- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

Judge Charles Grabau sat behind the bench in his Cambridge, Mass., courtroom yesterday and declared that his sentencing of Thomas Junta the Hockey Dad wasn't a message for any cause or greater social issue, and he was right.

The Hockey Dad had already delivered that message on July 5, 2000 with his fists in the brutal beating death of his son's coach after an argument over rough play during a game.

We had already heard horror stories of parents out of control in youth sports. But this was such a shocking, horrific story children watching as this behemoth of a man beat a coach to a pulp, beat him with punch after punch while children all around him cried and begged him to stop.

It was a jarring wakeup call to something that we had already known, but never had illustrated with such terrifying perspective: In sports, on every single level, the stakes have radically changed for anyone and everyone involved, from the fields where the NFL title games will take place tomorrow to the small-town arenas where kids will get up at 4 a.m. for ice time to play hockey.

Baseball players sign $250 million contracts. NFL coaches now get $25 million deals. It costs a monthly car payment to take your kids to an NBA game. Fans who are unhappy with the outcome of the game throw empty bottles on the field. Coaches who can't satisfy the immediate demands of owners are fired.

We are very aware how the stakes have changed at the highest level of sports. But perhaps we haven't been paying attention to how this unhealthy intensity has trickled down to the Little League fields, basketball courts and hockey arenas in our towns. It may be a little too close for us to believe it, but what we abhor about the sports we view as spectators has found its way down to our children.

Parents falsify documents so that their kids can win Little League championships. Parents invest more money for their kids in sports camps and equipment than for their education. And sometimes, when parents don't like what is happening with their son or daughter, they take matters into their own hands. They fight among one another. They scream at children who are playing against theirs, and sometimes at their own children when they fail. And sometimes they beat someone to death.

The blame for these incidents is often laid squarely at the feet of the parents involved, and obviously they are responsible for their own actions. But the youth leagues and organizations themselves have to shoulder some of the blame for the high intensity that now seems to govern games.

When many of us were growing up, there was not so much emphasis on organized youth sports and leagues. Kids wanted to play baseball, they got together after school and played. Same with basketball and football. When I was 12 years old, living in a small town in Pennsylvania, the only organized sport for kids was Little League baseball no midget football, no soccer, no lacrosse, just kids playing.

Those days are gone, a victim of the circumstances of our times more than anything else. Children don't come home from school these days. Many of them go to day-care or after-school programs because both parents are working and no one is home to watch over them.

The ones who do come home have no playmates for sandlot games. On weekends, children sometimes will be at home, but in a divorced home, they will be at their other parent's home for many of those weekends. These are the times we live in, and we have made adjustments so that our children have a chance to play the games that seemed so simple to us growing up.

These organized leagues are the way we have adjusted. In concept children given an opportunity to learn how to play sports and to feel good about competition it is a good idea. But it has gotten out of control, just like Thomas Junta was that day when he was upset about the way his son was being treated in a hockey game.

There are travel teams and all-star teams that make ridiculous demands on commitments from parents and kids alike having 9-year-olds practice three or four days a week, asking parents to drive two or three hours so their kids can play in all-day tournaments. It's too much. It puts way too much pressure on everyone involved, and sometimes that pressure can build up to an explosion.

I have a 12-year-old boy who happens to be a pretty good athlete. He wrestles and plays baseball, and that's all he wants to do just play. But apparently that's not good enough. He has been recruited to play on travel baseball teams, and coaches look at us like we're from another planet when we decline.

Coaches continuously ask him to compete in wrestling tournaments in other states, dangling the prospects of winning a trophy in front of him, and you would think we failed to take a loyalty pledge when we pass.

The message is clear: If you don't make a full-time commitment to your son or daughter's athletic activities at a young age, you will lose the chance to cash in later on, to get that college scholarship or payoff down the road. You are a bad parent.

Thomas Junta received a jail sentence of no less than six years and no more than 10 yesterday for his involuntary manslaughter conviction. But the system that feeds such a level of intensity remains, in desperate need of rehabilitation.

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