Another State Reports a Shortage of Youth League Referees
By Doug Abrams
“Help Wanted: High School Officials.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a feature story with this headline less than two weeks ago. Writer David La Vaque reported that since 2010-2011, the ranks of referees and other game officials has steadily declined statewide in every high school sport except boys’ lacrosse. Hoping to replenish the dwindling ranks, the Minnesota High School League has reduced registration fees for new officials and offers incentives to officials and member schools that recruit replacements.
To readers who follow Rick Wolff’s blog, a primary reason for Minnesota’s acute shortage of officials comes as no surprise. Indeed, the refrain has become distressingly familiar. The League’s associate director told the Star Tribune that an array of “‘sportsmanship issues’ causes most officials to quit and presents ‘a major hurdle when recruiting new officials.’” La Vaque pinpoints “a sometimes hostile game environment, chiefly created by critical coaches and parents.”
The causes and consequences of referee shortages are not only a Minnesota problem. They are a national problem that the media has spotlighted for several years now. From coast to coast, interscholastic conferences and youth leagues face a steady exodus of veteran officials who have grown disgusted with the verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse inflicted on them by parents and coaches. Many adult officials signed up to serve kids and to remain active in their sport, but they reach the tipping point before long.
Last year, for example, the Bakersfield Californian reported that all county high school varsity and sub-varsity leagues continued to experience referee attrition similar to that now reported in Minnesota. A former president of the county’s Officials Association, a longtime baseball umpire, explained the primary cause this way: “Nobody wants to umpire because most people . . . don’t want to go out there and get yelled at, screamed at, and shown up.” Shades now of Minnesota.
Turning to the Teens
Referee attrition also affects community youth leagues for players younger than high school age. Many leagues recruit teens to replace disgusted adult officials in the younger age groups. In my last few years coaching squirt hockey teams for 9-10-year-olds, I cannot recall ever having a referee over the age of about fifteen, except occasionally in the playoffs.
Teen referees see officiating as an opportunity to earn a few dollars, to assume a leadership role, and to 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 grow concerned about threats and other harassment inflicted by parents and coaches who doubtlessly perceive the adolescents as even easier marks than adult officials. And who can forget that every teen official they target 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.”
Facing the Consequences
Some consequences of the referee exodus are readily apparent to anyone who pays even glancing attention. The media reports that games sometimes may have to be postponed, rescheduled, or even canceled. Seasons may have to be shortened so that league schedules do not outpace the roster of available officials.
But another especially harmful consequence can escape the untrained eye even when schedules and seasons remain untouched. Particularly in contact and collision sports, the shortage of experienced officials can increase the risk of injury to players, including ones who play clean and follow the rules of the game.
My most recent column spotlighted a new youth soccer study that linked injury to lax officiating. The study’s head researcher told the New York Times that soccer concussion rates would fall “if referees, coaches and players would enforce the existing rules” against rough play.
“To be effective for promoting safety,” said an earlier 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.”
Rigorous, consistent enforcement and control can be an early casualty of avoidable referee attrition. When so many veteran referees quit before their time, many replacement refs are simply not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veteran officials, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field.
Taking Meaningful Action
By constantly recruiting new officials to replace veterans who hasten to hang up their whistles, leagues resemble walkers on a treadmill. Leagues and individual schools and teams should also focus on a primary source of much of the problem, the frankly unacceptable conduct of many parents and coaches. In a 2013 column, I discussed necessary initial measures, which emphasize leagues’ internal discipline but may extend to charging errant adults with endangering the welfare of a child when the target of particularly abusive conduct is a teen referee. http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2013/12/17/obnoxious-sports-parents-taking-ones-frustrations-teenage-refs/
Sources: David La Vaque, Help Wanted: High School Officials, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), July 31, 2015; Jeff Evans, Kern County Association Faces Referee Shortage, Bakersfield Californian, June 10, 2014; CBC News, Teen Hockey Refs Quitting Over Verbal Abuse, Nov. 25, 2013; Gretchen Reynolds, Heading Ban for Youth Soccer Won’t End Head Injuries, Int’l N.Y. Times, July 15, 2015; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, 19 Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol. 19, p. 451 (2009); Chris G. Kouteres & Andrew J.M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, Pediatrics, vol. 125, p. 410.