More Disturbing News About Adult Abuse of Teen Officials
By Doug Abrams
On November 25, CBC News (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran a story under the headline, Teen Hockey Refs Quitting Over Verbal Abuse. The report was from Saskatoon, and the article concerned why so many teens in Canada’s Saskatchewan province refuse to officiate in the younger age groups.
The vice president of the Saskatchewan Referees Association provided an explanation. “I go the rink all the time and supervise,” he says, and “I have a hard time sitting there and watching games because parents just start yelling and swearing for no reason.” The targeted referees are “kids . . . doing their best,” but “parents expect NHL referees.”
The CBC article concerned youth hockey in one Canadian province, but the vice president’s explanation sounds familiar to almost anyone whose children play youth sports, from house leagues to select teams. Verbal – and sometimes physical — abuse leveled by parents and coaches against teen officials plagues more than youth hockey, more than one province or state, and more than one nation.
Lowering the Bar
This year alone, the hall of shame appears mighty crowded. The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, for example, reported the arrest of a 43-year-old manager of a 10-12-year-old New Jersey Little League team. The manager was charged with two counts of assault for slapping a 17-year-old umpire who had ejected him from a game.
The Sunshine Coast Daily (Queensland, Australia) wrote about a father who watched his son, a 14-year-old referee, absorb verbal abuse from an adult soccer fan and then, in the next game, from a coach who accused the boy of biased calls on the field. “I don’t think they see the youth in the kids,” the father said, “They think it’s life and death when in fact it’s youth sport.”
The Santa Clarita (Calif.) News reported a 34-year-old coach’s arrest for assaulting a 17-year-old referee during a 12-14-year-old parks and recreation department flag football game. The coach walked onto the field, yelled about the referee’s call, and struck the boy in the face, knocking him to the turf.
The Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier wrote about a teen umpire who was “in tears as he took off his equipment after the game, because one of the coaches had given him such a hard time” during a recreation league baseball game. A fellow 16-year-old umpire wondered aloud whether the few dollars he earns is worth enduring verbal abuse from parents and coaches who “will do whatever they can to win.”
Each of these manhandled teen officials is someone else’s child, and each one deserved the physical and emotional safety that youth sports promises all its participants. We cannot simply dismiss the news reports by rationalizing that only a minority of adults cross the line, while most behave decently. Abusive parents and coaches do constitute the minority, but I suspect that media coverage alone actually understates their number. Many readers of this column have doubtlessly witnessed abuse of teen officials that never reached the local papers because, without an injury or arrest, the incidents seem so commonplace that they are not newsworthy. Newspapers and their readers often set the youth league bar mighty low these days because they set their expectations for civility mighty low.
The Greater Problem
In hockey and other youth sports, the very appearance of growing numbers of teen officials itself signals dysfunction created by abusive parents and coaches. Rather than risk having to cancel or reschedule games for lack of officials, many leagues and associations recruit teens to replace disgusted adults who have quit rather than put up with further verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse. Many adult officials sign up to serve kids and remain active in their sport, but reach their tipping point before too long. In my last few years coaching squirt hockey teams for 9-10-year-olds, I cannot recall ever having a referee over the age of about fifteen, except occasionally in the playoffs.
Teen referees may see officiating as an opportunity to earn a few dollars, assume a leadership role, and demonstrate community service on their college applications. In my experience, the teens take their responsibility seriously and generally do an excellent job. But they too are often chased away, once they or their parents grow fed up with abuse from parents and coaches who doubtlessly perceive the adolescents as even easier marks for harassment than adult officials.
“The Silent, Constant Source of Support”
What can local leagues and sports associations do to control adult abuse of teen officials? In youth sports as in other areas of American life, prevention and public education should be the initial anti-abuse strategy. Strong messages conveyed in pre-season parents meetings and seminars, followed by rules enforcement throughout the season, can create healthy local sports cultures. Most parents and coaches know right from wrong, and most tend toward civility when they know that authorities and most other parents expect it.
Coaches also play a central role. Mike Matheny manages the St. Louis Cardinals these days, but in 2009 he agreed to coach a St. Louis-area youth baseball team. He agreed on one condition – that the youngsters’ parents would embrace his vision of a team based on respect, sportsmanship, integrity, and citizenship. He outlined this vision in a six-page letter to the parents which became known as the “Matheny Manifesto” once it went viral and began attracting national attention.
Among other things, Matheny warned the parents that “we will not have good umpiring. This is a fact; the sooner we understand that, the better off we will be. . . . The boys will not be allowed at any time to show any emotion against the umpire. They will not shake their head, or pout, or say anything to the umpire. . . . You as parents need to be the silent, constant, source of support.”
Who Are the Role Models?
When I coached youth hockey, I also set ground rules in the preseason parents meeting. I told the parents that officials inevitably make mistakes because they (like the parents, coaches and children) are not professionals in the sport. But I also told the parents for every mistake, officials also make dozens of correct calls that appear incorrect to parents and coaches who do not understand the rules, or who do not see the action as well as they think they do.
I also said that mistake or no, the parents will be entitled to perfect referees when they become perfect parents, the players become perfect players, and the coaches become perfect coaches. Until that day, imperfect officials are part of youth sports.
To appeal to the parents’ better instincts, I reminded them that referees can hear profanity and other verbal abuse only when parents shout so loudly from the stands or sidelines that the players on the field can also hear it. Adults should not shout anything that they would be embarrassed to say in front of their children at home. The adults’ conduct should not sink below the level they would find acceptable from their own children because adults, and not children, should be the role models.
When Prevention Efforts Fail
Even the most effective prevention programs cannot prevent 100% of targeted misconduct. The best that these programs can do is to make misconduct the isolated exception rather than the rule. When a parent or coach fails to respond appropriately to education efforts designed to prevent abuse of teen officials who are doing the right thing, the league or association should react with suspension or other disciplinary action.
In extreme cases, the public response may include criminal prosecution of the sort contemplated in the news accounts that opened this column. When a parent or coach strikes an official (teen or otherwise), the adult has committed a criminal assault. When an adult directs incessant verbal harassment at a teen official during or after a game, the adult may cross the line that separates healthy competition from the crime of endangering the welfare of a child.
Criminal endangerment statutes are broadly worded to enable authorities to reach a wide range of emotionally abusive conduct that compromises the strong public interest in child protection. From parents or someone else, serious injury to a child’s emotional well-being often stems from a pattern of belittling, derision or other verbal abuse. The unrelenting torrent that adults sometimes unleash on teen officials during and after games might fit the bill. Children’s games hold no immunity from the standards of child protection that apply on Main Street, at home, or anyplace else in town.
[Sources: CBC News, Teen Hockey Refs Quitting Over Verbal Abuse, Nov. 25, 2013; Doug Abrams, “When Verbal Abuse of a Teen Official Becomes Criminal Child Endangerment” – http://askcoachwolff.com/2013/06/18/obnoxious-sports-parents-the-criminality-of-attacking-young-refs/]