January 24, 2002

A Death in the Stands

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I played JV soccer in high school.

I went to high school in Atlanta.

Atlanta is in the South.

The South can be a very mean place, and I witnessed this fact during one of my games.

One March afternoon, our winless team headed out to rural Georgia, about an hour away from the comforts of the Atlanta city limits.

Upon our arrival, we noticed an entire side of the soccer field lined with parents and fans from the opposing team. Considering the ghost town just down the street, I figured that this was the only form of entertainment that could be reached by run-down pick-up trucks for thirty miles.

As the game began, I quickly realized these were not normal fans. The general rough and tumble of a contact sport rapidly escalated into a nail-bearing free-for-all complete with parental encouragement from the sidelines and a brain-dead referee who was unable to utilize the red and yellow pieces of paper he had tucked in his front pocket.

The adults were shouting obscenities and threats when their girls were knocked down and I honestly do not know what stopped them from rushing the field and landing some punches of their own.

I was hopping mad at the time, and looked for immediate revenge on the field, but now I look back and understand just how ridiculous the entire scene really was. It was a JV soccer game, for God’s sake, and the outcome would have absolutely no effect on the aspirations and career goals of anyone involved.

Funny how a game shouldn’t mean life or death.

It did for Michael Costin.

It was a simple pick-up ice hockey game between a bunch of 10 to 12 year olds. Costin, a father of four children, three of whom were participating in the game on July 5, 2000, was overseeing the action when Thomas Junta, a father of one of another boy, entered the rink and was disturbed by the overly aggressive play.

Junta confronted Costin about the body checking and, as Junta told detectives, Costin simply replied “that’s hockey.” All the kids were wearing full protective gear, but Junta was not satisfied and a fight between the two men broke out.

It ended with Junta, a man weighing 275 pounds, holding down a 175-pound Costin and slamming his head into the ice in front of an audience of wide-eyed boys shouting for him to stop, including Junta’s own son. Two days later, Costin was pronounced dead of a ruptured artery.

Two weeks ago, this chapter finally came to a close as Junta was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Thankfully, the jury ignored his plea of self-defense.

Junta’s chapter has come to a close, but this book is far from over. America is now left to wonder why a father would be driven to such rage over something as insignificant as a pick-up game.

The parents in that little southern town where I played my JV soccer game can probably relate to Thomas Junta. They might all agree that they were acting to protect their children and only trying to do what’s best for them. In 20 years, they reason, it is our children who will be carrying on the family name and if by winning this one game that makes them one percent more successful in the future, then that must be accomplished by all means.

If your child gets pushed down, you must be the one to right that wrong. You must ensure your child gets adequate playing time and is respected as the MVP he truly is.

My child will not sit the bench.

My child deserves the best.

My child is the best.

What about what your child actually wants?

The competitive attitude that these parents possess does not go unnoticed by their children and Fred Engh, the president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, addressed this fact in an article on abcnews.com.

“When 70 percent of the children that play sports drop out by the age of 13, that should tell us something,” Engh said. “The number one reason they said in a survey was that it ceased to be fun.”

There is no greater reason to play sports than for fun. Since children do not get paid to play, fun is the sole factor for most kids