Another Reminder About How Referee Shortages Can Threaten Youth Leaguers’ Safety
By Doug Abrams
Late last month, The Daily News (Longview, WA) published a thoughtful youth sports article by Jason Leskiw, “Officials Shortage Widespread Problem With No Solution Yet in Sight.” Prominent among the reasons for the shortage of officials in Washington state and Oregon, he wrote, are “unruly fans and parents.”
In previous columns, I have described how the shortage of officials can threaten player safety. This column repeats the message at the end here, but first let’s review some prior news articles. These articles demonstrate that the chronic shortage, driven by abusive adults, plagues interscholastic leagues and community youth leagues not only in the Pacific Northwest, but also throughout the nation. In my final few years as a youth hockey coach here in Missouri, I frequently heard parent spectators showering officials with obscenities and other insults that no respectable adult would direct at the family dog.
Lack of Respect
Last March, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer published an 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.”
A year earlier, 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.”
Under the headline, “Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect,” the New York Times ran an Associated Press article in 2015 about the acute shortage of experienced youth sports officials from coast to coast. The AP reported that “[b]y all accounts, finding and retaining referees is becoming more and more difficult” because of “growing animosity and poor behavior among fans and coaches.”
In 2014, the Bakersfield Californian reported that all county high school varsity and sub-varsity leagues continued to experience referee attrition similar to that reported most recently in Washington and Oregon. A former president of the county’s Officials Association, a longtime baseball umpire, explained the primary cause: “Nobody wants to umpire because most people . . . don’t want to go out there and get yelled at, screamed at, and shown up.”
The Deseret (Utah) Morning News explained 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 over the years, most stepped forward 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 (verbal and sometimes physical) dished out by other adults, often with the officials’ own spouses and children looking on.
“Parents Expect NHL Referees”
In the younger age groups, community youth leagues frequently 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 list community service as a credential on their college and employment applications. In my experience, the teens take their responsibilities seriously and generally do an excellent job. But they too are often chased away, once they or their families lose patience with parents and coaches who may tag the adolescents as easier marks for harassment than adult officials. Every teen official is someone else’s child.
In 2013, 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 the province refuse to officiate 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.”
What negative effects does this adult “referee rage” have on the players? Even casual observers notice when games may be postponed, rescheduled, or even canceled for lack of available officials. Or when parents or coaches trash sportsmanship, civility, and respect in full view of their young athletes. Safety issues, however, can escape the untrained eye.
Especially 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 enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among medical professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”
This essential control can suffer when so many veteran referees quit each year. Many replacement refs are simply not ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many seasoned veterans, many of the replacements trying to control the game would not yet be on the field.
What Can Be Done to Promote Player Safety?
Some of my prior columns have discussed measures that can help counter abusive adults who may compromise player safety. In written rules distributed during preseason parents and coaches meetings, for example, leagues and teams can state their expectations for adult civility. Leagues and teams must back up these expectations by disciplining parents or coaches whose abuse of officials crosses the line. Rules unenforced remain mere words on paper, awaiting the next incident.
Coaches can sometimes set the tone for the team. In a preseason parents meeting, coaches can deliver the message that abuse of officials is “not how we do things here. Our sons and daughters are watching and we set the example.” Youth coaching resembles a season-long game of “follow the leader,” and the followers include both the players and their parents.
With criminal assault statutes already on the books, prosecutors should take reported physical assaults on adult officials more seriously than they sometimes do. And in extreme cases when parents or coaches verbally or physically abuse teen officials, authorities should contemplate child abuse or child endangerment charges.
Most parents and coaches do not stoop to verbal or physical abuse of officials, but the majority’s presence does not necessarily diminish the errant minority’s destructive influence. Parents and coaches often get the quality of officiating they deserve, and the stakes are high because 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; Assoc. Press, Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect, N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2015; Jeff Evans, Kern County Association Faces Referee Shortage, Bakersfield Californian, June 10, 2014; Jim Thompson, The Double-Goal Coach, p. 4 (2003); Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News, Apr. 26, 2005; CBC News, Teen Hockey Refs Quitting Over Verbal Abuse, Nov. 25, 2013;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).