referee shortage

Referee Shortage: Are Crazy Youth Sports Parents To Blame?

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referee shortage youth sports parents behaving badly


In recent years, a troubling trend has emerged in youth sports, marked by an increase in parent outbursts at games. These incidents, ranging from parents fighting at youth sports events to shouting matches with referees and other parents, are a reminder of how youth sports parents behaving badly can tarnish the spirit of the game. Such behavior not only disrupts the enjoyment and learning experience for young athletes but also contributes to a nationwide referee shortage, further complicating the landscape of youth sports.

Why are parents ruining youth sports, and what can we do to stop it? We need to find ways to keep parents in check at these events. It’s about creating a supportive atmosphere where the focus is on letting kids play, learn, and enjoy the game. Let’s explore how we can make youth sports a better experience for everyone involved.


A History Of Youth Sports Parents Behaving Badly

It’s become more common lately and you can see it happening everywhere. It has even made national news, as the New York Times reported about youth referees, dealing with bad behavior and the COVID-19 pandemic, which have decreased in numbers over the years.

The decrease in referees and umpires can almost be seen as a direct correlation to the increase in bad behavior. There have been many cases in recent years of physical assault rendered on coaches and officials that have led to resignations and court cases. In New Jersey, there have been both. 

Earlier this year, a 72-year-old ump suffered a broken jaw and a concussion when he was punched by a parent during a 13U baseball game. He ended up suing the perpetrator. In February, a high school coach resigned after being verbally assaulted after a game by one parent.  

“There’s just a constant barrage of negativity toward coaches and officials at all levels of sports, at all schools,” Kris DeBlasio told NJ.com. “The entire culture is just totally out of control.”

This has been going on across the country. In San Diego, the San Diego County Football Officials Association, which is in charge of high school varsity football referees, has seen the number of new applicants decrease by nearly 50% over the past two years. The referee shortage in youth sports is real and isn’t location-specific.


Are Parents Responsible For The Referee Shortage?

So why is this behavior not only continuing but becoming more rampant? In this age of social media, people are not afraid to say what they think. In a world of exclusive travel baseball and other travel sports, parents want their kids to get the most out of their opportunities. Since they are paying, they want to make sure their voices are heard regarding things like playing time.

Parents want their kids to succeed. That is the top reason why you root for your kids during a sporting event. Whether you don’t buy into what the coach is teaching or think you can do better from the stands is where some of these issues lie. 

Parents not only want to see the team succeed but also see their children put up individual statistics. Stats lead to more playing time. More playing time can lead to all-star teams and fast placement on varsity teams. More playing time on varsity can lead to potential scholarships in college.

One of the toughest things for a parent to grasp is that maybe their child won’t be as good as they want them to be. Youth sports are a perfect example of a platform where a parent can want something for their kid more than the kid wants it. Not every kid is going to make it to the major leagues. Sometimes, it’s just better to accept the valuable lessons they can learn from playing team sports.


Can Youth Sports Parents Help Prevent The Referee Shortage?

One of the best responses to bad parent behavior in youth sports came from UMass head basketball coach Frank Martin. When he was the head coach of South Carolina, he was asked about unruly parents at games. 

Martin makes valid points about how he lets his kid’s coaches decide how to handle them during a game. When he is in charge of a team, he is animated. When he is a spectator, he watches the games and lets them unfold as they’re supposed to. To put it simply, he lets his kids play.


The Role Of Parents In Athletics

Parents code of conduct in youth sports

A practical step towards improving the situation is for parents to follow a ‘Parent Code of Conduct’, such as the guidelines provided by Little League, which clearly outline how parents should behave at youth sports events.

Accept who the coach is

Parents should respect the coach’s decisions, especially regarding playing time. Remember, coaching is a volunteer effort aimed at enriching children’s lives. Criticizing from the sidelines doesn’t help; if you feel strongly, consider coaching yourself.

Act like an adult

Disagreeing with a referee’s call is normal, but it shouldn’t lead to verbal abuse. Remember, many youth sports officials are not professionals and deserve understanding, not hostility. Keep in mind, the chances of sports leading to college scholarships are slim.

I know many parents view sports as the way to an athletic scholarship or college entrance but let’s be real – only 5.6% of high school baseball players will go on to play in the NCAA.

Volunteer to coach

If you’re a parent who thinks they can do a better job coaching, put your money where your mouth is. Get out there and coach the team yourself. You may learn that it isn’t as easy as you think, especially dealing with fans like yourself.

Understand the impact on kids

Negative behavior at games affects everyone, especially your child. With referees quitting due to abuse, fewer games might be played, directly impacting young athletes’ opportunities to enjoy their sport.

Stop coaching from the stands

Coaching from the stands puts unnecessary pressure on children, causing confusion and stress. It’s more beneficial to let them play and discuss the game afterward. This approach helps maintain the fun and learning aspects of youth sports.


Referee Shortage: Be The Change

Most parents who are acting poorly toward coaches and umpires can ruin the game for everyone involved. They make the game more about them than about what youth sports are supposed to be about. That hinders the development of the kids. Don’t be that kind of parent and just let the kids play.

I understand that there is a big commitment from a time and financial perspective but that does not give these helicopter parents the right to ruin the fun for their child and other players. As a dad, just watch your son or daughter compete out on the field playing the sports they love.

There is a teachable moment here for all youth sports parents. Whether it’s rec league or travel teams, parents whose children play multiple sports recognize that there is a significant referee shortage throughout the country. It isn’t just one sport either. Those baseball umpires or hockey referees who have endured seasons of verbal abuse from overzealous parents are on the verge of quitting. People who have given so much of their time for little pay are so fed up that they just want to leave.


Final Thoughts

So what’s the takeaway here? Sit quiet and cheer for your child and the other kids and stop losing sight of what’s important. You are there to enjoy the game and support your child and their team.

Parents are ruining youth sports so be the change you want to see and set a good example for these student-athletes. If the referee shortage gets any bigger, none of us will have any games to watch.

Chris F.

Chris F.

Chris Forbes is the founder and editor of BaseballMode.com, a leading blog in the youth baseball space. As a lifelong baseball player, coach and fan, he decided to team up with his young son to offer advice and share their experiences with the sport they both love. Chris lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children.

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