Across the country, America is experiencing a shortage of youth sports officials. In Ohio, the roster of Ohio High School Athletic Association officials is down by more than 1,000 officials from only two years ago. The OHSAA, which is the governing body for 817 Ohio high schools, reports 13,369 officials this year, versus 14,651 in 2019-2020. And Ohio is not alone–everywhere, states are reporting declining numbers of umpires and referees, to the point where it is actually affecting the ability to schedule games.
Why are fewer people signing up to referee kid sports? Officials cite a variety of reasons, including the intervening COVID pandemic, but one significant cause seems to be the bad behavior of parents of the kids who are playing. Some parents have become increasingly verbally abusive of officials, and in some cases the abuse has become physical. The Associated Press has a troubling article about this phenomenon that tells the tale of Kristi Moore, who supervises fast-pitch softball umpires in Mississippi. Moore was working a girls’ softball game, called a runner safe at second base, was berated by an irate parent, and had to throw the parent out of the game. When Moore left the field, the woman was waiting and slugged Moore in the eye. The woman was arrested and charged with assault, and now Moore is trying to decide whether she ever wants to work a game again. And who can blame her if she decides that the abuse and the risks just aren’t worth it?
What would cause a parent to become so verbally abusive that they would be tossed from a sports event, and then wait to punch out an official, without calming down in the interim? It’s not an issue for the vast majority of parents, who root for their kids and might express disapproval at a disappointing call but would never dream of such appalling misbehavior. Anyone who has watched their kids play on a sports team knows that there are a handful of parents, however, who just don’t respect those boundaries. Maybe they are convinced their kid will be the next Mickey Mantle, maybe they’re hoping their kid gets a college scholarship, maybe they’ve invested so much time and money in travel teams that they feel entitled, or maybe they have troubled lives and can’t resist venting. But it may only take one bad experience with one enraged parent to cause a youth sports official to hang up their gear–and the shortage gets worse.
I think youth sports are important. They are supposed to be fun, they get kids exercise, and they can teach kids important lessons about qualities like teamwork, sacrifice, the value of practice, and sportsmanship. Kids who see their parents act like jerks aren’t learning good lessons, however. All parents need to take a deep breath and recognize that kid sports events aren’t the end of the world. And if one parent of a kid on a team is behaving badly, it’s up to the other parents to try to help out the officials and defuse the situation. Otherwise, we’re going to reach a point where no one will be able to play a game.