Jeff Leslie still remembers the little girl standing on the mound, trying to play ball.
"She was pitching out there and all of a sudden she broke down crying," the volunteer president of the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association recalls. "The coach went out to talk to her and she said, 'My dad is embarrassing me to death.'"
The child, like many others, had a father who spent much of his time during the game yelling and screaming at coaches, and at members of opposing teams. It is with such children in mind that Leslie's six thousand member league has decided to require parents to attend a mandatory "ethics" course. Though other leagues make use of an ethics program for parents devised by the National Alliance for Youth Sports, this is the first league in the nation to make parent participation in such a course mandatory. Simply put, if you don't attend the one hour session, your kids can't play ball.
"We've been studying this for about six months and concluded that the kids need a wholesome environment in which to play," Leslie explains. "The number and severity of complaints has risen. We've got to start calming down."
Though there have been no physical confrontations involving parents within the league, officials believe that by setting a bad example, parents have incited kids to fight with each other. In the ethics course, Moms and Dads will see a 19-minute video on appropriate parental behavior and then review disciplinary rules established by the league. They will also be asked to sign a pledge, or code of ethics, vowing to behave properly at their children's games.
The first point of the code: "I will encourage good sportsmanship by demonstrating positive support for all players, coaches and officials at every game."
So far, league officials say, there have been no complaints about the new requirement.
Ethics Course for Parents Wins Praise
Every parent in every state, it seems, has a story to tell about bad behavior at a soccer match or in a hockey rink.
Sam S., father of nine- year-old David, recalls a soccer game last year when a group of fathers from another team yelled instructions like, "Tackle him!" to their sons on the field.
"I along with a couple of other fathers took these guys on - verbally - and said to them, 'These are kids, guys!' They were very arrogant. The teams were tied and when one of their sons scored a winning goal they came over and clapped directly in our faces."
Bruce O., a parent and Little League coach for more than 20 years, believes the Florida league's mandatory ethics course "makes some sense."
"A kid will make an error and you'll hear parents say, 'What's that kid doing in there?' Or, 'Why isn't my kid playing?' The worst I've seen is a parent jumping the fence and running at a kid because he felt he was deliberately sliding into base to hurt his child! It was unbelievable."
What's driving the fervor on and off the field? The rise of structured leagues and scheduled games has changed the dynamics of kids' sports, requiring parents to pay fees for equipment, provide rides to practice, and attend games on a regular basis. Sam S. and other parents believe the bad behavior may be the inadvertent result of good intentions.
"Like most parents, I want my son to do well," he reasons. "When he does, I'm excited for him. When he doesn't, I'm embarrassed for him. I think it also has to do with that old notion of living through your kids."
In Jupiter, Florida, the boundaries between childhood and adulthood are about to be redrawn, and parents on the sidelines will be admonished just as children once were at the dinner table: You should be seen, and not heard.