OBNOXIOUS SPORTS PARENTS: It’s Now An International Concern – and Growing
Australia’s “Ugly Parent Syndrome”
By Doug Abrams
With globalization influencing Americans’ lives so profoundly these days, I devoted recent columns to youth sports in Britain and New Zealand, two nations whose passions for competitive athletics resemble our own. Both nations maintain youth sports systems that are beset by troubles similar to the ones we face here in the United States. The most publicized troubles concern the efforts of youth sports organizations to counter violence and other misconduct committed by some parents.
This column examines Australia’s recent youth sports troubles, which are also similar to ours. The Queensland Courier Mail blames incidents of parental violence and other misconduct on “vicarious living, mob mentality and an overemphasis on winning,” even at the earliest age levels. For years now, Australians have diagnosed the malignancy as “The Ugly Parent Syndrome.”
President Obama is right that in “a world that is getting smaller because of technology, . . . there are terrific opportunities for us to partner with people around the world.” In so many areas of economic and social life, global partnering enables the United States to study how other nations (and sometimes other cultures) grapple with common problems. Americans can learn much from other nations, and other nations can learn much from us.
The challenges posed by the relatively few adults whose violence and other misconduct mar youth sports transcend national boundaries. A 2010 international survey, conducted by Reuters News and the marketing research firm Ipsos, ranked American parents as the world’s “worst behaved” parents at children’s sports events. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials. Runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), Canada (53%) – and yes, Australia (50%).
This summer, an Australian survey confirmed the earlier Reuters/Ipsos findings. As reported in the Geelong Advertiser on June 25, 64.3% of respondents said that they had seen incidents of Ugly Parent Syndrome in their local youth sports. The incidents included “throwing beer bottles at umpires, imploring their children to strike opponents, and publicly criticizing volunteer coaches.”
On September 11, the Northern Territory News reported that teenage officials had been “punched, sworn at and threatened” by irate parents at Australian games for children as young as nine. One observer likened these parents to “people who steal, bash children or bully the weak.”
On September 17, the Courier Mail reported “a spate of weekend junior rugby league brawls involving parents.” After witnessing one brawl, a Queensland Rugby League board member said that the violence “makes you wonder why on earth any parent would want to attack a kid.”
In the Canberra City News last year, sportscaster Tim Gavel reacted to several ugly incidents by asking, “Is there a worse sight in sport, apart from outright thuggery, than the image of an abusive parent at a junior sporting event?” He may have meant the question to be merely rhetorical, but listeners responded by inundating him with instances of “over the edge” parental behavior in that city’s youth league games.
In the United States, between 30 and 35 million boys and girls — nearly half the nation’s children — play at least one youth sport each year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that about 1.7 million boys and girls — about 63% of Australian children — play at least one organized sport outside school hours. In both nations, no other activity reaches so many youngsters outside the home and schools.
Recurring instances of parental disturbance may seem a cause for pessimism, but — in the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia alike — these instances are offset by the majority of adults, who seek to assure wholesome experiences for millions of young athletes. With the stakes so high, the majority in both nations can learn much from one another.
This mutual learning already seems to be bearing fruit as Australian youth sports organizations have countered parental misconduct with measures similar to ones taken in the United States. Australian parents may be required to sign preseason good-behavior pledges and attend meetings about sportsmanship and fair play. At sports venues, sports programs post signs requesting proper parental behavior. Parents may be barred from approaching their children’s benches during games and at the end of a quarter or half. Some programs maintain zero-tolerance policies for parental misconduct, and violation has led to suspension or dismissal of parents and, in particularly extreme cases, their children.
In the United States and Australia, national and local governing bodies, local sports leagues, and private reformers could learn from sentiments expressed in the other nation, and from written materials generated to support and explain these sentiments. Rich with new ideas, these sources are only a mouse click away on the Internet.
Government agencies have taken the lead. In the United States, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports & Nutrition instructs that “Nothing ruins the fun of physical activity and sports participation faster than a poor sport. Practice the principles of good sportsmanship. Be courteous and show respect at all times, win or lose. That goes for players, parents of all young players, and coaches.”
The Australian Sports Commission has published Codes of Behaviour. The Codes “identify a series of key principles on which young players, parents, coaches, teachers, administrators, officials, the media and spectators should base their sporting involvement.” The Commission seeks to “ensure that young people develop good sporting behaviours and have an enjoyable experience of sport, which will encourage them to remain involved throughout their lives.” The Codes of Behaviour stem from the Commission’s central creed:
“In Australia we are proud of our sporting ability and our reputation as a nation of good sports. Our society expects high standards of behaviour from all people involved in sport and it is vital the integrity of sport is maintained. The main responsibility for this lies with the decision makers at every level of sport who should ensure that all policies, programs and services are based on the principles of fairness, respect, responsibility and safety.”
[Sources: Chris Garry & Andrew MacDonald, Brawl Parents “Need Ego Boost,” Courier Mail, Sept. 17, 2012; Four In 10 (37%) Global Citizens Have Been To Children's Sports Event, http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Four-In-10-37-Global-Citizens-Have-Been-To-Childrens-sports-Even-1143748.htm; Parents Are Bad Sports, Survey Finds, Geelong Advertiser, June 25, 2012; Remarks by the President to Students at Parkville Middle School and Center of Technology (Baltimore, Maryland), www.whitehouse.gov (Feb. 14, 2011); Middle Class Dads Put On a Nasty Display, Northern Territory News, Sept. 11, 2012; Fiona Baker, Good Sports, Sunday Telegraph, May 27, 2012; The President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, The First Fifty Years, 1956-2006, p. 38; Tim Gavel, Sport’s Ugly Parents, Canberra City News, June 8, 2011; Brigid O’Connell, Ugly Parents Tackled at Sports Events to Protect Children, Herald Sun, Sept. 8, 2008; North Sydney Junior Rugby League, Ugly Parent Syndrome, http://www.sportingpulse.com/assoc_page.cgi?c=1-1125-0-0-0&sID=13503&articleID=52179&news_task=DETAIL; Australian Sports Commission, Junior Sport Codes of Behaviour, http://www.ausport.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/115576/8._JnrCodesofBehaviourbrochure.pdf ; Australian Sports Commission, The Essence of Australian Sport: What We Stand For, http://ausport.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/312869/A4_brochure_7_05-V5.pdf ]