September 7, 2000

Father Doesn't Always Know Best

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The end of the pool is only five meters away. I looked right, no one is there. I looked left, uh-oh. The girl in the next lane is gaining on me. Four meters. Why does the last ten percent of the race always seem to take up ninety percent of the time. Three meters and closing. The girl on the left enters my peripheral vision. Two meters. We both give two final kicks and reach out like the selfish children we are. We both touch the wall… and wait. The linesman saunters toward both of us with the plastic plates marked 1, 2 or 3 in black permanent marker. He hands me the 1. I know that this race means nothing; its only the 11-12 year old free style race among two private beach clubs and furthermore the second heat (or more aptly called the kids who aren’t fast enough to count but we want to give them a chance to swim anyway race). I didn’t care I felt a surge of pride grasping that number one.

Then a shrilly tenor pushed himself towards the linesman via me so he could snatch the coveted plate. According to this niebelung, his daughter was the “obvious” winner. Unfortunately my un-confrontational mother did not feel the need to create a scene. I could be a martyr and sacrifice my meaningless first place (I knew I won).

The stage mother has finally found its male counterpart, the sports father. He is highly vocal and makes hyperbolical assumptions about his children. Although he can be facetious and light hearted when his child is successful, he can be dangerous and irrational if his child is in jeopardy of losing.

In years past sports fathers stayed away from the press and limelight. But with the age of professional athletes falling as quickly as the Red Sox’s playoff chances, parents, especially fathers, have stormed the sports world.

Take for example Earl Woods (father of the godly Tiger) and Richard Williams (who spawned the dynamic duo of Venus and Serena). These men were better known for their outrageous claims before their children had a chance to prove him or herself. Each one touted his offspring as ruling his respective sport.

But should a parent share the spotlight on the world forum? Think of every embarrassing instance that your parents have caused, translated it into 257 languages and publish it on every daily newspaper, and you still cannot compare to what these athletes deal with. Is it fair that the Williams sisters and Woods have to publicly deal with their fathers’ expectations?

Of course these three superhuman athletes vindicated their fathers of exaggeration making Earl and Richard look like coaching geniuses, and lifting Woods’ book Raising a Tiger on the New York Times best-seller list.

But how does one deal with the less refined species of sports fathers? The Women’s Tennis Association is addressing this issue right now in the case of the Dokics. Damir Dokic, father of 17 year old phoneme Jelena, is the newly crowned most hated dad in sports. While Jelena is attempting to win her first major tournament, Dokic is one French Open away from a Grand Slam — of committing atrocities at each event.

Jelena was born in Serbia. Hoping to give his daughter a better future, he moved his three year old to Australia where he served as her coach. He wanted to create a star, but Dokic forgot that his daughter ought to be in the spotlight.

Wherever Jelena Dokic plays people wonder what her father will do next. His antics began at a 1999 tournament in Birmingham, England where he was thrown out of the match for disorderly conduct. Later the inebriated Dokic lied down in the Birmingham streets. As Jelena began to achieve her potential, Dokic found larger audiences to disgust. He assaulted a cameraman at the Australian Open, and was banned for a day at Wimbleton after throwing a broadcaster’s cell phone to the ground.

Just two weeks ago Dokic topped all his former performances. He received a ban from the entire U.S. Open after creating a spectacle in the player’s cafeteria. Upset at an overpriced salmon dish, Dokic threw a tantrum at the cafeteria workers he had been berating all week. The Dokic’s have been on the WTA circuit for long enough to realize that most tennis stars can splurge on salmon since they all have million dollar endorsements.

Granted it is not hard to create a spectacle in tennis and Alec Baldwin’s favorite star-gazing spot, but this is Flushing Meadows. Fewer than 100 meters away, fifty thousand Mets fans thought it normal to throw batteries at a certain red-necked Braves closer. Even legendary tennis bad-bay John McEnroe was impressed with Dokic’s behavior.

Meanwhile think of the child. Jelena sat in her limousine crying (the Dokic’s can afford a limo, but can’t splurge $12 on a piece of salmon?) as she watched her father escorted out of the tennis complex.

Perhaps Dokic should take a lesson from Richard Williams, or read Earl Wood’s masterpiece. Eventually you must stop living vicariously through your children’s success, and (un)intentionally sabotaging her chances for success.

Each athlete must compete in his or her own right on the field. A parent cannot alter the playing fields to favor his child, and that includes stealing first place plates from little girls.

Archived article by Amanda Angel