The Effect Terrible Sports Dads Have On Everyone’s Daughters
By Alex Flanagan
The story of my confrontation with what I thought was a wildly inappropriate dad acting way out of line at a youth sporting event spread quickly among parents at my daughter’s middle school.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you,” was the reaction most people had.
I felt apologetic too, wondering if I had missed an opportunity to speak up powerfully to a dad whose behavior made me feel small and symbolizes everything I believe is wrong with youth sports today. Had my lack of reaction shown the girls watching that women should back down and be quiet when a man devalues and bullies them?
“SHUT UP and SIT DOWN,” was what the stubbly-faced dad had said to me in a threatening tone on the sidelines of my daughter’s middle school basketball game. I was attempting to diffuse the uncomfortable banter among the men I was sitting in between that had escalated into parents threatening to “take it outside.”
My daughter is mostly a bench warmer on her middle school team and in this particular game she didn’t play a single second. I had taken the afternoon off of work so I could spend time with and support her, not to sit and listen to adults berate young women, chew out officials and belittle coaches.
“Hey man, we are all parents here just watching our kids,” I said after getting up to talk to the father of one of the stars of the girls on the basketball team my daughter’s middle school was playing, who was standing against the bleachers some five feet from where I was sitting.
“SHUT UP and SIT DOWN,” he said, in a condescending and intimidating voice, aggressively puffing his chest out and standing tall to lean over me. Fearful I would find a fist in my face if I said another word, I did sit down and shut up, and quietly watched the final seconds of my 7th grader’s basketball game … appalled, and saddened by what had just happened.
“Why didn’t you fight back? Why didn’t you say anything?” one of my mom friends questioned with a look that showed her disappointment that I hadn’t defended myself and said something smart in reply. “I guess because I felt powerless and didn’t want to make the situation worse than it already was,” I told her.
The truth is, in today’s world of youth sports, the rules of normal and acceptable social behavior have gone missing. Parents like this one seem to feel entitled to curse, scream and demean anyone that might come between their child and his or her pursuit of a triumphant athletic performance. I wasn’t interested in becoming part of another viral video showing the out of control behavior of youth sports parents.
In this situation, after our team missed a free-throw, a lane violation was called on the opponent in the final seconds of a hard-fought, tightly played game. The call put the ball back in the hands of my daughter’s team, ensuring them of the win and riling up the crowd, especially this one dad.
Heckling of the referee ensued and the tension that had been building between a few parents got worse. It culminated with that one dad daring a father on our team, whose behavior and comments throughout had also been uncomfortable and inappropriate, to “take it outside.” When he didn’t get the reaction he was seemingly looking for, he yelled out, calling our group of parents “sissies.”
That’s when I got involved and tried to remind this lovely father that we weren’t drunk fans at a WWE event, but parents of 13- and 14-year-old young women, whom, I think, we are encouraging to play sports in an effort to increase their self esteem, give them more confidence and empower them to stand up for themselves when necessary.
I know what his behavior showed our kids. But I’ve thought all week about the lesson my behavior taught my daughter and the other girls watching. Is it that when someone devalues a woman with their superiority and contempt and tells them to “shut up and sit down” that they should listen? Or that what actually matters, really in any situation in life, not just sports, is not whether you win or lose, but how you show up and how you choose to play the game? I don’t know.
Alex Flanagan co-founded I love to watch you play in 2015. She was flying home from an NFL work assignment when a learning specialist, who was sitting next to her, shared 5 reasons she shouldn’t feel guilty missing her son’s game. She shared their conversation on her own website alexflanagan.com and the response was so overwhelming it inspired her to create ILTWYP to help parents like herself navigate youth sports.