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Assaults on Youth Sports Referees: When Will They Stop?

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Every day when I come to work one of the first things I do is check the e-mails I get from parents and coaches all across the country with stories from newspapers about youth sports, including one from Moms Team expert, Doug Abrams.

Most days Doug's e-mail reprints articles on a wide variety of youth sports topics, from acts of sportsmanship of the kind he writes about in his monthly column for MomsTeam on youth sports heroes, to articles about the tragic deaths of youth athletes - like Wes Leonard, who suffered sudden cardiac arrest from an undetected congenital heart condition - to a Long Island wrestler contracting and almost dying from MRSA.

Football refereeBut this morning's e-mail from Doug was different because the first three stories were all about the same thing: assaults on and abuse of youth sports referees.

First up: a column from the Winnipeg Sun about a youth hockey coach who shoved a 15-year-old referee.  The coach was suspended, but didn't get charged with assault. The incident prompted the president of Hockey Winnipeg, Don McIntosh, to send out an e-mail urging local hockey officials to help crack down on abuse against referees.

Next, another story from the same paper saying that physical and verbal attacks on hockey officials by players and coaches had reached "epidemic" levels.

The third was an article from the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell, Montana reporting that the city attorney was considering an assault charge against a man for grabbing a 20-year veteran referee, Dave Reese, so hard following a recent high school boys' basketball game that he left marks on the referee's chest.  Not surprisingly, the man was apparently related to one of the players on the losing team.  The article recounted several other recent incidents of violence against sports officials.  

The president of the local sports officials' organization, Todd Fiske, told the newspaper that the pressure on officials lead many to quit within five years, and warned that the assault on Reese was the type of incident that harms the recruitment of new officials.  "Something like that is just so unneeded in what we do already," he told the paper. "It's a game. We can't ever let it get bigger than that."

Fiske's sentiments were echoed by Don McIntosh, the Hockey Manitoba head: "I'm told that referees are quitting because of abuse. Senior or management referees who we have in our system will tell you that.  Referees are a very valuable and important part of our game," he said. "Our game couldn't go without them."

Not surprisingly, surveys show that spectator abuse is one of the major reasons for the shortage of sports officials.

But what can be done about the abuse?

One thing states around the country are trying is to make it a crime to assault a sports official.  As MomsTeam columnist, Don Collins recently reported, there are currently nineteen states, including Montana, that make it a crime to assault a sports official, with West Virginia about to become the 20th. Unfortunately, the anecdotal reports of the assaults which continue to occur (and which continue to clog my e-mail box) and the fact that, even when there is a law on the books, it often times isn't enforced, suggests that the laws aren't working.

The real answer, of course, is to change in the culture of youth sports so that verbally or physically assaulting or abusing officials is seen by coaches, parents and players as something that simply isn't acceptable in sports.  

It's pretty simple: game officials deserve the respect of coaches, players and parents. At all times. No matter what. 

But unless and until everyone involved in youth sports is willing to take a zero tolerance approach to referee abuse, the sad fact is that I will continue to get e-mails like the ones I got today.


What do you think can be done to fight the epidemic of referee abuse? Send your thoughts to me at delench@MomsTeam.com.

Sadly, this is something

Sadly, this is something that has gone on for generations. I think due to the internet, and extra coverage, you hear about it more than ever. It saddens me when I hear of stories like this, because usually it's a dad of one of the players who puts hours and hours of volunteer time in and probably cares about the game too much, and it spills into these situations. The reason that many get upset with officiating is that quite frankly, it is bad sometimes. So many young officials get run out of the games because it's just too much to handle, getting yelled at for hours by parents, grandparents, and sometimes kids. We are left with unqualified officials who have never even played the sport they are officiating, but they do it for the paycheck. Also, many times at the youth level, parents are exposed to competition for the first time and simply can't handle it. Coaches and administrators can be the first line of defense by simply stating at the beginning of the season that they will not tolerate any unsportsman like conduct by their fans. It's a simple thing but it may keep situations from excalating to where they go sometimes.

Soccer parents need to respect the ref

I feel very strongly about this issue as my 14 year old son is about to start training to become an assistant ref, albeit for teams with relatively young players. But even so, I'm concerned for his safety and how he'll cope with confrontations like you describe.
Some of the problems are caused by parents who do not set a good example to their children when they shout aggressively from the sidelines. Parents need to set a good example so that impressionable young players to learn how to respect the ref and any other match official. Let's take the aggro out of the situation.
This is an extract from an article from http://www.bettersoccercoaching.com that sums up the problem.

A question of self control

Who would be a referee? When you support your heroes out on the pitch, be it Chelsea, Barcelona or LA Galaxy, it's nothing compared to watching your flesh and blood out there. And he’s only, what? Five at most and some referee, aged anywhere between 14 and 50, is telling him off for a crime he didn’t commit! So you become enraged and take it out on the ref.

Zip up those lips
But, and it’s a big but, young soccer players have to be taught to respect referees by parents and the way to do that is for parents to zip up their lips and show respect themselves. As a coach you have to teach your players not to react to bad decisions. We all get them. The players look up to you, and to their parents. All it takes is a bit of self control.
Let’s make the life of a referee a little bit easier so we start to hear “Dad, Mom, can I be a referee?” again.

Dave, I would be concerned

Dave, I would be concerned for your son. I think the youth leagues are many times worse than high school and above. In some of these leagues, you have parents who are experiencing competitive athletics with their child for the first time. YOu have young coaches who've not coached in this environment. I think it's vital for the coaches of these leagues to set the record straight fromt he beginning of the season that they'll not put up with aggressive parents. The coach then has to walk the walk and not question officials. Their example sets the table for the parents and players behavior. I've seen it too many times.

No excuse for bad behavior

I attend over a 100 youth league and high school athletic events a year. I have never seen or even heard of a physical altercation around our large metropolitan area on a referee. I know it happens, I know why it happens. The most frustrating thing as a parent is to see a game decided by a bad call. Unfortunately, the worst behavior that I continue to see directed at an official comes from the coach's. But I have seen parents escorted out of a game because of poor behavior. It should never happen. However, knowing peoples strongest emotions will never change, because this has been a problem since the Mayans played sporting events several hundred years ago. The only solution to the problem is to improve the quality of officiating.It is a rair occasion that I attend a youth sporting event and don't see some really bad calls.It truly takes away from the essence of the game.The only way to remedy the problem is to have an open online evaluation of officials. For instance,lets say the IHSAA ( Indiana High School Athletic Association had an online form that all parents and coach's of any Indiana high school athlete can simply go online and fill out a short 8 question evaluation form of all the officials that officiated their kids sporting events. Let the results fall where they may, and dump maybe the the lowest rated 20 % of referee's the following year and open the door for new and better ref's. The IHSAA already has all the data on all athletes and officials that participate, so this wouldn't be that hard to verify and register the voters. But there may be a union for officials that would never let that happen. I'm not sure. If a system like this were ever implemented, then who can coach's and parents alike blame for the quality of officiating.

rec boards

At the end of every season in every sport - I send in the evaluation (and always sign my name) and suggest that the league adopt a zero tolerance policy. In part, my argument is we are teaching kids to respect authority, be good sports, overcome difficulties....and then every season, every sport - we have coaches ejected, parents ejected and/or parents arguing with coaches in front of kids. We tell our kids to respect authority and then watch their coach or parent argue with decisions made by the officials.

We have been involved in youth sports for nine years - I have seen this behavior in baseball, football, basketball and soccer...in rec sports and in travel sports.

I agree that sometimes there are bad calls, bad officials - but isn't that part of the learning experience? Kids have to learn they are going to encounter bad teachers, bad bosses, bad co-workers......just a part of life and need to learn to accept. A parent making excuses for a loss, poor attitude or less than stellar performance and then pointing fingers at a bad call or a bad coach....doesn't help the kid learn anything except to find the excuse.

I will be the first to admit - it is hard and we struggle sometimes. My husband and I may fume in private - but NEVER discuss coaches or calls in front of kids. And we do not allow them to moan and groan about it either.