Most parents would baulk at showing their eight-year-old a movie that contains gratuitous swearing, verbal abuse, intimidation and occasional physical violence. Yet many are confronted by R-rated language and behaviour every time they play sport.
This week, Hawthorn’s coach Alastair Clarkson was charged by his son’s junior football league for verbally abusing a teenage umpire. He told the young official to “f*ck-off” after a muddled restart to a match. It was an U9’s game.
Clarkson threw a petulant tantrum in front of impressionable children. Instead of embracing his status as a role model (which, like it or not, he very much is) he let his temper get the better of him. Clarkson has since been reprimanded, but the kids who witnessed his outburst would have missed the official hearing. All they saw was a man who epitomises the pinnacle of footballing achievement verbally abuse and intimidate a 19-year-old umpire.
If it was an isolated incident Clarkson’s subsequent apology may have drawn a line under the issue. Unfortunately it was a reminder that this kind of behaviour is still commonplace on every touchline, in every code, in every state. Parents pace the pitch boundary like army generals at battle; angry mouths bark fierce commands at young children. A mistimed kick or fluffed opportunity can bring about a torrent of abuse. And pity any match official whose decision rankles a parent whose rationality is shackled by the bias towards his or her offspring.
The support shown for adult and junior sport should be completely different, yet some parents act like the honour of an entire nation depends on their kid’s dexterity with a ball. A leaden-footed tackle can provoke a rage professional sports stars only have to endure from the stands. It's all staggeringly inappropriate and places youngsters under phenomenal pressure.
Children with a fledging interest in competitive sport are as impressionable as any other child learning a new skill. The early years should be about understanding team dynamics, developing abilities and coming to terms with the vagaries of victory and defeat. Children should be able to foster a love of playing without the pressure of performance breathing down their necks.
During the first forays into any game it’s natural for kids' emotions to boil over. The pitch can be the perfect environment where they learn how to manage tears and tantrums. It should be no different from school i.e. a place to learn new skills from exemplary role models in a safe environment.
There's nothing exemplary (or safe) about parents who cannot rein in the type of hot-headed barracking normally reserved for grown-up venues and grown-up games. Persistent bullying cements the notion in malleable minds that sport and belligerence are natural partners. It’s an appalling example to set and does nothing to help the next generation of adults avoid the casual aggression that currently prevails on and off the field.
Although various sporting bodies have made some attempt to control parents' behaviour the measures are largely ineffective. Codes of conducts are impotent checklists tucked away in the recesses of the web. Most match officials have the ability to send troublesome spectators away from the pitch, but when faced with raging parents the balance of power often isn't in the official's favour.
It's hard to see how the tide of parental aggression can be turned. Banning perpetrators of extreme behaviour is one thing but that’s clearly inappropriate for every parent who swears on the sidelines. The English Premier League has had some success deploying an 'applaud only' policy at their academy soccer games, however it's debatable that could be adopted and enforced on a widespread level at grassroots.
For now, the best hope we have of changing parental behaviour is taking responsibility for it. Making sure everyone involved with our children’s sport knows the respective codes of conduct and takes them seriously. Parents who regularly transgress should be reprimanded without the fear of violent reprisal.
Ultimately we need to remind ourselves that yelling or screaming at our kids isn't the best way to support them. Neither is threatening opposing supporters, abusing the referee or swearing at the coach. At best children will be frightened. At worst they’ll mimic everything they see.
Role-call of shameful spectators:
- This year the SFL (Southern Football League) cancelled all its U8/U10/U12 carnivals as a direct result of persistent verbal abuse from parents and bystanders towards young umpires
- In May this year Avondale Uni (NSW) abandoned an U11’s game after three parents allegedly threatened players and a teenage referee
- In 2010 an amateur umpire was assaulted at a junior football match in Clarkson (WA). The umpire’s assailent was convicted of assault causing actual bodily harm in June of this year
- In 2011 a Perth father was convicted of assault after he head-butted another parent who asked him to stop swearing at an U12’s football game.
- Last September, a West Auckland (NZ) netball match was abandoned after sideliners verbally abused opposition teams and supporters. The players were aged between 5 and 11.
- In 2011 a nine-year-old was excluded from his Geelong (VIC) junior football team after an altercation between his mother and an opposing team’s coach
Do you think it's time parents pulled their heads in? Comment below.