RESOLVED: Parents should be banned from sports sidelines
“Foul!” she yelled.
“Travel!” she urged.
“Just call it!!!” she implored.
Over and over, throughout the game, the woman rode the refs — insisting that her team was not being treated fairly.
Was it an NBA game? Or a college game? Or even a high school game?
Nope! It was a 5th grade basketball game, reffed by two teenagers.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident — one bad apple in the bunch. But, unfortunately, my time coaching my two sons’ basketball teams — and rooting on the sidelines for them in other sports — has affirmed that out-of-control parents are the rule, not the exception. (This isn’t to say a majority of parents behave badly. It is to say that at any kids’ game, there is likely to be at least one parent like the one I described above.)
The simple fact is this: Parents are ruining youth sports. And, even that assessment may be too rosy. It may, in fact, be true that parents have already ruined the sports their kids play.
Before I go any further, I want to reflect on that word “play.” It means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”
Enjoyment! Recreation! Or, put another way: The team that wins a 5th grade basketball playoff game isn’t likely to have punched their ticket to the NBA. And, by the same token, the losing side hasn’t seen their own basketball dreams crushed forever. (If your son is good enough to play basketball for his high school, he has a .03% chance of making the NBA. So, yeah.)
The situation is dire — and requires a radical solution: Ban parents from the sidelines.
To be clear: This would suck. One of the great joys of my life — and something I look forward to all week — is getting to watch my two kids play soccer, baseball and basketball games on the weekends. The pride and joy of seeing your child out on the field or court is hard to describe.
But, if the goal of parenting is to teach kids the right ways to conduct themselves in society when we are gone, then it’s clear — that at least in the arena of youth sports — we are failing them.
The obvious solution would be for parents to simply, well, behave better: Cheer for your kids and their team. Leave the coaching — and any questioning of the refs — to the coaches. (Coaches, too, can get out of hand. But, at least in most leagues, a code of conduct governs their behavior.)
But, my experience suggests that we, as a collective parenting community, can’t adhere to that simple rule. Time and time again I have observed behavior on sidelines that wouldn’t be tolerated in a workplace or a social gathering and yet, when children are involved, is somehow deemed ok.
There are those who say that the solution is kicking those disruptive parents out of the gym or off the sidelines. Which sounds good in theory! But, again, in my experience, the referees and umpires of these games tend to be teenagers. And what teenager do you know who is going to tell an adult man or woman that they have to leave the premises — and stop the game until it happens? (I am sure those teenagers do exist but they aren’t most teenagers.)
Which brings me back to a sideline ban.
We have some precedent for it. During the 2021 season — particularly in indoor sports like basketball — parents were not allowed to be in-person at games due to Covid-19.
I was an assistant coach for my older son’s basketball team that year. My main job was to set up a Facebook Live stream for the game so all the parents who couldn’t attend in person were still able to watch and root on their sons.
Was it perfect? No. (One time my phone died in a tie game that we went on to win on a three-point buzzer beater. Oomph.) Was it better than nothing? A lot. Did we have any issues in terms of parent behavior? Not a one.
And, not surprisingly, the kids behaved better — both in the game and on the sidelines — too.
It doesn’t take a clinical psychologist to understand that kids mimic the behavior — in all parts of life — that they see in adults, and, specifically, their parents.
If a mom or dad is acting out on the sidelines, the chances that their kid — or their kid’s team — will pick up on that is, roughly, 100%.
We had none of that. The kids couldn’t see how their parents were reacting on the sidelines because there were no parents on the sidelines.
Is live-streaming games — whether on an official feed for the team or, as I did, on Facebook or some other streaming service — a perfect solution? Nope.
Setting up some sort of official stream could incur costs that not all parents or communities would be able to meet. At the same time, every league I have ever been a part of collects a participation fee that covers jerseys, paying the refs etc. Some portion of that money could be devoted to a live-stream.
Or, if that proved too costly, one parent could be designated to stream the game the way I did — on Facebook or another free service. (That job could be rotated among the parents; each would be required to sign a waiver that they only cheer for their team and not complain about the refs — ever.) Phones are nearly-ubiquitous in this country — a Pew study in 2021 said that 97% of Americans owned one — and anyone can download Facebook and the like.
It’s a radical solution, to be sure. And one that would unfairly punish lots of parents who behave appropriately on the sidelines. Which, candidly, stinks.
But, consider the stakes: Our children — and the future of the country. Do we want to raise a generation who model the ugly behavior they see from adults on the sidelines of sporting events all over the country? Aren’t we already seeing the results of that learned incivility in society? Does anyone really want to see how much worse it can get?
I, for one, do not.