An Update On the National Referee Shortage:
Abuse, Frustration, and Alarm
By Doug Abrams
Nearly every week brings another news article about youth league and interscholastic sports programs that struggle to maintain game schedules and promote player safety despite diminishing numbers of referees. In many communities from coast to coast, referee shortages worsen with each season.
The steady stream of news articles identifies various barriers that challenge efforts to replace seasoned officials who retire. Pay remains relatively low, for example. Family commitments may deflect potential recruits who are raising young children. Younger recruits may soon move away to pursue career opportunities elsewhere. Weekday afternoon games may interfere with full-time employment.
These barriers are real, but the news articles identify another barrier that stands out above the rest. Large numbers of new referees soon quit, frustrated by the incessant verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse routinely dished out by parents and coaches. In earlier columns, I explained why local sports programs feel alarm about the potential impact of acute referee shortages. http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2017/04/02/abusive-sports-parents-epidemic-finding-refs-officials-work-youth-games-continues/; http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2017/07/04/abusive-sports-parents-calculating-hidden-costs-kids-sports-programs/.
The earlier columns featured media commentary from across the nation. To provide an update with the fall sports season approaching, this column surveys some of the most recent news articles, ones that have appeared since early May. By now, these thoughtful articles recite a consistent formula — abuse, frustration, and alarm.
Abuse, Frustration, and Alarm
In the Journal Review (Crawfordsville, Ind.) just three weeks ago, writer Jim Johnson asked pointedly, “Are We Nearing Crisis Mode With a Shortage of Athletic Officials?” An Indiana high school activities association administrator told him that the “biggest issue is the way [referees are] treated . . . from coaches, players and parents.” Johnson sounded the alarm that unless civil, respectful treatment displaces abuse, “[t]he days when games are canceled or postponed because officials aren’t available could come sooner rather than later.”
“They’re Out! Umps, Refs Have Had Enough of Your Yelling.” Under this provocative Idaho Statesman headline, Michael Katz quotes a local volleyball commissioner who pinpoints mounting frustration at fan abuse: “Parents are getting worse. They are more mouthy, and they don’t care if they try to come down and get in [an official’s] face.” Katz says that “[a] few bad experiences . . . make it hard to sell someone on officiating a high school game, much less continuing at the youth level.”
The Washington Times’ Deron Snyder writes that parental and coaching “abuse is a major reason fewer young adults gravitate to officiating.” He says that “[a] nationwide shortage of high school referees is causing alarm for administrators.” “Organized sports,” Snyder warns, “would die without the men and women who don stripes or blue uniforms.”
Writing in the Daily Record (Wooster, Ohio), Mike Plant quotes a veteran local official who sounded the alarm about the potential impact of referee shortages on such sports as track and field, volleyball, and softball. “If we keep going at this pace, there won’t be any games in these sports because there won’t be any officials.”
Two recent Washington Post articles sum up the national portrait. Under the headline, “Verbal Abuse From Parents, Coaches is Causing a Referee Shortage in Youth Sports,” Nick Eilerson blames “a deeply cutthroat sports culture, one that often holds amateur referees to a professional standard.” Matt Bonesteel writes that more and more high school referees quit each year, frustrated by “parents and coaches screaming for your head while you do a job that isn’t exactly going to make anyone rich.”
Scheduling and Safety
What should youth sports advocates make of all this? Even casual observers grow alarmed when games are postponed, rescheduled, or even canceled for lack of available officials. Or when parents or coaches dish out abuse in front of their young athletes.
But another cause for alarm — heightened safety risks — can escape the untrained eye. Especially in contact and collision sports, chronic shortages of experienced officials summon alarm by increasing the risk of injury to players, including ones who compete by the rules. “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 referees quit each year. Many replacement refs are simply not ready for the responsibilities cast on them. Without the premature departures of so many seasoned veterans, many of the replacements trying to control the game would not yet be on the field.
Most parents and coaches do not stoop to verbal or physical abuse of officials, but news articles uniformly point out the errant minority’s harmful influence. Actions have consequences. Parents and coaches often get the quality of officiating they deserve, and program vitality and player safety may depend on the outcome.
Sources: Jim Johnson, Are We Nearing Crisis Mode With a Shortage of Athletic Officials?, Journal Review (Crawfordsville, Ind.), July 26, 2017; Michael Katz, They’re Out! Umps, Refs Have Had Enough Of Your Yelling, Idaho Statesman, June 12, 2017; Deron Snyder, Youth Sports Have Everything, Except People Who Want To Officiate Them, Washington Times, July 31, 2017; Mike Plant, Officials Wanted, Needed, Daily Record (Wooster, Ohio), June 25, 2017; Nick Eilerson, Verbal Abuse From Parents, Coaches Is Causing a Referee Shortage In Youth Sports, Washington Post, June 16, 2017; Matt Bonesteel, Are We Running Out of High School Referees?, Washington Post, May 19, 2017; 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).