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