Group seeks to end bullying in youth leagues
By Rick Wills
Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Anthony Griggs, a former NFL linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, knows how nasty sports can get.
“Sports bring about lots of raw emotion from players and fans. It's about winning and losing,” said Griggs, who worked for the Steelers for 14 years and now is a motivational speaker.
Yet the worst behavior he's seen wasn't in high school, college or pro sports, but in leagues for pre-teens.
“I have seen parents bully the coach, bully other parents in the stands. I've seen coaches who behave like these games are the Final Four,” Griggs said.
Griggs is a member of a group called Parents for Pride, founded last year by Carmelina Vargo, who was frustrated by behavior she saw and experienced in youth sporting leagues.
“We are working with community youth sports. That is generally where there are a lot of problems,” said Vargo, who has four children ages 6 to 12.
She said when she and her family challenged behavior at youth sports events they were excluded from a league. She wouldn't give specifics but said bullying on Facebook followed.
She said the events “still frighten me.”
Parents for Pride formed to lobby sports groups to conduct background checks on coaches, work with community organizations and leaders to raise awareness and formulate ways to reduce adult and peer bullying.
The problem is not new, said Barb Darby of McCandless, a nurse and vice president of Parents for Pride. Darby is the mother of two college-aged children.
“I wished years ago that I would have done something. In youth baseball, parents are usually the coaches. It would help if parents were not coaches,” said Darby, whose son Michael played youth and high school baseball.
Darby said she understands that sports are meant to be competitive. But, she said, the emphasis for players age 10 and younger should be more on having a good time.
“Everyone should be able to play at that age,” she said.
Vargo's group is unique, said Jim Bozigar, an anti-bullying trainer for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and Safe Schools coordinator for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.
“It is something that is very much needed, and I know of only one other group in the country that is doing anything like this,” said Bozigar.
Pennsylvania public school districts are required to have anti-bullying policies. How the policies are enforced varies, Bozigar said.
One problem with such policies is that they often aim at curbing bullying at school.
“Bullying does not stop when school ends, and there is plenty of it in sports,” he said.
Exactly how much sports bullying exists is unknown, said Randy Nathan, founder of ProjectNextGen, a leadership training and professional coaching organization based in Livingston, N.J., that runs several anti-bullying programs focused on sports.
“It is a huge problem. But there is also no research that's been done into bullying and sports,” said Nathan, a father of four who has coached baseball for 20 years.
There is a sense of entitlement that comes in the world of sports, Nathan said.
“There are problems with intimidation, pushing players, injuries, hazing and homophobia that just pervade the culture of sports. I am addressing a real big taboo,” he said.
Youth sports also are less casual and more costly than they were a generation ago, Nathan said.
“There's been almost a professionalization of sports and intense competition, right down to 7- and 8-year-olds,” he said.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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