Spectator aggression is as old as the gladiatorial battles at the Coliseum. Whether this spilled over into sporting contests involving the children of ancient Rome is unrecorded. Certainly, however, the unruliness on the sidelines can hardly have reached the level that has become an all too common throughout New Zealand every Saturday. Normally mild-mannered parents turn into ranting fools, transforming a family-friendly environment into one of tension, unease and, potentially, violence. The number of incidents, and their consequences, have become too great to be dismissed as harmless sideshows. It is time that we changed the way we think about children's sport.
That is why the Herald on Sunday is today starting a campaign entitled Sideline Champs. It is working with key winter sports codes to heighten awareness of the need for fair play on the sidelines, as well as the field, and to build on their work. Rugby union, for example, will next month launch its Applaud campaign, part of which is a comic book My Parents are Ugly, which we feature today.
Such initiatives are important because efforts to improve sideline behaviour have been accorded too low a priority in recent years. The Fair Play Awards once run by the Hillary Commission were a casualty of the restructuring of sporting agencies that created Sport NZ, and the emphasis on cultivating high performance. With the eyes of sports bodies averted and no one championing fair play, the problems on the sidelines have escalated.
Most dramatically, this has been illustrated by incidents such as the brawl between the first XVs of Auckland Grammar and Kelston Boys High School, in which parents become embroiled. More usually, it involves parents losing their self-control and raging at referees, coaches or other spectators. This behaviour has become sufficiently widespread to warrant academic inquiry, much of which equates it to road rage. Singled out for blame are ego-defensive parents who wish to exercise control even on a sports field and who take perceived transgressions far too personally.
The consequences are not minor even when the outcome does not descend to violence. Parents' behaviour can drain children's sense of enjoyment and harm their relationship with teammates, coaches and other parents. It can also diminish their motivation to keep playing a sport, and determine how they handle competition throughout their lives. Undesirable attitudes will, in turn, be passed down to their children.
No one, of course, wants to stop parents supporting their children enthusiastically. In turn, youngsters enjoy their parents watching them compete. Any response to unruly parents must recognise this. Reining in the voice of spectators, as in the case of the Silent Sundays sometimes practised in the United States, is, therefore, inappropriate. So is requiring spectators to sit on the opposite side of the field from the coaches and teams.
Far more profitable are code of conducts. The Herald on Sunday has devised one which requires a pledge from parents to cheer loudly but in a way that is smart, honourable, proud and fair. The vast majority will happily adopt this. Their behaviour can shame bad sports, thereby helping to embed the code and its aims. We are also setting up an online app that allows supporters to rate the sideline behaviour at the game they are watching. Rate My Game is another way to reproach those who think it is OK to rant and rave. It is time they learned that what they are watching is, indeed, just a game.