Obnoxious Sports Parents

OBNOXIOUS SPORTS PARENTS: Why (Young) Refs Are Walking Away


More Troubling News About Abuse of Referees

By Doug Abrams


Last week, a newspaper reported about a local youth soccer league that is “suffering a severe shortage of referees because too many are dropping out due to abuse from the sidelines.” The paper identified the usual abusers – parents and coaches.  One U-13 coach emphasized that the league’s referee shortage is “by no means caused by the majority” of adults, but rather by “‘a few bad apples’ who are capable of ruining” games for everyone else.

The “bad apples” spare no referees, not even teens whom the local youth soccer league recruits and trains to replace adults who are unwilling to absorb further harassment. “While there is a long-term shortage of adult referees,” says the league, “it is the younger kids subjected to abuse . . . who are regularly dropping out” because they “are put off by the harassment.”

A “Parental Cultural Revolution”

This is not another newspaper story about how verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse has saddled many United States youth leagues with a chronic referee shortage. This story appeared on the other side of the Atlantic in the Gloucestershire Echo, a British daily newspaper based in Cheltenham, about 100 miles from London.

Barely five months have passed since former British international soccer star Gary Lineker called for a “parental cultural revolution” in that nation’s youth soccer leagues to stem “the abuse [and] damage” that he has seen parents inflict on their children at all levels of play. “Who cares who wins an under-eights game?,” Lineker asked in the New Statesman magazine. If parents would just “let their children enjoy themselves, you would be staggered at the difference it would make.”

The Echo article and Lineker’s public call remind us that no one nation holds a monopoly on verbal abuse leveled by parents and coaches. Teen referees remain frequent targets. Last November, for example, CBC News (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran a story under the headline, Teen Hockey Refs Quitting Over Verbal Abuse. The vice president of the Saskatchewan Referees Association explained why so many teens in that province refuse to officiate games in the younger age groups. “I go the rink all the time and supervise,” he said, 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 Sunshine Coast Daily (Queensland, Australia) wrote about a father who watched his son, a 14-year-old soccer referee, absorb verbal abuse from an adult spectator and then, in the next game, from a coach who accused the boy of bias. “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.”  

In the last year alone here in the United States, 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 whether the few dollars he earns from officiating is worth enduring abuse from parents and coaches who “will do whatever they can to win.”

We should not dismiss news reports such as these by rationalizing that only a few “bad apples” cross the line into incivility or violence. Most adults do behave decently at their children’s games, but I suspect that media coverage alone understates the number of troublemakers. Many readers of this column have doubtlessly witnessed abuse of teen officials that never reached the local papers because the incidents seem so commonplace that they are not newsworthy now that the youth sports bar is often set so low.

The Greater Problem

In soccer and other sports, the influx of teen officials itself signals dysfunction grounded in adult misbehavior. Rather than risk having to cancel or reschedule games for lack of officials, many youth leagues here in the United States recruit teens to replace adults who quit from disgust with abusive parents and coaches. In my last few years coaching 9-10-year-old squirt hockey teams, I cannot recall seeing a referee over the age of about fifteen, except occasionally in the playoffs.  Frequently teen referees soon quit too, once they or their parents grow fed up with parents and coaches who may tag the adolescents as easier marks for harassment than adult officials.

Who Suffers Most?

When the referee ranks grow thin, the ultimate losers are the young players themselves. The Cheltenham soccer league’s chief referee told the Echo that “10 games a week on average are played without a referee” because he cannot staff the games but wishes to avoid outright cancelation.

The steady exodus of officials can also directly increase risk of injury. “To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” The American Academy of Pediatrics says that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of thegame . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

Particularly in contact or collision sports at older age levels, this essential control can suffer when so many veteran officials hang up their whistles each year. Many replacement officials are less experienced and frequently unable to keep up with a fast-paced game. But for the veteran officials’ departure, many of the replacements would not be on the field in the first place.

When parents and coaches complain about dangers in games overseen by less experienced officials, the adults need to look hard at their own incivility. Parents and coaches often get the officiating they deserve, and their children pay the price.

“The Diminishing Lack of Fun”

The steady exodus of experienced referees is one symptom of a more serious disease. Early last month, Rick Wolff discussed a front-page Wall Street Journal article that reported that enrollment in the nation’s four most popular youth sports (football, baseball, soccer and basketball) declined 4% from 2008 to 2012. Rick perceptively suggested that the prime reason is “the diminishing amount of joy and fun that kids are taking away from sports.”

Gary Lineker likewise argues that “pushy parents screaming abuse from the sidelines are killing their kids’ love of” soccer. Do we doubt that many overbearing parents and coaches who publicly abuse referees – other people’s children — also take the joy and fun of sports away from their own children?


[Sources: Harassment Must Stop Says League As Referee Numbers Drop, Gloucestershire Echo, Mar. 4, 2014, p. 45; Gary Lineker, Pushy Parents Screaming Abuse From the Sidelines Are Killing Their Kids’ Love of Football, New Statesman, Oct. 24, 2013; Doug Abrams, More Disturbing News About Adult Abuse of Teen Officials,; Doug Abrams, How Adults’ Abuse of Officials Endangers Player Safety,; Rick Wolff, Wall Street Journal Says Fewer Kids are Playing Sports, (Feb. 2, 2014)]