Youth game ends with adult knifing

Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Youth game ends with adult knifing
Referee faces charges in slashing of coach
By Sonja Lewis
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

The 7- and 8-year-old boys on the youth basketball league teams were shaking hands and telling their opponents "good game."

A few feet away, the referee was slashing the coach with a knife. The coach makes a living upholding the law. The referee makes his living upholding God's law.

This latest incident of violence over youth sports, which erupted after a hard-fought basketball game, will now be played out in a Fayette County courtroom.

Baptist minister Oliver Lewis Wood, acting as referee, is accused of knifing coach Jerry Sweeney, a Fulton County marshal, at a basketball tournament Tuesday night in Fayetteville's Spring Hill Elementary School gym.

Stunned players and their parents watched as the coach was whisked away in an ambulance and Fayetteville police arrested the referee.

"I was real scared," said Colt Barron, 8. "I just stayed in there until somebody said you need to get out, the police are coming."

Parents and coaches sign a pledge to keep youth sports fun and safe. Recreation officials are investigating whether those good-behavior promises are adequate safeguards against a surge in youth sports violence.

Fayette County schools, which provide the gyms for the league to use, may slam the doors shut on recreational basketball games.

Sweeney, 48, received 17 stitches in his slashed left arm. Wood, 46, minister of Elim Baptist Church in Newnan, was released from the Fayette County Jail on $55,000 bail about 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Wood is charged with aggravated assault and bringing a weapon onto school property. Carlos Garza, Fayette County Youth Basketball Association director, called the knifing an isolated incident.

Garza lamented comments by school officials who are reviewing whether to allow school gyms to be used by outside organizations. The county recreation league relies on school gymnasiums for the 800 children who play youth basketball. "We are certainly taking all the steps we can to prevent this sort of thing," Garza said.

Volunteer coaches are certified by the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, Garza said. They must sign a code of ethics pledging to provide a safe environment and to put players' emotional and physical well-being above the desire to win. Parents, likewise, must sign a form vowing to make youth sports fun for their children.

"Maybe we have to go beyond that," Garza said.

The tournament games have been temporarily postponed and an emergency meeting of the youth basketball association will be convened, Garza said.

During the past three years in metro Atlanta, a parent struck a coach with a metal bat, a parent was shot after complaining to a coach about his son's lack of playing time, fans and coaches brawled at a baseball game, and two mothers fought over a first-base call.

A horrific national example of youth sports violence occurred in July. A Massachussetts parent beat another father unconscious after a youth hockey practice and the victim later died.

Fred Engh, National Alliance for Youth Sports president and author of "Why Johnny Hates Sports," called that violent episode a wake-up call. "This is insanity," he said. "Everyone wants to know, why does this happen?" Engh called for increased and mandated supervision.

"What we're doing is destroying children's innocence," he said. "And that destroys the opportunity to learn and grow from the positive values that sports provides."

The reason for Tuesday's outbreak of violence in Fayetteville is in dispute. Sweeney said Wednesday his assistant coach, Mike Barfield, asked him to get the referee's name so he could report some questionable calls to the "head ref." Wood, overhearing the conversation, lunged at the assistant coach, Sweeney said. When Sweeney put himself between the two, the knife grazed his neck. He put an arm up to shield himself and was cut, Sweeney said.

"He just went berserk," Sweeney said of the referee. Police found Wood's 3-inch pocketknife in the school playground, where they said he tossed it.

Wood says he acted in self-defense, according to the Rev. Bob Hudak, an Episcopal minister in Fayetteville who is also a youth basketball coach. Hudak spoke to Wood at the jail Wednesday morning.

Sweeney and the assistant coach were yelling at the referee during the game, he said. Afterward, according to Wood, Sweeney grabbed him around the neck, Hudak said.

Sweeney countered that he didn't grab the referee's neck until after he was cut.

Wood's attorney, Rufus Smith, said the charges against his client - minister, substitute teacher, bus driver, Air Force veteran, father of five - are without merit.

"This is out of context to anything that has happened to him before," Smith said.


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