ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Calculating the Hidden Costs to Our Kids’ Sports Programs

 What Parents’ and Coaches’ Abuse of Referees Costs Families

By Doug Abrams

In the past few weeks, the Washington Post featured two thoughtful articles that shine the spotlight on a growing problem that plagues youth sports from coast to coast. Under the headline, “Verbal Abuse From Parents, Coaches is Causing a Referee Shortage in Youth Sports,” writer Nick Eilerson explains that in high schools and community youth leagues alike, the lion’s share of abuse stems from “a deeply cutthroat sports culture, one that often holds amateur referees to a professional standard.”

In the second article, Post writer Matt Bonesteel says that growing numbers of seasoned high school referees hang up their whistles each year, frustrated with “parents and coaches screaming for your head while you do a job that isn’t exactly going to make anyone rich.”

The referees’ frustration is not fanciful. As I coached youth hockey and watched other teams’ games over the years, I heard parents in the stands and coaches behind the bench hurl insults at referees that no self-respecting adult would hurl at the family dog. Physical confrontations with referees, instigated by parents or coaches, were less common but did happen.

In the past few years, the Washington Post and several other media sources have reported the results. Youth sports programs have had a tough time recruiting new referees, many of whom drop out after about a year or two because they too grow unwilling to endure abuse from parents and coaches. Chronic shortages of referees have reportedly caused some youth leagues and high school conferences to postpone or reschedule games, or even to cancel some games.

In a recent column, I discussed how continuing attrition in the refereeing ranks can endanger player safety in high school and community youth league play, particularly in collision and contact sports. When veteran referees tired of running the gauntlet quit in droves each year, some games are left to less seasoned replacements who might not yet be ready to maintain the game control essential for player safety. That column appears at http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2017/04/02/abusive-sports-parents-epidemic-finding-refs-officials-work-youth-games-continues/

This column focuses on community youth leagues and not high schools. Adults’ chronic abuse of referees can hurt youth leaguers in two additional ways unrelated to player safety. Both ways concern money.

First, unstemmed abuse of referees from parents and coaches may indirectly limit the access of some children to community sports programs by increasing registration fees beyond what some families feel they can pay. Second, this abuse can require families, once they register, to divert money that they could otherwise spend more fruitfully on their children in other pursuits.

Limiting Access

First, access. . . . In high school sports, coaches and referees are typically paid for their service, which is only fair because most high school coaches are paid for theirs. As part of the curriculum, interscholastic sports receives funding from taxes or private tuitions.

In community youth leagues, however, coaches typically volunteer but referees typically get paid. Unless time is more valuable to referees than to coaches, why the difference?

The answer may affect the access of many children to community sports in the first place. In my community youth hockey leagues over the years, referees’ fees accounted for a quarter or more of a family’s annual registration fee; only ice-time rental typically accounted for more. The percentages allocated to referees’ fees can probably be even higher in sports such as baseball or soccer because field time is typically not so expensive.

We are talking here about a few hundred dollars per family for each player, which is not pocket change for many families. Particularly in sports with high start-up costs for equipment and uniforms, I wonder whether more children would be able to enroll in community programs with volunteer referees.

Parents juggling the family budget typically seek savings where they can, so why don’t more community youth leagues reduce registrations fees by encouraging volunteer referees? Perhaps much of the answer is that most prospective referees will not volunteer to bear the brunt of verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse from parents and coaches. Parents and coaches pay for their misconduct. Even referees who are motivated primarily be a desire to remain active with sports and kids, and not by a desire for extra income, would think twice about donating their time for bitter returns from hostile adults.

Many parents nowadays struggle to assure their children’s participation in sports by sacrificing elsewhere in the family budget. Volunteerism might be a real option if more parents and coaches would treat referees as who they are — public-spirited citizens who help bring sports into children’s lives — and not as error-prone antagonists.

Savings

Second, avoidable expense. . . . More and more youth leagues now require parents and coaches to attend pre-season meetings aimed at educating the adults about civility, respect, and sportsmanship. Here is another potential agenda item: By helping attendees understand how expensive their lack of self-control can be, community youth leagues might be able to help contain registration fees by enlisting volunteer referees if they enlist volunteer coaches. If a community’s sports culture were ever to displace crudity with civility, parents could spend the annual savings on their children in more constructive ways.

Sources: Nick Eilerson, Verbal  Abuse From Parents, Coaches Is Causing a Referee Shortage in Youth Sports, Wash. Post, June 16, 2017; Matt Bonesteel, Are We Running Out of High School Referees?, Wash. Post, May 19, 2017.