When Audrey Dimitrew won a spot on a club volleyball team in Chantilly, Va., the 16-year-old hoped to impress varsity coaches and possibly college coaches.
But when her coach benched her and the league told her she couldn’t join another team, the action shifted from one court to another — she and her family sued.
Audrey said she could miss a pivotal season this spring and thinks that a large, controlling league has lost sight of its primary mission: encouraging kids to play sports. The league has said that Audrey is disgruntled with her playing time and that transferring her to another team would create a flood of similar requests.
“It would be really heartbreaking not to play,” Audrey said. “I would be losing a big part of my life.”
The lawsuit is one of a number filed across the country in recent years as families have increasingly turned to the courts to intervene in youth sports disputes. Parents upset that their children have been cut, benched, yelled at by coaches or even fouled too hard are asking judges to referee.
Some experts see such lawsuits as part of a shift in youth sports in recent decades away from sandlot play and intramural teams to professionalized leagues and tryout teams partly aimed at snagging scholarships for players and giving them a leg up in college admissions.
Although most kids join just for fun, or to hang out with groups of friends, for some families the competition takes on a more serious focus. Parents are spending thousands and giving up countless weekends for kids to participate on travel teams and prestigious high school programs. Experts say parents want a return on that investment — and a handful are willing to sue if they don’t get it.
“Youth sports is not just about orange slices and kids running free,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play and author of a book on the topic. “It’s about aggregating talent in as elite a setting as possible so that your kid can receive a reward at 17 or 18.”
Audrey said she’s not sure whether she will play in college, but the Dimitrews think the spring season of 10th grade is a crucial one for getting exposure to coaches who can elevate her game.
Like many suburban families, the Dimitrews’ weeks often revolve around practices and games. Audrey played on the junior varsity team at Purcellville’s Woodgrove High School and traveled regionally for club play. Then, there’s sand volleyball and the youth team she coaches.
The family juggles this and more while running a company that builds custom high-end homes. Susan Dimitrew estimates the family will spend $6,000 on her daughter’s volleyball this year.
They are hardly alone. Club teams require substantial investment for coaches, gear and more. Project Play estimates the average travel team parent is spending about $2,300 a year, while those of the most elite players lay out $20,000 a year or more.
Audrey said the lawsuit is not about money or future prospects for her. Amid AP classes and drama productions, volleyball has been a refuge since she followed her older sister onto the court in sixth grade.
She can’t understand why her league, the Chesapeake Region Volleyball Association (CHRVA), won’t let her join another team. The league is one of the largest in the region with more than 8,600 girls on teams.
The dispute began after Audrey and about 75 other girls competed for spots on the under-16 Chantilly Juniors in November. The coach told Audrey she was the best setter at the tryout and would get playing time, according to court documents.
Audrey got an offer to join Chantilly that night and three more from other teams she tried out for. She selected the Juniors and signed a contract with the team — something common among youth travel teams today.
George Doumar, an attorney for the Chantilly Juniors, who were also named in the suit, said that “we wish Audrey well” and added the dispute “is really between [the Dimitrews] and the . . . association.”
Farrey said competitive club and travel teams have been growing. They began with hockey in the 1980s and then spread to soccer and other sports in the ’90s and beyond.
The increase comes in part from parents hoping to groom their kids for sports scholarships, which have mushroomed from nearly $600 million a year in the early ’90s to more than $2 billion today.
Audrey’s season began with promise. She said she was getting practice and scrimmage play but was benched for the first two tournaments in mid-January.
The coach told Audrey she was not ready to be a setter on the team and would not play much for the rest of the season, even though she had “college level” skills, according to court documents. The family was disappointed, perplexed and felt they had not been given what they were promised after a significant investment.
“She is devastated,” Susan Dimitrew wrote to the coach about Audrey. “It is important that she plays, and plays the position you offered her of setter as that is the position she plays in high school.”
The coach gave Audrey two options: She could be a practice player for the Juniors or transfer to another team in the league. She chose the latter option, and her parents found a team willing to take her.
But the league, which must approve such moves, said it would set a bad precedent. According to league bylaws, players can switch teams only if they demonstrate a “verifiable hardship,” a rule that was not spelled out in the contract Audrey signed.
The Dimitrews argue that Audrey’s case applies, but league officials disagree.
“Should CHRVA allow players the ability to move teams when they are unhappy with the amount of playtime they are receiving, we would be overwhelmed with requests to change teams,” a CHRVA official wrote to the Dimitrews.
After appeals failed, the Dimitrews filed suit in mid-March. More and more parents are doing the same.
In 2013, a father in the suburbs of Philadelphia sued his son’s high school track coach for $40 million after the teen was cut. The man claimed his son’s chances of getting a college scholarship were badly damaged.
Last year, a Dallas-area father filed a racketeering lawsuit against an elite lacrosse camp, accusing officials of intimidating players into attending. He cited as evidence the fact that his son wasn’t made an official member of the varsity team by a coach who also worked at the camp.
Farrey, the executive director of the Project Play, said this moment in youth sports has been building for years as a competitive strain of youth sports has grown in some communities, particularly affluent suburbs like those in the D.C. area.
The competition has pushed kids to specialize in sports younger and parents to look for early advantages. There is now an under-8 national championship in basketball. A Colorado company markets a $169 test that will determine a child’s genetic predisposition to strength or endurance sports. Another makes athletic training videos for 6-month-olds.
Experts say the collision of big aspirations and big money is fertile ground for lawsuits.
“I refer to it as the global warming of youth sports,” said Mark Hyman, a George Washington University professor of sports management.
Some parents are blowing the whistle. A 2014 ESPN Project Play poll found roughly 70 percent of parents surveyed thought youth sports were too expensive and time-consuming and placed too much emphasis on winning over having fun.
On a recent morning, Audrey and her attorney sat in a wood-paneled courtroom in Fairfax County across from lawyers for CHRVA and the Chantilly Juniors. With the season quickly slipping away, the family asked for a temporary injunction so Audrey could play the rest of the season with a new team.
The attorneys spent nearly three hours debating the league’s bylaws and how much Audrey would suffer by missing games.
“This young lady has nowhere to play,” argued her attorney, Robert Cunningham.
CHRVA’s attorney said the suit might sink the entire league.
“They are seriously contemplating disbanding the club because of the expense of being sued,” said attorney Kenneth G. Stallard.
Fairfax County Judge John Tran was sympathetic to Audrey’s predicament, saying he was “unhappy . . . that a child is not given an opportunity to play.”
But he said the law did not allow him to intervene in the decision-making process of a private organization. He declined to issue a temporary injunction.
The ruling effectively meant Audrey wouldn’t play this season, but Susan Dimitrew said the fight will continue.
“I never imagined in my wildest dreams there would be a lawsuit over this,” she said. “But I think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think my child is the only one that has experienced something like this. They don’t think they have to answer to anyone.”