youth sports who are upset by abusive parents. Melinda Schmitt was an All-America swimmer who took up coaching after graduating from Miami in 1980. "I loved to coach," she says. "Little kids to seniors." She was leading a team of eight-and-under children when she first saw how panting adults were ruining the experience for the kids, showing up with stopwatches and timing all the swimmers until they had to be barred from the pool deck.
At a meet in Pompano Beach, Fla., in 1982, one kid was finishing a 25-meter race when his father, dressed in a shirt and slacks, left the stands and leaped into the waist-deep pool. He started slapping the water right next to the child. "He was screaming in the kid's face, 'You didn't finish hard enough! You let them pass you!" Schmitt recalls. That incident, more than anything else, drove her out of coaching. "I still think about going back," she says. "But I don't want to deal with the parents. They're trying to live out their fantasies. Some of them think they have the next Mark Spitz."
One of the distinguishing marks of obnoxious sports parents, psychologists say, is the inflated hopes they have for their children—an implacable belief, unsupported by evidence, that their kids are Mozarts in cleats, gifted enough to earn a college scholarship or even be a professional. With all the elite club and travel teams now playing, children's games have grown as deadly serious as intercollegiate sports. Not incidentally, the rise of Parentis vociferous coincided with the transformation of sports into a secular religion—and the escalating value of college scholarships and pro contracts.
"Like pro sports, youth sports at many levels are no longer a game," says Darrell J. Burnett, a clinical child psychologist in Laguna Niguel, Calif., who specializes in youth sports. "It is big business. The statistical chances of a kid getting a college scholarship are very small, but parents have unreasonable expectations. When their kid makes an error at shortstop, instead of saying, O.K., he made a mistake, he'll learn from it, they think, Oh, my god! What if a scout is in the stands watching?"
Now Armageddon can be found in tee-ball games for five-year-olds, and battles have been joined in events as trivial as flag-football games for six-and seven-year-old boys in which no official score is kept. Last Oct. 23, in La Vista, Neb., a 38-year-old machinist and former corrections officer, Roenee Ware, was caught on videotape verbally abusing and then assaulting the 16-year-old referee, Mike Tangeman, at halftime of a game. Flag football is a weighty business in Nebraska. Ware's team of tykes, the La Vista Tornadoes, had three coaches—Ware was the offensive coordinator—and the Tornadoes were "running the option," says Tangeman. When the game got rough and elbows started to fly, the ref began calling penalties. At halftime, Ware went onto the field and yelled at him for his calls.
The tape shows Ware, 6'3" and 250 pounds, jabbing his finger in Tangeman's chest as the little boys, including Ware's son, gathered behind him. At one point, after a shoving match, the 5'9", 160-pound ref slapped Ware's finger away. Ware then punched him in the face. Ware was arrested on a charge of third-degree assault and convicted at trial. He was contrite at his April 14 sentencing—"I should have walked away," he said—but Sarpy County Judge Todd Hutton gave him 30 days in jail and fined him $585.
Among the central questions raised by such a litany of incidents, says Jim Thompson of the Positive Coaching Alliance, is this: "Why do parents and coaches in youth sports act in a way they would never act in other places?"