youth sports

The Weird, Angry World of Sports Dads: An Excerpt from "Crossing the Line"

How did a high school soccer game in Virginia lead to allegations of assault and battery? It's a long, strange story, but the short answer is "sports dads."

Jonathan Coleman

Image via Wikimedia Commons

In the world of youth sports, and society's often unhealthy obsession with them, the more that parents try to impose their will—their need to vicariously live through their children—the more frequently things spin out of control. In 2012, a biting incident during a girls' high school soccer game in Central Virginia led to a court case, recriminations, and all manner of psychological damage. This is an adaptation from Jonathan Coleman's CROSSING THE LINE, which tells the story of that accusation and everything that followed.

She had just graduated from Fluvanna High School a few days earlier, ritualistically flipping her tassel from one side to the other. It was a Saturday, May 19, 2012, the sort of unbearably humid day people have come to expect in Central Virginia, where the loveliness of spring ends far too early and gives way to summers that seem hotter and more oppressive with each passing year. She was quiet and unassuming, humble, and close to her family, especially her younger brother. Her grandparents, who lived across the street, doted on her and called her "Pumpkin." If she stood out at all, it was on the soccer field, where she felt both free and ineffably joyous. ("If anything else in my life, anything at all, was not going well, she said, "I always had soccer to fall back on. Soccer was always there.")

She was, in the opinion of most people, the best on her team, and that team, the Flucos, her tight-knit second family, had at least one more game to play, against perhaps their fiercest rival, Western Albemarle High School, three days later. When the season ended, and hopefully that wouldn't be until they won the AA State Championship in early June, she would do what most kids on the East Coast have been doing for as long as anyone can remember—heading to the ocean for Beach Week with a bunch of friends (and the obligatory parent or two as chaperones), renting a house, having all manner of fun within, ideally, the bounds of the law, and then going their separate ways. In the case of Katrina Marie Ditta—known to nearly everyone as "Kat" or, affectionately, "Ditta," the girl with the Mona Lisa smile—she would be departing for Hartwick College in upstate New York, to learn and evolve and to play the sport she loved, the one that enabled her to express herself best. Though nervous to leave home—her mother had been ill the previous year or so but her cancer was now in remission— she was also excited to be starting the next phase of her life.

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But life is often incorrigible and uncooperative, can change, as Joan Didion reminds us, "in an instant, the ordinary instant."

Within two weeks, a perplexing warrant was issued for Ditta's arrest. The charge: assault and battery, arising from the aforementioned soccer game. She was alleged to have "bitten" a former Fluvanna teammate, Christine Domecq, who, at her father Greg's insistent urging, had transferred to Western a year earlier. What followed—the allegations and the court case and everything else—had to do with many things. Very few of them had to do with the game in question.

***

If parents are completely honest with themselves, they know, deep down, there is a certain element of Greg Domecq in all of us—at least when it comes to our children and sports and wanting to see our kids succeed. I first wrote about youth sports 25 years ago when I followed a team through a season of Little League. The piece centered on the often fragile, often tempestuous relationship between parents and children and coaches, and the ways parents, sadly, often live vicariously through their kids and have unreal expectations for them athletically.

With the passing years, things have only gotten worse. A soccer referee (a single father of three daughters) died in Utah in the spring of 2013 after being punched in the head by a 17-year-old player; a melee broke out in July of that year at an elite club tournament at Disney World (a grandfather was punched so hard in the chest that it disrupted his pacemaker; players kicked a goalie in the head who was already on the ground); in 2000, a father attacked and killed a referee in a pick-up hockey game in Massachusetts; in 2009, a women's soccer player from the University of New Mexico was suspended indefinitely for yanking a Brigham Young player's hair from behind and pulling her hard to the ground; in January of 2015, in York, Pennsylvania, a father was so angry about a call, or lack of one, at a youth hockey game that he punched the glass surrounding the rink so hard it shattered.

A study from the Youth Sports Research Council at Rutgers University (which had its own share of problems with its men's basketball coaches in 2013) asks, "Has the incidence of violence in organized youth sports actually reached epidemic proportions?" Given that only about two percent of high school athletes ever receive some form of scholarship—the number is higher for club sports, but, often, so is the degree of violence because the parents are spending more money and the stakes are even greater—it is one of a number of interesting questions. When George Packer wrote about "the unwinding" of America, he could easily have included a long chapter on how—and why—things spiral out of control in this particular world.

***

In 2003, the principalship of Fluvanna High School became open and Greg Domecq not only hoped to get the position, he gave people the distinct and transparent impression that he felt entitled to it. And so when James Barlow got the job, instead of being gracious, Domecq was furious, even intimating to people that he had been passed over because they wanted someone who was black. After all, there he was, the perfect candidate—was he not?—living right in Fluvanna County and about to get his Ph.D.; he'd made it clear he preferred to be addressed as "Doctor Domecq" from then on.

It would not be the first time that Domecq miscalculated, or the last.

Christine was in elementary school at the time, in the same class as Kat Ditta, who was named Most Athletic in both third and fourth grades. That didn't sit particularly well with the Domecqs, who were competitive about everything and were not reluctant to put forth the notion that they were the most athletically accomplished family in the area. A piece appeared in the Rural Virginian, in January of 2011, which not only touted Christine as "an Olympic hopeful" with hopes of representing her country in 2016, but highlighted the athletic accomplishments of her brother and sister. The problem was this: the writer of the article, Rusty Wilbourn, told me that whatever he wrote had to be "approved" by Greg Domecq before it was published.

It's not clear exactly when the idea of each member of the family having his or her own Wall of Fame became a reality, but it is something that nearly everyone I spoke with who had ever visited the Domecq home in Lake Monticello had remarked upon. That, and the fact that you would never find any trophy or plaque or paper award of any kind on the premises other than a winning one.

Everyone in the world, it seems, thinks that Vince Lombardi, the longtime coach of the Green Bay Packers, is the one who uttered the words, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," but he didn't. What he said was this: "Winning isn't everything, but making the effort to win is." Not only does Greg Domecq firmly believe in the supreme importance of his children winning whatever it is they participate in, that belief spills over in connection with any team his kids have ever been associated with. On more than one occasion, when Domecq has been the one to accept a second- or third-place trophy, the trophy has not even made it home or to school the following day.

In a fit, perhaps, of competitive rage, or childish impulse, or shame, or embarrassment, he has, according to family friend Kris Sukovich, hurled the trophy out the window at some point along the way home, only to eventually have to replace each one. (Why, you might ask, would Sukovich volunteer such a thing, especially since Domecq had asked her to meet with me? She felt it was as good an example as she could come up with to illustrate how important winning was to him.) If you ever happened to spot a shiny trophy on the roads of Central Virginia and wonder how in the world it got there, you now have a pretty good clue.

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