It may have started as a simple skate-around at a nondescript hockey arena 15 miles north of Boston, with boys of all ages and sizes working on their puck-handling skills. But by the time it ended, amid children's wails over their dying father, it had become the final, ascendant symbol of a national malaise—of the violence and vulgarity that have been pooling like blood around youth sports in America. One hockey father, Michael Costin, lay slumped near the vending machines by the rink, his face so disfigured that two of his children would say they barely recognized him. Another hockey father, Thomas Junta, had thrown Costin to the ground and beaten him into a coma from which he would never awaken.
It all began around midafternoon on July 5, at the Burbank Ice Arena in Reading, Mass., when two men—Costin, 40, a part-time carpenter and a single father of four young kids, and Junta, 42, a truck driver and married father of two—got into what appeared to be a minor shoving match. Costin had been on the ice supervising the practice for the boys—who included his sons Brendan, 12, Michael, 11, and Sean, 10, and Junta's 10-year-old boy, Quinlan—when the action got a little rough. According to Junta's lawyer, Junta saw his son get checked and struck in the nose by an elbow. Junta complained, urging Costin to control the checking, but the attorney says that Costin skated over to where Junta was sitting and snapped, "That's what hockey is all about!"
When Costin came off the ice, Junta strode screaming toward him. The two men wrestled briefly—the 6'2", 275-pound Junta tore the 5'11", 175-pound Costin's shirt and ripped a gold chain from round his neck, according to Middlesex District prosecutors—until a rink employee broke up the scuffle and ordered Junta out of the arena. He left. In an era in which kids often behave with greater civility than their parents and in which violence and verbal abuse by adults have become commonplace at children's sporting events, the fight surprised no one in Reading, a town of some 23,000 souls. What happened next, however, shook a talk-show nation already numbed by pointless violence.
Costin and his boys were in the locker room, shedding their skates and gear, when young Michael said, "Dad, I'm thirsty." Moments later they were all at the Coke machine next to the rink when Junta returned, according to prosecutors, with "fists clenched." Junta knocked Costin down and pinned him to the floor with a knee on his chest. He then began beating Costin's face with his fists and banging his head on the hard rubber mats that covered the floor. Costin's three boys stood around Junta screaming, "Please stop! Please! He can't see. He can't hear." Junta did not slop, prosecutors say, until a bystander pulled him off. By the time police arrived, Costin lay unconscious, without a pulse, his head in a pool of blood, his face misshapen by the blows.
Junta was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor assault, but when Costin was pronounced dead two days later, prosecutors stiffened the charge to manslaughter—that is, killing Costin without meaning to. Junta has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer claims he struck Costin in self-defense and that he reentered the arena not to finish his fight with Costin but to look for two children he had driven to the rink. Junta is free on $5,000 bail, but he faces a trial after which, if found guilty, he could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Neither Junta nor Costin was new to the criminal justice system. Costin had been in prison seven times between 1983 and 1995 for crimes that stretched from breaking and entering to assaulting a cop, and Reading police believe he had ties to a gang of Hell's Angels in nearby Lynn, Mass. Junta had been charged with but found not guilty of willful destruction of property, had been sentenced to a year in jail for using a vehicle without the owner's permission and, in 1992, had been arrested for assault and battery. (There was no disposition in that case.)
Although the criminal records of the two men distinguish them from many Little League dads, the situation that triggered the violence is all too typical. Junta was regarded as a devoted father. Costin was a recovering alcoholic who had turned his life around after gaining custody of his four kids, and several acquaintances said he was "the consummate single father" who lived for his children. The kids—the three hockey-playing boys and their nine-year-old sister, Tara—trailed his casket as it was borne up the aisle of Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Costin's hometown of Lynnfield on July 11. The Reverend John E. Farrell delayed the funeral Mass to give the children time to finish writing letters of farewell to be placed in their father's casket. During the wake the grieving Tara had tried to climb into the coffin with her dad.
"Pride and anger can be virtuous and vicious," Farrell told the 200 mourners. "Sports can build up or take away."
As terrible and devastating as Costin's death was—in an ironic twist, Junta attacked Costin after Costin had rebuffed him for protesting violence in the practice—it was only the most recent case in what has become an epidemic of verbal harassment and physical violence by parents at youth sports events. Among the most egregious offenses:
? Ray Knight, the former Cincinnati Reds third baseman and manager, was charged with simple battery, disorderly conduct and affray (fighting in a public place) after an altercation at a girls' soft-ball game in Albany, Ga., in April 1999. Knight engaged in a heated and profane 15-minute argument with the father of a girl on the team opposing the squad on which Knight's 12-year-old daughter was playing. Knight finally punched the man in the head.