While there are far more responsible, encouraging sport parents who attend youth and interscholastic games than those who behave irresponsibly, there are still too many parents who act out in inappropriate ways from the stands. Examples include parents yelling obscenities, berating officials and, in worst cases, engaging in physical harassment and assault. Not only does this ugliness result in fewer kids wanting to play sports; it also turns away talented officials as well.
Changes from the stands over the years
There used to be a time, not all that long ago, where youth and interscholastic fans engaged in positive and supportive behaviors from the stands. Rarely did fans scream out profanities, and physical aggression never occurred. Instead fans cheered the home team, respected the opponent and appreciated referees for the hard work that goes into calling a fair game. But things started to change around the late 1990s, hitting an all-time low in 2002, when the father of a youth hockey player fought another dad, resulting in death. The culture surrounding sports fans seemed to be changing -- and not for the better. The reasons why things got worse are not exactly understood, but there are several interacting variables that should be considered:
• More time and money invested. Youth sports have changed in many ways, with increasingly more kids specializing in one sport, playing a single sport year-round, and some even play multiple sports during the same season. These changes have resulted in more time and money investment from parents, leaving some to expect a payout of some kind for their efforts. In these examples, parents are vulnerable to their emotions "in the moment," and some have blurted out things from the stands that they never would say when not as emotional. Sadly, some emotional parents have done even worse, as with what occurred in the hockey-dad death in 2002.
• The professionalization of sports. Youth sports looks a lot more like professional sports today than ever before. Kids play with the latest equipment, wearing the latest uniforms and competing in state-of-the-art facilities. Artificial turf, a product previously only seen in pro and college sports, is now regularly installed at youth sport complexes and high school stadiums across the country. As youth sports more mirror pro sports, it appears that some adults attend games with the same mindset that allows them to feel as though it's OK to say and do what they want from the stands.
• General changes in society. Where at one time most Americans were compliant and obedient to general standards, norms and expectations, we are seeing a very different movement today that embraces individuality, uniqueness and an increase of freedom of expression. Social media have made it easy for people to say what they want and post pictures and videos of anything as well. The more outlandish and wild the behavior, the more clicks one receives on social media -- and the more popular some people feel as a result. It can be argued that the norms for civil fan behavior also have changed, possibly at times simply for social-media attention.
Crowd dynamics and fan outbursts
In addition to the macro-trends mentioned above, there are even more variables to consider when examining changes in sport spectatorship. Often we act differently when part of a crowd from how we would individually, and there are psychological reasons that help us understand why this occurs. First, there is a diffusion of responsibility in a crowd. If you are one of many who hurl insults toward a referee, it allows you to justify your actions as simply acting like everyone else. Second, there is the copycat (or piggyback) mindset where individuals in a crowd see someone else yelling profanities and therefore feel equally justified to do the same. Obviously, neither of these theories justifies vulgar behavior, but it might help explain it when studying group dynamics.
There is an additional layer to this discussion that should be noted, especially as this applies to schools and what they can do to better control fans -- and thereby better protecting referees.
• Develop specific, overt rules and protocols. Rather than allow crowds to police themselves, a more prudent measure might be to develop specific guidelines and expectations for fans who attend games. With more kids and referees quitting because of unruly fans, we could be entering a danger zone where it becomes a necessity to spell out school expectations and consequences as it applies to fan behavior. Note that this is not a suggestion to control speech but instead to let fans know school expectations and specific lines that should not be crossed (i.e. vulgar/threatening language, physical violence, etc).
• Teach fans how they can help. While it might be difficult to believe, some parents have told me over the years that they thought they were being helpful by yelling obscenities to the referee or making attempts to humiliate an opponent. A way to mitigate these potential problems is to develop appropriate sportsmanship guidelines that can be distributed to sports parents, uploaded to the school website and regularly used as a reminder during games. Help parents, especially those who have never played sports, understand that cheering and encouragement are much better approaches to helping kids succeed than purposely dressing down referees and opponents. Additionally, encourage parents to police themselves and those around them in the stands -- not by threats of removal but through encouragement to act as fans kids can be proud of by witnessing support.
While it is important to ensure that fans act appropriately for safety reasons, there are additional concerns that also warrant attention. When kids decide to quit sports solely because parents act irresponsibly, it is of great concern for everyone involved in youth and interscholastic sports. Similarly, when youth and interscholastic officials decide it's not worth their time to be verbally (or physically) assaulted, it compromises the integrity of sport competition, possibly jeopardizing the actual existence of youth and interscholastic sports. It is for these reasons that important, responsible, time-sensitive measures be taken so that we can allow kids to have fun competing and officials to do their jobs without fear of being physically assaulted.
Dr. Chris Stankovich is the founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center. Sports parents, please check out The Parents Video Playbook and sports counseling services at drstankovich.com