Who oversees youth sports? Concerned parents have no one to turn to

Who oversees youth sports? Concerned parents have no one to turn to


By Kate Nematollahi

NAYS Director, Education Programs

“Is there anyone else I can bring this concern to? Who is above the [Anytown] Sports League?” asked a concerned parent who reached out to us after attempts to resolve issues through the local team, the team’s regional conference operator, and local park department.

The short answer – no one.

“But, how can that be?” exclaimed the parent.

This parent’s concerns are not trivial. The coach is allegedly hitting children on the field as discipline, using profanity, benching multiple players for entire games because he wants to win, tolerating bullying between young athletes, and allowing the assistant coaches to smoke marijuana on the field during practices. The age of the kids on his team? Six and seven years old.

This coach was brought to my attention because the National Alliance for Youth Sports offers a Report a Coach tool on our website. It is there to help us enforce our NAYS Code of Ethics Pledge for Coaches that our members must follow. When a complaint is received against a NAYS Coach member, we share our Coach Accountability and Enforcement Policies with the local NAYS Member Organization and require they respond to the complaint within a set time frame. Also, we require the organization follows protocol set forth in the policies and render a decision relative to disciplinary action. The organization must notify NAYS headquarters whether the member is found in violation of the Code of Ethics pledge and if so, the individual's NAYS membership is revoked.

But that is only for the tens of thousands of youth sports coaches who are current members of NAYS. There are an estimated 6 million youth sports coaches in the United States, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Therefore, we often receive reports for coaches who are not members, like this coach I described. We share these reports with the local parks and recreation department or school since typically the league uses public facilities. We recommend the public entity investigates further and we provide links to resources for advice. We also share the complaints with the league and research if there is an affiliation with another national level organization. No one is required to respond, and they often do not.

This particular “elite” youth sports organization has no affiliation or accountability to a national organization.

“I already contacted the [Anytown] Sports League and have not received a response,” shared the parent. “I also contacted the local park and recreation department and they told me they have no affiliation with youth sports in the area, which seemed surprising seeing as they play at a local city field. I was hoping to avoid police involvement, but it seems that may be my only choice. I am not wanting anyone to get arrested. I simply just want to see positive changes being made for the team.”

I asked, “is an entire team of parents seeing this behavior?”

The parent revealed, “unfortunately, most parents aren’t even present during practices and only a few come to the games. In fact, the coach even told my husband he did not want him to come to the practices. Of course, my husband refused because who knows what could happen in that type of situation.” She mentioned there are other witnesses to the hitting and an overall sense of this is just how it is among the other parents. The parents want their team to win and if the team is winning, they are happy with the coach.

Parents who submit these coach complaints are astonished that youth sports organizations are not required to go through any vetting process. They do not realize it until there are serious concerns, the league is not doing anything to resolve this issue, and the parent goes online to Google to see who can help.

Of course, there are two sides to every story. But in this case, I spoke with the conference president. He acknowledged all the behavior except for the marijuana use. He downplayed the hitting by saying it was “just pushing a bit and, you know, slaps on the shoulder when the kids need to go harder.” He defended his league’s rule about no minimum playing time, even for 6U teams, because “you stand a chance to lose with rules like that.”

This type of behavior is inexcusable and not tolerated in any other youth service fields. Schools, childcare providers, after school programs, and most day camps are all highly regulated with standards and accountability. While our organization has published and updated the National Standards for Youth Sports since the first version in 1987, unless there is oversight and enforcement, a league does not need to follow any standards. How have youth sports organizations been getting away with this for so long?

The facility permitting process at the public park department is often the only barrier of control.

There is a nationwide issue with independent youth sport organizations operating with little to no oversight. However, there are cities and counties that oversee youth sports very well. First, they use a stringent application process. There are measures in place to make sure the organizations that qualify to receive a facility permit meet certain requirements. It could be documents to prove non-profit status, league insurance, background checks for volunteers, education for volunteers, league bylaws, financial reports, minimum play requirements, non-discrimination policies, codes of ethics, and more.

Leagues sign a detailed agreement about the community’s youth sports philosophies that outlines disciplinary procedures for any violations. Once the league has access to the facilities, the permitting entities regularly evaluate the league with spot checks and site visits. In short, the leagues are held accountable.

With this particular coach report, although the parent said she already did, I called the parks department. Just as the parent shared, the park department acknowledged the league does use their fields, but they have no control over how they run their league. They did ask for me to email the report. And I plan to follow up to see if they are taking any action.

Local politics can sometimes play a role. Longstanding private youth sports providers are resistant to any change and park commissions back off. We have heard comments from parks and recreation professionals around the country that although they feel that what is happening on their fields is their responsibility, some are actually advised by their risk managers to not be involved with the operations of the local leagues that use public facilities. Because it is a liability.

A youth serving organization is using public space to develop your community’s children and public officials are willing to turn a blind eye to verbal abuse, physical abuse, bullying, and drug use in the name of liability.

To me that is negligence.

Legislation helps but is limited.

More and more states are adopting laws to help protect youth athletes. Most legislation relates to concussions and background check requirements. There is also a federal law about child abuse in sports. These are a start. However, enforcement is especially weak with private youth sports organizations.   

What are parents to do?

My advice to a parent is to become an educated customer. Ask your local youth sports organization about any national affiliations. Be wary if there is no oversight. Suggest the league becomes a NAYS Member Organization for help with ensuring a high quality of coaching with our tools for screening, training, evaluating and holding coaches accountable. Familiarize yourself with the National Standards for Youth Sports and then dig into your league’s policies. A place to start is to ask the league if they meet the requirements of the Better Sports for Kids Quality Program Provider designation – a free initiative. Ask your parks director or mayor to take some responsibility for the leagues that are serving your community’s youth – try sharing our Recommendations for Communities.

I am sure there will come a day when all youth sports organizations are required to meet certain minimum requirements. But that day is not today. Today, there is no consistent legislation or oversight. Unfortunately, today it falls on us to be the advocate for change in our own communities.

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