Raleigh youth football officials hope good fences make good fans.
Players in the Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department's football leagues are now competing within 6-foot-tall chain-link confines -- to keep overeager spectators off the sidelines. One reason for the move was a game last fall marred by penalties and parents screaming at coaches and officials.
"It's a good thing, keeping the parents off the field," said Eugene O'Neal, an assistant coach for the city's Little League Rams. "It kind of has that prison feel going on now."
The city football league isn't the only one trying to keep disruptive parents in line. This month, the Capital Area Soccer League sent an e-mail message to coaches saying that parents should "UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES" question referees. Some younger refs had refused to accept assignments as a game's head official because of "coach and parental abuse," the message said.
Officials with Triangle youth leagues say that parents are rarely ejected from games and that problem parents are few. But sports psychologists and academics who research fan behavior say that problems with parents are rising.
Those parents have been noticed -- by coaches, referees and children.
"I've witnessed parents on the 5-yard line, telling the other team they stink and not to bother trying to tackle their kids," said Robert L. Gordon, a coach for the Pack football team in Raleigh's Little League division. "And these kids are 8 and 9 years old."
This is the third fall that Raleigh has employed off-duty police officers to be conspicuous at football games and offer parking-lot escorts for game officials if needed.
But that wasn't enough last season, when a Junior League game, with players ages 11 to13, at Lions Park became what Raleigh Recreation Superintendent Diane Sauer called an "eye-opening incident."
The first half of the game was marred by "quite a few" unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for late hits and tackles out of bounds, Sauer recalled this week.
She said coaches and spectators lost their composure when a player was ejected early in the third quarter for another unsportsmanlike conduct flag. Referees ended the game after spectators, coaches and players streamed onto the field.
The city moved this fall's games to Laurel Hills Community Center in West Raleigh, where there's more space between fields and more room for temporary fences to restrict fans.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association requires that schools have a "restraining barrier," generally an inconspicuous low fence, around football fields. But the sight of tall fences at younger kids' games is new for most parents -- perplexing some, pleasing others.
"I guess I like the idea," said Cindy Gibson, 42, as she watched her 11-year-old son, Zack, play. "During the game, I constantly tell myself, 'He's not my child right now; he's the coach's responsibility.' Some people can get emotionally wrapped up in this, and the refs don't need to hear that stuff. Neither do the kids."
What happened in Raleigh last fall is mild compared with incidents elsewhere:
* In January, a man was charged with grabbing an 18-year-old basketball referee by the neck and briefly choking him after a youth game in East Akron, Ohio.
* This summer in New Bedford, Mass., officials suspended Little League baseball play for a week after two mothers got into a fistfight at one game and parents threatened an umpire at another.
* Three years ago, a Reading, Mass., man was convicted of beating another father to death at a hockey practice.
Duke University sports psychologist Greg Dale, who has written a book about how parents should behave, said more parents feel entitled to yell and react negatively because of the time and money they've put into their children's sports activities.
"Many look at that money and time as an investment that they're going to get a return on through a college scholarship or professional playing career," Dale said.
"And when that investment's not going the way they want it to, they will react."
Dale offered a simple self-test for parents.
"If your spouse is too embarrassed to sit next to you, that's a pretty good indicator that you're out of control," he said.
CASL executive director Charlie Slagle said the soccer league's disciplinary and appeals board typically addresses "two, three or four" cases a year of spectator misbehavior. Other incidents might go unreported, Slagle said, noting that teenage referees might feel uncomfortable reporting parents and coaches.
But he said inappropriate parent behavior is hardly new.
"I'm 53 years old, and there were embarrassing parents at my games when I was playing growing up," he said. "It's a very small minority."
Green Hope High School student Steven Mouro has seen that minority as a CASL referee. At a recent game, a coach sprinted onto the field after Mouro ejected one of his players for throwing a punch.
Mouro said his father, who is also a soccer ref, quickly diverted the coach.
Mouro said that he still enjoys refereeing soccer but that some young officials wonder: "Is it really worth it to be out here for an hour-and-a-half dealing with this?"
Some leagues try to head off potential conflicts by herding parents out of earshot.
For about six years, Wendell has cordoned off the seats behind the backstop of Wendell Park's baseball fields and encouraged parents to sit in bleachers behind the outfield fence. That keeps them from sitting behind home plate and questioning an umpire's calls.
"Our parents don't realize that's why we do it, but it has really helped out," said Kelley Connolly, the Wendell Parks and Recreation Department's youth coordinator.
Michael Kanters, an associate professor in N.C. State University's Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management department, recommends having parents and children sign behavior pledges at the start of each season (a measure used by the Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department). He also encourages coaches to include parents in preseason meetings to discuss proper sideline behavior.
A 6-foot fence, he said, is a less positive signal.
"It sends a message to those parents that you think they're going to act inappropriately, and you don't value their input," Kanters said.
City recreation officials say the fences help coaches and officials work without interference from a troublesome minority of parents.
"You don't need five or six other people telling children on the team what to do," said Susan McFarland, a youth athletics program supervisor for the city.
Football games generally are played at Laurel Hills on Monday and Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings. The last two Tuesday nights, there was little yelling and screaming on the parents' side of the fences. A few eager parents on each side of the field leaned against the fence, some wedging digital cameras through the gaps to snap photos. One spectator brought a four-step ladder Tuesday to videotape the game over the fence.
Kyle Gonzalez, a 13-year-old linebacker, stood outside the Laurel Hills center Tuesday night with his Panthers teammates, casually chewing on his mouthpiece before pregame warmups. He said that fence or no fence, it was easy to tune out the yelling and cheering and taunting.
"There's always going to be some talking junk," Kyle said. "It's football."
(Staff writer J.P. Giglio contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Lorenzo Perez can be reached at 829-4643 or firstname.lastname@example.org.