February 21, 2024

Athletic arena becoming a toxic environment

Straight Shots

Last week was a busy one for coaching middle school basketball and covering games to help the News Advertiser, which I still like to do about twice a week.

But, my favorite game of the week was watching 7-year-old kids play in a one-hour game 240 miles from Creston.

Deb and traveled to Davenport to watch grandson Sage play in his youth league. It was a wonderful experience, and not just because it was our grandson.

At his level they don’t keep score and the stress is low. So, in that environment in a tiny gym lined by chairs along the edges of the court, there was nobody yelling at the teenage officials, there was minimal “coaching” from the parental sidelines and nobody was complaining about the coach after the game.

That was refreshing.

Much like the state of politics in the last decade or so, sports fandom has taken on a new level of nasty at levels ranging from youth leagues through the college and pro ranks. Personal insults and threats have become so mainstream that we barely blink an eye when it happens.

When the Buffalo Bills were playing in the AFC playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs and Bills kicker Tyler Bass missed a late game-tying field goal wide right, the blowback was bad. Bass fielded death threats.

Do those people look in the mirror and feel proud for wishing heartache and sorrow on the family of a professional athlete who tried his best to come through for his team in the big moment? What if that person was an accountant and took a call from someone threatening to take his life because he missed a tax credit on their form?

Then, that same weekend, the Iowa Hawkeye women’s basketball team lost a close game at Ohio State. The Buckeyes were particularly effective at scoring inside near the rim, and Hawkeye center Hannah Stuelke was criticized for her play that day.

There was a social media storm afterward, with her father responding on “X” (Twitter) that his daughter is a natural power forward and being asked to play the inside post spot, out of position for her size and skill set.

It became a back-and-forth battle of words and Stuelke eventually had to delete her own social media accounts after receiving so many nasty messages.

At the high school level this year I’ve been at two games where fans were either ejected or asked to pipe down by the coaching staff so the game — played by kids — could be properly administered without disruption.

At our middle school games recently in Red Oak, one of the officials was discussing the current state of affairs with us coaches before we boarded the bus to go home. She told us about some of the things yelled at her during games from the varsity level down to youth tournaments.

What kind of example are we setting for our young people by all of these actions? Sometimes as I work with kids in the gym, I think they are the ones setting a good example for their elders. I see kids continuing to work hard despite facing adversity, and conducting themselves with respect for the game, their opponents and the officials.

There is already a severe shortage of officials and it’s getting more difficult each year to fill coaching vacancies. Parents literally tell coaches “I’ll have your job” if they don’t play their kid. They don’t see that young person failing to match the effort of many peers in practice every day. They just know they spent money on camps and travel teams, so their child “must be” better than the rest.

Sometimes I shake my head and think that maybe at age 66 I should be done with sports. That it’s just too toxic.

Then I go to my grandson’s game where little kiddos on BOTH teams are clapping when a basket is made. Parents and grandparents are smiling and applauding their efforts, and people shake the hands of the refs willing to work games at that level.

There are still good people in sports. They’re just getting harder to find.


Contact the writer:

Email: malachy.lp@gmail.com

Twitter: @larrypeterson

Larry Peterson


Former senior feature writer at Creston News Advertiser and columnist. Previous positions include sports editor for many years and assistant editor. Also a middle school basketball coach in Creston.