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Rage against the machine
  1. P McCrory

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The influx of lawyers into sport continues. We are all becoming familiar with the concept of the “football dad”, whereby a parent pushes his child to play better, abuses referees and berates the coach. All of this is in the hope that his child will achieve sporting success and perhaps a lucrative future professional career. This becomes all the more tempting when teenagers are signed for professional US teams, with sign on fees in excess of $US 1 million. In the case of some sports like NBA basketball, sign on fees from collegiate players are measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

With such huge financial and psychological burdens, the pressure to perform is huge. Sadly, in far too many cases, this pressure turns individuals to violence. In Canada, the concept of “rink rage” is well known. One in three of the 33 000 minor league ice hockey referees leaves the sport each year and the number one reason for leaving is the abuse they take from parents, players and coaches. This ranges from verbal comments to physical abuse.

The latest development pushes the boundaries further. Two lawsuits in 2003 suggest that even the junior players themselves are taking it too seriously. In one, a 10 year old Toronto boy sued the coach of an opposing team for $Can 10 000. He alleged that the coach had said that he planned to “put a bounty” on him. The coach concerned denied this and the suit was dismissed. The second case involved a teenage player in the Canadian region of New Brunswick, who sued the local league for $Can 300 000 as he said that he should have won its “Most Valuable Player” award.1

Where does the fault lie for this behaviour? With parents who push the children, with the child athlete who lacks the insight into their behaviour, with coaches whose need for success reinforces aberrant behaviour, with the sports driven by huge financial rewards, or with the media that reinforces this behaviour? Somehow we seem to have moved away from the idea that children should enjoy playing a team sport and the camaraderie that results.

I often walk my dog through a local park where, on a weekend morning, the local junior football team plays. While I find it disconcerting that they all wear protective helmets despite the evidence against there use in this age group, far more worrying is the legion of dads who seem to be in charge. It seems that there is no end to the number of official positions available for parental involvement. Each of them seems to be equipped with a magnetic board to advise the coach on tactics and positional moves. I mean really, these are 10 year olds who just chase the ball round and kick it in any direction, yet the fathers are treating them like professional players. When I remember back to my junior footballing days, I am thankful that the coach was a primary school teacher who at least understood what kids were capable of at that age. I guess I must have enjoyed it too much, perhaps that is why I never played professional football!

After all, it’s just a game.