Field of Bad Dreams?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Field of Dreams (PD)
In Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones's character makes a famous speech about baseball being "the one constant through all the years." While "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers," and has been "erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again . . . baseball has marked the time." In D.W. v. L.W., the Law Division started its opinion with a less poetic, but more ominous baseball-related statement: "This case involves separated parents, young children, and Little League baseball." If you have been to more than a few youth sporting events, you can probably guess what was at issue in the case. Nonetheless, the court's opinion is a good read as it is part homage to little league baseball and part framework for how parents should (and should not) behave at youth sporting events.

In D.W., a husband and wife's child played in a "coach-pitch league." Although they were separated, they agreed that they could both attend the games as long as the husband stayed at least 50 feet from the wife. A few months later, the husband filed a follow-up motion to attend their son's football games. The wife opposed the motion and further asked the court to ban the husband from continuing to attend their son's baseball games because he had "acted inappropriately at the baseball field, in a publicly embarrassing manner, by making negative and demeaning comments about the team coach's baseball-related decisions, within earshot of the coach's wife." She further claimed that the couple's daughter later started repeating the husband's comments, and that the husband had posted similar commentary about the coach on Facebook. The husband denied that he acted inappropriately, and further claimed that it was his wife "who, at least previously, did not approve of the coach's baseball-related abilities." (As an aside, how many "baseball-related decisions" does a coach really make in a 7-year-old's coach-pitch game?)

The court began its opinion by emphasizing the importance of youth sports in America. More than 40 years ago, the Appellate Division recognized that little league baseball was a "piece of public Americana." It has been almost universally praised as a "social and cultural tool for positive childhood development and inclusion." According to the court, the benefits of little league baseball go beyond "simply teaching children to hit, field and catch," but include developing "good citizenship, sportsmanship, and maturity of character." In fact, the court took judicial notice that "the results of particular Little League games are not nearly as significant as the underlying goal of developing a child's ongoing personal character in a positive fashion."


Unfortunately, the court  also noted that parents sometimes come to little league games "for the alleged purpose of supporting sons and daughters," but are, at times, "overly critical, judgmental, and interfering," which often causes them to "act in an objectively inappropriate manner, which can be highly embarrassing and emotionally detrimental to their own children and others as well." It noted that this type of behavior is informally referred to as "Little League Parent Syndrome," and is perhaps the reason why little league baseball has a "parental pledge" that applies to all of its players' parents. The court further noted the following, which is a sentiment likely shared by anyone who has ever coached little league, or any sport on any level for that matter: "Sitting in the stands without any on-field responsibilities [ ] does not make one a coach, and certainly does not permit any parent to breach the peace or embarrass any coach, official or other  participant, regardless of whether some parents know or think they know more than the coaches and officials running the game."

Turning to the case before it, the court felt that it would not be in the child's best interest to hold a hearing and take testimony from the wife and husband (and perhaps coaches, other parents, and other players), all to determine what was said and whether it was appropriate. Instead, the court decided to give the parents a second chance, which it called the "fresh start approach." The court noted that this approach was consistent with the lessons that are meant to be taught in youth sports:

In most aspects of human life, except in perhaps highly extreme circumstances, there is much to be said for a second chance and a fresh start. In fact, this is one of the very strong lessons  of  organized youth sports  itself.  A batter  who  strikes  out,  or commits  a  game-changing error ultimately has  another  opportunity to learn from the situation, adjust,  and find greater success the next time around.  The same goes for a football player who fumbles  the ball at the goal line or throws a critical interception. Put another way, through trial and error, tomorrow may be a whole new ball game.

Under this approach, the court did not look backward to what had allegedly already happened, but instead looked forward and instructed both husband and wife to be guided by certain parameters. Specifically, the court instructed both parents not to: (1) publicly harass or demean their child or any other child; (2) publicly harass or demean any coach or official; (3) publicly harass or demean any other parent or spectator. They were also required to affirmatively "act in a manner which upholds the dignity of the event," and "fully comply with all other rules of conduct required by the league or organization in question." If they failed to do so, the court reserved the right to impose "any and all relief deemed appropriate and responsive to the situation in the children's best interest," which it warned could include parenting classes, anger management classes, or financial sanctions.

Finally, unlike the Flannery O'Connor stories I am currently reading, in which every protagonist appears to die, this story has a happy ending. The following appeared in a footnote at the very end of the opinion: "Subsequent to the court's order in this matter, both parties appeared in court for follow-up proceedings regarding various issues. Both parties confirmed that since the order, they are attending their son's games without further incident or allegations, an an appropriate and peaceful manner."

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