How Referee Shortages Threaten Player Safety
By Doug Abrams
On March 27, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer published a thoughtful article by Tim Stevens, “Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs.” The article led with this troublesome forecast: “Irate high school sports fans . . . are heaping so much abuse on referees that it is becoming hard for North Carolina and other states to recruit new officials as the current group edges toward retirement.” Because refereeing has “become so unattractive,” the article continues, interscholastic leagues may need to reduce game schedules for lack of officials.
The media regularly reports about chronic referee shortages, not only in school sports, but also in many community youth leagues. Just last year, for example, the associate director of the Minnesota High School League told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that an array of “’sportsmanship issues’ causes most officials to quit and presents ‘a major hurdle when recruiting new officials.’’’ The associate director pointed to “a sometimes hostile game environment, chiefly created by critical coaches and parents.”
The Deseret (Utah) Morning News explains that “[b]rand-new officials often suffer through their first season of abuse before deciding that refereeing just isn’t worth it.” Among the officials I have known, most signed up not primarily for the relatively modest stipends, but to remain active in the game while serving young athletes and their families. Most officials are family men and women with personal obligations and reputations. Most can find other ways to participate in community life free from public abuse dished out by other adults, sometimes within earshot of the officials’ own families.
In the younger age groups, many community youth leagues recruit teens to replace departed adult officials. In my last few years coaching 9-10-year-old squirt hockey teams, I cannot recall seeing a referee over the age of about 15, except occasionally in the playoffs. Teen referees typically seek 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 lose patience with parents and coaches who may tag the adolescents as even easier marks for harassment than adult officials.
Verbal and Physical Assault
Adult “referee rage” can grow vicious. In my final few years as a youth hockey coach, I frequently heard parent spectators showering officials with obscenities and other insults that the parents would not have directed at the family dog. But aural pollution does not end the story because, as Positive Coaching Alliance executive director Jim Thompson explains, “officiating a youth sports game is becoming an increasingly risky job . . . . “Youth Sports officials are under attack – literally” from physical assault. Parents and coaches have reportedly made officials run a gauntlet to leave the field, followed officials to their cars, and threatened them and their families. Parents and coaches have also punched, kicked, shoved, slapped, choked, head-butted, spat on, and stalked youth league officials during and after games.
What negative effects does this adult “referee rage” have on the players? Even casual observers notice when games may have to be postponed, rescheduled or even canceled for lack of available officials. Or when abusive parents or coaches deliver unwholesome messages about sportsmanship and respect to the athletes who watch or hear about their antics.
But another especially harmful result can escape the untrained eye. Particularly in contact and collision sports, the shortage of experienced officials can increase the risk of injury to players on the field, including players who follow the rules of the game.
“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.” Parents and coaches assume important enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”
This essential control suffers when so many veteran referees quit each year. Many replacement refs are simply not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veterans, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field.
What Can Be Done to Promote Safety?
Some of my prior columns have discussed measures that, amid the pressures that characterize the typical school or community sports program, can help counter adult “referee rage” that may compromise player safety. In written rules distributed during preseason parents and coaches meetings, leagues and teams should state their expectations for adult civility. Leagues and teams must discipline parents or coaches whose verbal or physical assaults on officials violate these rules. Unenforced rules remain merely words on paper.
Criminal prosecutors should take physical assaults more seriously than they sometimes do. In extreme cases when parents or coaches verbally or physically abuse teen officials, authorities should contemplate child endangerment charges.
Most parents and coaches do not cross the line into verbal or physical abuse of officials, and most adults may find such abuse disgusting. But the majority’s disgust does not diminish the harmful influence of the errant minority who do cross. Leagues and teams often get the quality of officiating that they deserve, and player safety may depend on the outcome.
Sources: Tim Stevens, Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Mar. 27, 2016; David La Vaque, Help Wanted: High School Officials, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), July 31, 2015; Jim Thompson, The Double-Goal Coach, p. 4 (2003); Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News, Apr. 26, 2005; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, 19 Clin. J. Sport Med. 451 (2009); Chris G. Kouteres & Andrew J.M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, 125 Pediatrics 410 (Feb. 2010).