How lacrosse became a blood sport

Here in Georgetown, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness means one thing: the immense din and clutter of leaf-blowers. It's a wonderfully symbolic tradition of modern privileged America that sweaty Latinos are brought in at this time of year, noisy compressor engines strapped to their backs. Then, instead of clearing away fallen leaves (or doing anything old-fashioned like starting compost heaps), they proceed noisily to blow away their employer's leaves, either into the street or into neighbours' gardens - anywhere, so long as not a leaf is left to disfigure some manicured showpiece of a lawn.

Kids are back to school, too, after their absurdly harmful three-month summer holidays. For many parents, that means a return to one all-consuming goal: turning their kids into super-competitive athletes. The other day, I found myself at a basketball game where the two teams consisted entirely of ten- and 11-year-old boys. Perhaps about 50 adults sat on benches around the court, clapping, cheering and yelling advice. Then I realised I was being given disapproving stares, and slowly I understood my crime: without thinking about it, I had been clapping whenever a kid on either side made a good move. That is not how we play here, I was being given the message by these parents furiously supporting one particular side. We play to win, don't you understand?

Last year, I wrote about road rage here, and how a man driving a truck full of live chickens tried to drive me off the road at high speed. Then we had air rage, with police being called to arrest violent passengers. This autumn, an ugly new phenomenon is emerging here: "parental sports rage". Increasingly, the stresses and strains of modern life are being displaced by adults on to their children's sports.

Now, instead of kids having good-natured fun and exercise, it has become normal for parents routinely to yell abuse at referees, themselves often teenagers (last year a soccer mom in Virginia was fined for assaulting a 14-year-old referee), and even to taunt other kids, besides fellow parents. The National Association for Youth Sports says that violence at children's sporting events has increased threefold in the past five years.

One recent case was particularly alarming. In July a group of ten- and 11-year-old boys were practising ice hockey in Reading, Massachusetts, a small, prosperous town near Boston. A father of two, Thomas Junta, 42, went out on to the ice to tell the man in charge that his sons were becoming too rough. The manager had Junta thrown off. But moments later the 6ft 2in, 19-stone dad was back and had Michael Costin, the 40-year-old father of four in charge of the practice game, on the floor - his knee on Costin's chest as he banged the man's head on concrete. The sons of both men, and a sprinkling of parents, watched in horror. Two days later, Junta was charged with manslaughter.

Down in Florida, meanwhile, a father and baseball coach of his son's team has been charged with breaking the jaw of an umpire. These problems have become so serious that the Arizona state legislature is considering making it a class one misdemeanour - punishable by six months in prison and a $2,500 fine - to lay a finger on any kind of official at kids' games; 12 other states have already introduced similar laws. With 30 million children between the ages of four and 14 playing organised sport in the US, it's clear that American parents are taking their kids' sports far too seriously, often unleashing dangerously overwrought emotions and rage.

Why? The first reason is the very American notion that winning and getting ahead are more important than how you play the game. With top college places becoming less available to middle-class kids whose parents walked into the likes of Yale and Harvard, sports scholarships have become the get-ahead weapon of the well-off rather than the traditional route for the impoverished. I know one father of four teenage boys who is obsessed with their lacrosse abilities: he knows that being a top school lacrosse player is more likely to get them into Harvard than merely decent academic results.

But that, in turn, leads to furious ambition which can become uncontrollable. A colleague tells of his teenage niece - a seriously good swimmer in her school team, with a chance of winning a college scholarship on the strength of it. Her coach gave the team a pep talk, brandishing an account of a rival coach saying, "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts". The girls' coach asked all members of the team who agreed to raise their hands. A few did, including my colleague's niece: "Well you can just get off the team now," the coach snarled. "That's the wrong attitude round here."

The problem is a result of modern urban lifestyles which are now much the same in the UK and most of the western world: children have to be driven to sporting events, so parents stay for the matches, and then vent their feelings on other parents, coaches and teachers. "Scheduled hyperactivity", I gather, is the vogue term to describe such frenzied parent-child lifestyles.

But the phenomenon is most intense here in Washington. Competitive parenting - and I live in perhaps the most competitive city in the world - has encroached on the hitherto healthy activity of kids' games, with children's sporting prowess becoming a new measure of familial success.

Depressing stuff, along with those leaf-blowers. But I have made one vow: if a child on an opposing team scores a goal, I will still insist on applauding. Even if I get reported to the Un-American Activities Committee, or perhaps suffer some even worse fate.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun