In this month alone, three completely unrelated pieces of news hit the radar screen. Separately, they might not have rated a blip. Taken together, though, these three items – all related to fan behavior toward game officials in youth sports – show a growing trend and a distinct message: Shut up or leave and don’t come back.
In early May, the Utah Youth Soccer Association (UYSA) made headlines with its zero-tolerance policy toward inappropriate conduct aimed at game officials.
In sum, any coach, player or spectator who berates, harasses or threatens a referee risks forfeiting the game and losing the team's spectators for the rest of the season.
"Referee abuse has always been an issue," said Bryan Attridge, CEO of UYSA. "But we have to do better."
Local media outlet KSL noted, “In a letter to its members and families pleading for more certified referees, UYSA's president said, "We are facing a dire situation that will see more and more games canceled and severely affect the ability to grow, or even play the game."
The association says it loses about a third of its refs every season. Last season, the organization needed to cancel 570 games and reschedule nearly 1,500 because officials were not available.
Referees start young – as young as 13, according to KSL – and receive full training prior to setting foot on a game field. But many quit in the face of the adversity directed at them.
"They have a love of the game of soccer, and unfortunately, they're running into situations where they're being threatened," said Jen Rader, UYSA's media manager. "They're having to wait in the middle of the field until police are called to get an escort off the field to feel safe. That's not OK."
Not OK might be the least of what can be said about a youth ref who needs a police escort in order to be safe exiting a field. And the fact is this: violence against officials is real. Back in April, a veteran softball umpire in Laurel, Mississippi, reportedly was “sucker punched” by a player’s mom. “I wasn’t three steps off the field and she was, like, right there,” umpire Kristie Moore, who suffered a severe contusion and nerve damage in her left eye, told WLOX.com. “I told her she needed to get away from me. She asked me what I was going to do and then called me an [expletive] and punched me.”
The player’s mother was arrested and banned from all recreational facilities in Laurel.
Meanwhile, a youth baseball coach at a mid-April tournament in The Colony, Texas, was banned from events sponsored by tournament promoter 24 Sports after he assaulted an umpire. The incident, captured on video, began when the coach argued a safe-at-home call with the home plate umpire, who then ejected him. The coach subsequently shoved the umpire and knocked him to the ground, where he did not move for several seconds.
“It’s … protocol if we ever get a heated coach, we have to remove them from the game,” L’Erin Hampton of 24 Sports told WFAA.com. “So once that umpire decided, ‘Hey, you have to leave,’ that’s when he was assaulted by the coach.”
Hampton added that similar umpire attacks have happened in other markets, too. “We have to be better,” he said. “We have to remember that the kids come first. Right? So it goes back to ‘Why you do what you do? What’s your why? Why do you coach? Why do you want to send your kids to play baseball?’”
A week earlier, though, it was the kids doing the assaulting during a youth basketball game at Stronghold Christian Church in Lithonia, Ga. Video of the incident shows several players (and perhaps spectators, too) cornering one of the referees, knocking him to the ground, and repeatedly punching and kicking him.
“It is truly unfortunate about the turn of events that took place during the basketball game held at our facility,” Senior Pastor Benjamin Gaither said in a statement. “We open our doors to serve our community, and our goal is to provide an atmosphere conducive for enjoyment, enrichment, etc. While we cannot control people, it is our hope and prayer that those who enter our facility will conduct themselves in the best manner.”
“It’s becoming too commonplace now that we’re having contest officials be assaulted by parents, players, coaches,” Ernie Yarborough, assistant executive director for the Georgia High School Association, told WXIA. “It was very disturbing for me to see that.”
The uptick in violence against officials has exacerbated the shortage of officials, convincing umpires and referees that the physical altercations — coupled with verbal abuse and low pay — simply is not worth it.
“There’s gonna come a point where we’re just not going to have games covered,” Dominic DiMare, who schedules umpires for high school baseball games in Massachusetts told WGBH.org. “It’s not if it’s going to happen, it when it’s going to happen.”
In light of all this, and a few days after the UYSA announcement, Karissa Neihoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) took to YouTube to remark on the fact that “the boorish behavior of fans who attend sporting events is being normalized and even encouraged.”
“The situation is becoming so serious that many states are proposing legislation to protect officials from assaults,” Niehoff added.
Niehoff noted that the focus of the game needed to shift to student athletes and away from officials. Additionally, fans – including parents – needed to cheer for their student athletes and not against game officials or opponents. This, she noted, was the only way positive behaviors would occur, and more officials might be recruited.
Comments on Niehoff’s announcement ranged from “coaches [and/or ADs] need to be better at controlling parents” to “consequences are needed.”
The same week Niehoff took to video with her announcement, SportManitoba sent out an e-mail, entitled, “There is no place for abuse, harassment, bullying or hazing in sport.”
While SportManitoba’s announcement was largely geared toward athlete protection (similar to the SafeSport program in the U.S.), it is worth noting that this was the organization that, back in 2020, debuted its #NoRefNoGame media campaign to bring attention to the declining participation of sport officials due to increasing incidents of mistreatment and abuse. What followed was a large-scale pickup of not only that hashtag but another, #RespectTheRef.
Interestingly enough, it seems the pandemic (when many had to go without sports whatsoever) has not taught people much.
“We encourage all athletes, coaches and fans to play the game and treat officials with respect. Now, more than ever we know what it’s like to be unable to play the sports we love, and these games cannot go on without the support and participation of officials,” said Cathy Cox, former Minister of Sport, Culture and Heritage.