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Enforcing Etiquette on the Sidelines

Sports: Handing out lollipops and yellow cards, officials seek to clamp down on abusive adults and put fun back into youth athletics.


Fed up with the abusive and occasionally violent behavior on the sidelines of youth sports, athletic officials are clamping down on unruly mothers and fathers with a spate of measures that range from subtle embarrassments to seminars in etiquette.

* Several soccer coaches are dishing out lollipops to rowdy parents, with firm instructions to keep their mouths shut until the candy has dissolved.

* At football games this fall, many public high schools in California will slap yellow cards into the hands of overzealous moms and dads. Distributed through the California Interscholastic Federation, the wording on the cards warns parents that if they don't quiet down, they will be escorted from the game.

* For the first time, the Los Angeles Unified School District this year is urging coaches to send a letter home with every athlete, detailing parental etiquette at games.

* And in Northern California, the city of Roseville will require parents of children in municipal sports leagues to attend lessons in sportsmanship.

Two years into a statewide effort to improve sportsmanship in high school athletics, the interscholastic federation has concluded that parents need training as badly as the kids do.

Coaches of off-campus youth leagues could have told them that a long time ago. This summer, two American Youth Soccer Organization teams were banned after a parental melee in San Juan Capistrano. In Massachusetts last year, one father killed another after a fight in the stands at a youth hockey game. A Northridge father was sent to jail in January after attacking his son's Little League coach and threatening to kill him.

"We have had some terrible, hurtful behavior from parents," said Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute for Ethics, which is backing the yellow-card gimmick as part of its citizenship program for high school athletes. "We will not tolerate this behavior."

Roger Blake, head of education and training for the interscholastic federation, got the idea of yellow-carding parents when he was athletic director for the Lake Elsinore schools and charged with forcibly escorting obscenity-yelling parents out of games. During one such walk from the field to the parking lot with an angry dad, Blake noticed a referee hand a yellow card to an out-of-line player, a standard practice for soccer players.

Blake figured the embarrassment of getting the cards might work as well on adults as on children. As a result, the Lake Elsinore schools have "carded" parents for the last three years.

"It's just another tool for schools to use to turn the tide," Blake said.

Most parents are shocked when they receive the card. Often, just waving the yellow cardboard nearby quiets them, Blake said. He recounts the story of the father of a freshman football player--veins bulging in his neck, arms waving in the air, his voice hoarse from screaming--who saw Blake approaching with the card last year. The man walked over to Blake, his head hung low.

"He said, 'Roger, am I being that bad? I'm sorry,' " Blake said.

This fall, the cards will be recommended to every school in California; principals can decide whether to adopt the practice. Many are expected to, since 40% of schools in the state have adopted the Josephson Institute's Pursuing Victory with Honor program, designed to promote sportsmanship among players and coaches.

Victory with Honor calls for athletes and coaches to sign contracts promising good citizenship. But while it quickly turned around the behavior of athletes, the project did little for parental misdeeds, Josephson said. While adults have refrained from highly publicized fisticuffs at high school games, the level of invective from the bleachers has definitely risen, coaches say, possibly because of the lure of athletic scholarships to college has raised the ante.

"You have a captive audience with coaches and athletes," said Barbara Fiege, director of interscholastic athletics for the Los Angeles schools, which participates in the Pursuing Victory with Honor program. "You don't have that with parents."

Every athletic director in the district has been told about the yellow cards and can use them if he or she sees fit, Fiege said.

El Toro High School in south Orange County developed a different approach a few years ago after out-of-control screaming from the stands marred a championship basketball game. Now, warnings are broadcast to parents over the loudspeaker before each game.

Coaches and parents at youth games welcome such steps as they watch increasing numbers of grown-ups erupt in toddler-style tantrums.

"It's awful. It's terrible. It's a huge problem," said Terry Lowe, assistant coach of the Teal Titans, a California Youth Soccer Assn. team in Anaheim Hills.

Her daughter, Nicole Zabielski-Lowe, 13, said some of the worst moments of her young life have been spent running down the soccer field, chased by the shouts of parents on both sides.

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