Last year, Michael Bejarano, Amphitheater Public Schools athletic director, was interviewing applicants for a coaching position in the district. The interview team he'd assembled included two female high school athletes. While driving home after the interview, Bejarano received a call on his cell phone from those two athletes.
"The girls said they really liked the applicant, but they weren't sure he could handle their parents," Bejarano recalled. "Then one of them said, 'Coach, do our parents even have to come to the games?' I thought that was very telling."
Unruly or boorish behavior on the part of the occasional egocentric athlete and coach (think Bobby Knight, Dennis Rodman or, most recently and locally, the University of Arizona's John Mackovic) has been part of athletics since baseball greats Ted Williams and Willie Mays.
But the past 10 years has shown an upsurge in violent, aggressive and rude actions on the part of parents of youth athletes according to "If It's Just a Game, Why Are So Many Parents Out of Control?," a documentary produced by ABC's Primetime Live and distributed through the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, Calif.
In an effort to address this problem, Amphi adopted the national Pursuing Victory With Honor program this fall, a sportsmanship program that works with coaches, athletes and parents to develop proper behavior at sporting events.
"We began working with our athletes and coaches last year, but this fall we started having parent meetings to discuss the need for sportsmanship from the stands," said Bejarano.
The Primetime Live documentary is used to help coaches understand the depth of the problem before they implement the Pursuing Victory With Honor program.
Bejarano said parents from Amphi will be attending a training session on the program in Phoenix this week "with the hope we will come up with a parent Code of Conduct" that will be implemented in Amphi next fall.
Bejarano said "because this is parent-driven, I think parents will abide by it." He doesn't know what the program will be exactly, but forsees parent meetings next fall with parents signing a commitment saying they will abide by the Pursuing Victory With Honor Parent Code of Conduct before their child participates in school sports.
"We cannot legally keep a child from playing sports because their parent is out of line," he said. "Our consequence would be removing the parent from the game, as we do now. But we hope to have other incentives for proper behavior. It depends on what the parents come up with in Phoenix."
One idea Bejarano mentioned is "yellow carding" parents. The district would put the code of conduct rules on yellow cards and if a parent is out of line in the stands, an administrator would hand them a yellow card "basically saying there was a foul on them," he said.
Pursuing Victory With Honor grew out of the Josephson Institute's Character Counts course developed in 1993 and used in classrooms throughout the nation to encourage moral behavior among school children.
The sports program developed when sports leaders throughout Arizona - including the UA's Athletic Director Jim Livengood - gathered in Scottsdale in 1999 to discuss the need for greater sportsmanship in youth athletics. It is based on the "six pillars" of the Character Counts program.
The six pillars are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Applied to athletics, they translate into observing the spirit and letter of all the rules, putting education first, being a good sport, treating the traditions of the sport with respect, winning with grace, losing with dignity, never intentionally injuring another player and avoiding showboating, according to this year's interscholastic activities handbook for Amphi.
Sideline sports rage was catapulted to the fore of America's conscience two years ago when Thomas Junta, father of a teen hockey player, attacked and killed coach Michael Costin in Reading, Mass. Since then there have been numerous reports of parents behaving badly, including a Pennsylvania father biting a wrestling coach after his 7-year-old son lost a match, a baseball father in Alabama knifing a father from the opposing team when he objected to remarks the first father made to his son, and 30 parents fighting in a post-match altercation following a soccer tournament in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
Nothing so outrageous has happened in Amphi, but Bejarano said within the past two years he has had to break up a physical altercation between two mothers at a high school softball game, sit with a father during a soccer game to keep him from taunting the referee, and gone up into the stands at a basketball game to calm down a parent who yelled to her son on the court, "If the officials aren't going to call that foul, just break (the opponent's) legs."
"I had to go up there, sit with her and try to explain to her why we really don't want our kids being encouraged to be violent," he said. "I really couldn't believe that I had to do that. For 20 minutes.
"There's not an athletic director in town who couldn't give you a story of some parent who had to be calmed down or escorted out of a game," he continued. "Without a doubt that it is the minority of parents, but just a few can make things pretty bad. We just can't turn our heads to it anymore. We are trying to get the message out that we want fans, not fanatics. We want parents to come and support and encourage the kids, but (heckling) the officials, yelling at the coaches and in many cases, just pressuring their own kids too much, is not what we want."
Bejarano said the district doesn't keep track of unsportsmanlike conduct in the stands, "but if a school has one example, it is one too many."
While many coaches have for years had parent meetings at the beginning of their sport's season - especially in middle school - this fall marks the first time brochures about the program were passed out and parent meetings were held to discuss "proper fan behavior," Bejarano said.
"The state of Michigan conducted a survey of young athletes a couple of years ago asking kids why they play sports," Bejarano said. "The number one reason is that it is fun. Winning was number four or five on the list. And the other interesting thing is that something like 74 percent of all kids drop out of sports by the time they are 13. Why? Because it is no longer fun."
Bejarano and some local parents said a good chunk of the reason kids stop having fun with sports is because of the pressure to win, which is oftentimes put on the athlete by parents as much as coaches.
"Everybody wants to win, however it is how we get there that is more important," said Bejarano, who led the Sabino High School baseball team to a state championship in 1997. "Did you cheat? Did you play fairly? Did you only recruit the best athletes? Winning is great, but there are lots of other things that are important, like working hard, following the rules and going to class."
But with possible university scholarships dangled out in front of promising athletes and their parents, sometimes priorities get out of focus.
Bre Ladd, 18, a freshman volleyball player at the UA, started receiving recruiting letters from universities when she was a junior at Canyon del Oro High School, said her father Bob. As one of the top players in the nation, an athletic scholarship was a realistic expectation and she had offers from 100 universities. However, the vast majority of high school athletes are not a Bre Ladd, yet their parents pressure them to be.
"It is tempting to hope they might get to play university sports," said Bob Ladd. "I do know of parents who push their girls pretty hard. And that probably happens more in club sports than in high school, because that is where the (university scouts) see your kid play. And actually, we noticed more aggressive behavior from the fans when Bre played soccer; I think maybe that is simply because soccer is a more violent game."
Ladd said sometimes parents seem to want their kids to play sports more than the child does.
"I say let it be your child's decision. Just support them. Don't try to be their coach, because you're not. Just love them and let them make their decision as to how involved they want to be," he said. "Kids start dropping out of organized sports in high school because the competition gets tougher and it isn't any fun for them anymore. If it isn't what they want to do, a parent shouldn't push them."
Elaine Hunolt has four children in Amphi Public Schools and among them they have played every team sport. She is one of the parents going with Bejarano to the Phoenix conference. During her years watching her children play various sports she said she has noticed an increase in rude parent behavior, but it seems to be leveling out.
"I don't think any parent is opposed to sportsmanship, I think we all agree with the concept," Hunolt said. "But I think sometimes we forget what is appropriate behavior in public. And the rules have changed. When I was a kid it was OK to taunt the batter from the stands at a baseball game. Now we recognize hat it isn't good for a kid to hear, 'You can't hit, you can't hit!' The schools are trying to take a positive approach and teach parents not to coach from the sidelines and to say positive things like, 'Great try, good play.'"
Hunolt said there are still parents who "overly pressure" their children in hopes of the child going on to play college or professional ball, "but I see that less and less, especially by high school."
"When kids are young, you see some parents taking them to (sports-training) classes and playing all kinds of sports trying to push them and make them the best," she said. "But really, by high school, if a parent is paying attention - well, you can just tell if your kid is any good or not. And people are beginning to finally realize that it is very, very rare to play professional sports. What I'm seeing is that parents are back to focusing on grades for their kids to get scholarships, not sports."
Bejarano said more than once he's heard young athletes complain about their parents coming to the game.
"If parents only knew what their kids think about hearing their parents yell at them from the stands, or worse, yell at the coach or the officials, maybe they would stop," he said. "Part of it is the trickle-down theory because we have college and professional games where the fans are unruly.
"But we can't blame it all on the big leagues," he continued. "The thing is, people would never act like this in their business. They would never scream at some customer about breaking his legs. I'm not sure what it is about athletics that brings out not only the best but the worst in people.
"Everybody knows right from wrong, all the fans do," he said. "But when that whistle blows, sometimes we just forget and we need something to be our reminder. That is what this program is going to do for us in Amphi - be our reminder."