At the entrance of Lionel Watts Oval in Belrose, Sydney, there's a sign reminding people that they're not at the SCG. They're in the presence of children. Some might be seven years old, others might be 16. All are somebody's precious 'baby'. Most people look at the sign and smile. Others roll their eyes.
My son's AFL team was struggling against a stronger side. The score was a humiliating 121-0. Yet, even at this late stage of the game, the parents of the winning team would still loudly cheer, jeer and even jump up and down on the spot in glee. Settle down! That's fine at the early stage of the game but when your kid's team is whipping the opposition's arse, surely you could tone down the cheering to a polite clap. Where's the empathy?
This is not the SCG. Image: Libby-Jane Charleston
Recently, my kids and I watched a 13-year-old friend play rugby. We were all absolutely horrified to hear the constant thud-thud-thud of bodies slamming into other bodies. We'd never seen anything like this before in a child's sport. Then heads collided and two children were knocked out cold and taken by ambulance to hospital. I turned to the mother beside me and said: 'How horrendous! They're children!" She turned me and said: 'Well, it toughens them up!"
Toughens them up for what? For getting a bad result in a maths test? For getting through the pain of a broken heart? Or perhaps it toughens them up for later in life, dealing with the trauma of divorce, death or unemployment?
All I could see was a child with a head injury.
A friend's daughter plays water polo. In the finals, a 12-year-old girl was held underwater, her arms flailing around as she appeared to be drowning before her mother's eyes. Parents and friends were cheering. The girl was eventually allowed to surface and breathe. Another girl emerged from the pool with bleeding legs from toe gouging under the water. The umpire didn't even blow the whistle. No empathy.
It was a balmy Tuesday night and my 14-year-old was playing Futsal soccer. There was a rather burly goalie from the opposition who'd had a couple of warnings from the ref to stop pushing the other boys. So we were all astonished that this boy was pushing kids roughly out of his way. But then he pushed once more and a boy from my son's team landed heavily on the asphalt, falling awkwardly and cried out in pain as his wrist broke. It was bent out of shape in a gut-churning way. We all jumped up to run to him while somebody called an ambulance. We asked the other team's coach to pause play. "Nah," he said. "Play goes on."
"But my friend's son just broke his wrist! Thanks to your thuggish goalie," I said. "Surely he's owed an apology. At least?"
Then, an opposition soccer mum turned to me, expressionless. "He'll get an apology... Later," she snarled. I'd seen a warmer pair of eyes on slimy creatures at the fish market.
The journalist in me couldn't resist talking to 'the authorities'. I approached a man clutching a clipboard who was wearing the official blue Futsal jacket. I told him I was pretty upset about the lack of empathy in kids sports. I treated him to a rant and told him some parents seemed so caught up in the idea that their child might fit into that tiny percentage of kids that will become a professional sports star. Simple compassion has become as dirty as my kid's Sydney Swans size 10 jersey.
"Yeah," he said, reaching into his bag of chicken Twisties. "I know what you mean, love. You know what's worse? The kids are getting as bad as the parents. No bloody empathy."