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Informed Citizens

are Better Citizens

by Maria Wood

The National Council of Youth Sports estimates that 60 million kids across the country participate in youth sports. According to Sports Business Journal, youth sports is a $30 billion industry with many parents spending up to, and sometimes more than, $1,000 per year, per child on everything from sports equipment to league fees.

While the benefits of kids playing sports are huge, the exposure to violence on the field and in the stands is a concern for many in the industry.

Not isolated incidents

Although heckling opposing players and officials at sporting events may be as American as baseball, that largely non-violent practice has taken an ugly turn in recent years, and in one instance, turned deadly. In 2022, a coach at a youth football game outside of Dallas was shot and killed by a spectator from the opposing team over an officiating call.

New Jersey has had its share of violent incidents as well. In June 2022, an argument between an umpire and a coach at a 13-and-under U.S. Amateur Baseball League (USABL) game in Branchburg escalated to violence. The coach punched the then 72-year-old umpire, breaking his jaw. The umpire also sustained a concussion and required extensive surgery to repair his jaw.

The coach, who was from a visiting team from Staten Island, was arrested and charged by the Somerset County Prosecutor’s office. The Staten Island team was banned from the USABL, one of the largest youth travel baseball leagues along the East Coast.

What happened in Branchburg is not an isolated incident. In recent years, fights have broken out—between coaches and parents, parents and umpires/referees, as well as coaches and umpires/referees—at youth games across the state, marring an activity that is supposed to be fun for kids.

In 2022, an adult spectator rushed the court at a high school basketball game in Jersey City, shoving the coach and bringing the game to a stop. Even sporting contests for younger children are not immune to verbal outbursts. In 2021, a Little League game in Hunterdon County involving 10-year-olds was halted mid-game after parents in the stands and the 20-year-old umpire exchanged harsh words that included cursing.

Most recently, in January 2024, an incident involving a spectator and a student athlete cleared the bleachers at a wrestling championship held at Phillipsburg High School. The Warren County Prosecutors’ Office brought a second-degree aggravated assault charge against one woman, as well as disorderly conduct charges against three men who were involved in the brawl that cleared the bleachers.

Reducing violence in New Jersey

While New Jersey and 23 other states have laws on the books defining assault on a sports official as a crime, reports of aggressive behavior at youth games prompted New Jersey Assemblywoman Vicky Flynn to propose legislation that would upgrade penalties for violent flare-ups at youth sports. In the 2022-2023 legislative session, Assemblywoman Flynn introduced the Penalty Box Act, which would upgrade the penalties for assaults against sports officials, coaches or staff from simple assault to fourth-degree aggravated assault if there are no injuries. Those convicted could face up to 18 months in prison and a fine up to $10,000. If the official sustains injuries, the crime becomes a third-degree offense, which comes with a penalty of up to three to five years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine.

“Parents, spectators, staff, coaches and anyone else behaving badly during sporting events involving children must be stopped and held accountable,” Assemblywoman Flynn said in a statement. “Adults should be role models for children, but they are threatening the future of youth sports by creating a toxic environment for kids, resulting at times in violence and causing long-term mental damage to kids.”

The Penalty Box Act was passed by the New Jersey Assembly but failed to pass in the New Jersey Senate. A companion bill prohibiting bullying and harassment on school grounds introduced at the same time stalled as well. A spokesperson for Assemblywoman Flynn said both bills will be carried over to the new legislative session but will need to be reintroduced into committees.

Other states have taken similar actions to prevent violence at youth contests. According to the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), 21 states in addition to New Jersey have proposed or enacted laws to curb assaults and harassment at youth sports contests. For example, California adopted a law in 1991 mandating a fine of $2,000 or a jail term of one year for anyone committing battery at an interscholastic, intercollegiate, or any other organized amateur or professional athletic contest.

Deterrent or symbolic gesture?

Todd Clear, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers Law School in Newark, says he is skeptical that imposing harsher penalties for bad behavior at youth sporting events will curb violent incidents. Instead, Professor Clear views the law as more of a symbolic gesture indicating the high regard society places on people who volunteer their time to officiate youth games. In that way, he says, the laws are similar to those that upgrade sentences for offenses against police officers and first responders.

“There is not much evidence these laws change the frequency of those events,” Professor Clear explains, “but they do reinforce the idea that we value the people who serve as referees, first responders, and police officers.”

In addition, Professor Clear says such laws have the potential to dispense justice unfairly. For instance, a parent from a visiting team engaging in harassment or assault may be treated more harshly than one from the home team.

“Any time the law creates a capacity for an upward increase in the punishment, the chance that some people will receive that [punishment] and others won’t increases,” Professor Clear says.

Quitting the game

Those who officiate youth games have definitely noticed an uptick in bad behavior, and it’s taking a toll on them. A recent NASO survey of its members revealed that nearly 69% said sportsmanship was getting worse at games. Nearly half reported feeling unsafe at events, while 12% said they had been physically assaulted during or after a game.

These incidents have forced many youth sports officials to quit. NASO reports that since March 2020, its membership has dropped from 29,000 to 23,000. Likewise, the National Umpire Association has recorded a drop in umpires for youth games. The number of baseball and softball umpires in the Babe Ruth Youth League has declined from around 6,200 in 2017 to just under 5,000 in 2022. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports a loss of nearly 20,000 umpires between 2018 and 2022.

Why are these aggressive actions happening now? Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told EdWeek that parents are hyper-focused on their children’s achievements, hoping they get an athletic scholarship.

As Mary DeLaat, a basketball referee in the Milwaukee area who began officiating in 2014 but quit four years later, told The New York Times, “The parents are all like, ‘My kid is going to get that scholarship and be the next LeBron James.’ When something isn’t going right with that plan, the blame has to go somewhere, and often it’s the referee. It’s our fault.”

Pent-up anxiety and stress from the pandemic is also a factor, Professor Weissbourd noted to EdWeek. Together, these dynamics are fueling these outbursts at youth games, which have an effect on children, he said.

“It’s a scary thing for a kid when their parent is so out of control,” Professor Weissbourd told EdWeek. “It’s really troubling. We’re modeling for kids all the time. It’s a terrible way to model managing anger.”

Empty bleachers?

One New Jersey town—Deptford—made its own rule to curb aggressive behavior at youth sporting contests. Last year, the township instituted a rule that anyone berating an umpire or who steps on the field to complain about a call must officiate a game under the supervision of an official or face a year-long ban from sporting events.

Mark Bitar who assigns officials for North Jersey high school football and basketball games, told nj.com that the next step would be to ban fans from games.

“If people can’t behave, then maybe we need to have youth games with no fans,” Bitar said, suggesting that fans live stream the games.

Professor Clear says an immediate and enforceable ban may be more successful in deterring aggressive behavior at youth contests.

“A very rapid banning for the next three games or the season—those kinds of things with enforcement capacity have significant deterrent effects,” Professor Clear says. “We do know immediate consequences are more effective in shaping behavior than consequences far down the road, like jail time.”

In an interview posted on the Harvard Gazette, Professor Weissbourd recommended each youth league establish guidelines of acceptable behaviors at games, such as encouraging parents to thank the coaches and the referees.

“It’s important to spell out what constructive and appropriate behavior is,” Dr. Weissbourd said.

Discussion Questions

  1. What factors do you think have contributed to the increase of violence at youth sporting events? Explain your answer.
  2. Several remedies to combat violence at youth sporting events were discussed in the article. Which remedy do you favor and why?
  3. What can young people do to encourage better behavior from adults at youth sporting events?

Glossary Words
—a criminal offense involving unlawful physical contact.
legislation — laws made by a legislative body (i.e., Congress or a state legislature).

This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of The Legal Eagle.