How Adults’ “Referee Rage” Imperils Youth Leaguers’ Safety
By Doug Abrams
Under the headline, “Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect,” the New York Times ran an article late last month about the acute shortage of experienced youth sports officials in many communities. The Associated Press 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.”
The article is the latest one about veteran officials who are driven to quit, unwilling (as the Times and the Associated Press put it) to be “yelled at, threatened or insulted” game after game. Newspapers regularly run similar articles about “referee rage,” the verbal and sometimes physical abuse that parents and coaches inflict on game officials. This summer, for example, the Minneapolis Star Tribune rans a similar story, “Help Wanted: High School Officials.” A few years ago on this blog, I wrote about a Deseret (Utah) Morning News article which explained that “[b]rand-new officials often suffer through their first season of abuse before deciding that refereeing just isn’t worth it.”
Some results of the nationwide shortage of experienced referees are readily apparent to anyone who pays even glancing attention. Games might 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.
This column concerns a more serious result that can escape notice as leagues scurry to recruit and train replacement officials. Many of the replacements are less experienced, and they are unprepared to maintain control of fast-paced games. Particularly in contact and collision sports at the older age levels, inexperienced officiating can increase the risk of injury to players, including ones who play clean.
Enforcing 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.” The American Academy of Pediatrics reports agreement among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”
Particularly in contact or collision sports at older age levels, essential enforcement of the rules and control of the game can suffer when so many veteran officials hang up their whistles each year. But for the veteran officials’ premature departure, many of their less experienced replacements would not yet be on the field.
“They Can’t Figure Out Why”
In suburban Chicago in late 1999, rabid parents and coaches had overwhelmed the outmanned referees throughout an entire junior varsity hockey game, whose final score meant nothing in the big picture of things. At the final buzzer or a second or two afterwards, a player skated full speed across the ice, blind-sided a 14-year-old opponent who had scored a three-goal hat trick, and body-checked him head-first into the boards. “That’s what you get for messing,” the player glared at his victim who lay prone on the ice, permanently paralyzed from the neck down.
The victim could have been any parent’s child. No news account suggested that the victim played dirty. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the target of impulsive violence at the end of a game that was out of control from the opening faceoff. If the referees, parents, and coaches had maintained control as both teams tried their best to win within the rules, the victim would likely have walked out of the rink because players supervised by responsible adults do not race several yards to drive opponents’ faces into the ground at the end of a game.
A year after the ill-fated JV hockey game, a veteran referee told the Chicago Daily Herald that “nothing” had changed in Chicago-area high school hockey. “It’s just as bad as it ever was,” the referee said. “There’s kids being carried off the ice every night. “You have parents acting like animals in the stands, coaches acting like animals on the bench . . . “[b]ut when their kid gets hurt, they can’t figure out why.”
For the sake of their own children, parents and coaches need to “figure out why” by identifying a relationship between adults “referee rage” and players’ safety. Then, the adults need to maintain self-control, even during heated games. Connect the dots.
Sources: Assoc. Press, Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect, N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2015; David La Vaque, Help Wanted: High School Officials, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 31, 2015; Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News Apr. 26, 2005; Chris G. Koutures & Andrew J. M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, Pediatrics, vol. 125, p. 410 (2010); Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, Clinical J. of Sport Medicine, vol. 19, p. 451 (2009); Barry Rozner, One Year After a Hockey Tragedy, What Has Changed?, Chi. Daily Herald, Nov, 3, 2000, at 1. Tony Gordon, Plea Deal Ends Emotional Hockey Case, Chi. Daily Herald, Aug. 8, 2000, at 1; Dirk Johnson, Hockey Player, 15, Is Charged After Seriously Injuring a Rival, N.Y. Times, Dec. 9, 1999, at A21.