Howling on the Sidelines: Confessions of a Semi-Reformed Sports Dad in Kansas


Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Any parent who has a child who plays sports has a story like this.

This weekend we were watching the last minutes of a football game before my son took to the field with his team. The match was between 18-year-old teams in a tournament, and clearly something controversial had happened earlier.

The coaches yelled at the referee. The players seemed more focused on pushing each other than winning the ball or scoring goals. It was tense, but also lazy, football. My wife and I watched the fiery grind to pass the time.

But then chaos erupted.

As a stray ball slid into a dangerous area, a defender lost track of which attacker he was marking. Once he moved it, it was too late to do anything but defile it. The defender knocked his opponent down in a dangerous rugby tackle, mischievously hooking the striker’s legs as they rolled on the ground. The striker popped up from the tackle, primed for a fight. And he got it.

The goalie rushed forward and blindsided him with a push.

What followed was a predictable rain of yellow and red cards, ultimately sending off three players. This is where the drama should have ended. As someone who didn’t care a bit about which team won, I judged that the referee had done his job. Spirits calmed down.

But then the sideline dad spoke.

“It’s just terrible,” he told the referee. “How can you do this to my son?” You’re just awful!”

The referee turned on his heels and asked, rhetorically he hoped, “Do you want to leave too?”

“You should park cars!” cried the dad. “You are awful. You should be parking cars!

If I wrote here the number of times the father mentioned the referee’s acumen with storing automobiles, you wouldn’t believe it. It was his furious public mantra. Again and again, louder and louder, with “parking cars!”

A marshal has arrived. No more shouting, no more escort to the parking lot (rightly so) for the father. After five minutes, play resumed.

This story is just this weekend’s episode of our experience watching parent madness in youth football. We have seen parents expelled. Parents talk to opposing 12 year olds as they play.

This story is just this weekend’s episode of our experience watching parent madness in youth football. We have seen parents expelled. Parents talk to opposing 12 year olds as they play. A parent glared at a referee as he chased him, saying, “I’m going to kick your ass.”

Years ago, while photographing a soccer game, I saw a referee call off the rest of the game after a parent burst onto the pitch during the opening kickoff! A single game was an entire game. Thanks to a relative.

I write these words fully understanding how unreasonable I have been. My family even has a meme of something I once said to a teenage referee — during a football game for 10-year-olds — after his call led to a goal.

I shouted, “It’s on you, sir!” with a toxic mix of accusation and mocking respect.

I struggled to be the good sports parent I hope to be. We want our children to win. We want them to compete fairly. And we become particularly livid when we feel that missed calls put them at risk of injury. There are reasons behind the madness smoldering in the folding chair on the sidelines.

But it’s still madness.

This year, I made a promise to my son. I would stop coaching him from the touchline. We pay a coach who is much more talented than me for this. I would also stop yelling at the referees.

At the start of my pledge, I kept score using a note on my phone. Every game I avoided coaching with my child or the referee earned me a count. It helped me see that I was making progress.

And it worked – most of the time. I went through a season with dozens of games without coaching my boy. My wife only occasionally needs to put a soothing hand on my forearm to remind me of my foolishness towards officials.

The irony is that my son is now playing games. What would I think if I saw a dad yelling at my son that he’s awful or that he ruined a family’s weekend by failing to raise an offside flag?

sports leagues difficulty in occupying the positions of referee. We have an insatiable appetite for youth sports that require hundreds of umpires for games every weekend: baseball, soccer, basketball and volleyball essentially run year-round. Yet our ferocity towards officials repels so many potential young referees. A social media account documents national issues of parents yelling during youth sports.

As I worked to be more reasonable, I realized that the greatest reward for being a sane parent comes from coming home after the game. You might think that “venting” to the referee about a missed offside call or questionable foul would have relieved me.

But the truth is, time and time again, I felt ashamed. I focused on how I embarrassed myself, wishing I could take it back, rather than the truly amazing thing: my son was playing football – a much classier brand of football than any football I’ve ever seen played – with a group of friends he loves and a coach he admires.

That’s my goal these days: to shut up with my negativity on the sidelines so that after the game I can go home with a light heart and do an amazing job parking my car.

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