In a case of first impression entitled D.W. v. M.W., the Hon. Lawrence Jones, J.S.C. (Ocean County), has warned parents that their right to attend their child’s Little League games was in potential jeopardy due to “inappropriate public criticism and disparagement of coach decisions.”

The case, which has not concluded with a formal legal opinion, brings to attention a pattern of conduct referred to by Judge Jones as Little League Parent Syndrome. The “syndrome” goes beyond Little League and has in fact reared its head in a variety of children’s sporting events—sometimes with devastating results.

In 2012, a Minnesota man was sentenced to four years in prison for punching and biting off the ear of the opposing team’s coach because his son lost a Catholic youth basketball championship. Another man shined a laser pointer in game goalies eyes to help his daughter win a game; three men modified their sons’ sports gear to cause injuries to other players including one father who modified his son’s helmet to be “sharp enough to shred a magazine cover.”

Other assaults have escalated to frightening levels. In 2000, a suburban Boston father was charged with manslaughter in the fatal beating of another father over “bad” calls at a youth hockey game. There is also the classic case of Wanda Holloway, who in 1991 took out a contract on a 14 year old girl’s mother because that girl got on the cheerleading team instead of her daughter.

The general impression is that parents have gone “over the top” at youth sporting events. Over the years psychologists and behavioral specialists have suggested the actions are due to vicarious association. This means the parents are vicariously living through their children but with an adult aggression. Others suggest that it is based on parental competition to get kids college scholarships and millions of dollars in pro sport earnings; options that are generally warded to only about 1% of youth players.

Judge Jones emphasized that parental behavior should be modified to reflect the Little League tenets of “good citizenship, sportsmanship, and maturity of character” including “proper emotional attitudes about winning and losing.” Parents are, after all, supposed to be setting a good behavior standard for children, not influencing them in the other direction.

The State of New Jersey protects the interests of children under Parens Patriae. Part of that power is to issue orders about custody, care and maintenance of children to safeguard not only their health but also their happiness. This includes the well-being of children who are part of family law court proceedings, such as dissolutions of marriage and custody hearings. The state judicial system considers a child’s well-being to be paramount to other issues. It is not difficult to see that disparaging comments, foul language, and physical attacks directed against coaches, other parents, and young sports players can be are harmful to children. If it escalates it can also result in severe criminal penalties as well as civil damages that can negatively impact family structure.

In an effort to stem the unsettling trend this court offered suggested behavior guidelines for youth sporting events by advising parents to:

  • Adhere to league conduct and behavior rules
  • Refrain from publicly harass or demean any child
  • Refrain from publicly harass or demean any coach or official
  • Refrain from publicly harass or demean any parent or spectator
  • Act in a manner which upholds the dignity of the event

The consequences of aberrant parental behavior at sporting events not only can be prohibition from attending; but in the case of escalated verbal or physical altercations, the risk of criminal or civil liability. It can also result in state action related to protection of your children, custody arrangements, and family health and welfare.

This ruling is long overdue given the “over the top” behavior of a minority of parents at their children’s sporting events. The case and the recommendations support the tradition of our courts to intervene on a flexible basis if they consider the best interests of a child compromised. It will be interesting to see if such guidelines are formalized in future court action.