Last fall, the National Federation of State High School Associations declared the dwindling number of officials available to work games a “national crisis.” Since the 2018-19 school year, approximately 50,000 referees and umpires have hung up their whistles.
Today that crisis has escalated, the result of increasing violence against officials at the hands of parents, coaches and even players.
In Laurel, Miss., earlier this month, a veteran softball umpire 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 f’ing b-word 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.”
A National Association of Sports Referees survey indicates that only two out of 10 officials return to the job for a third year. The rest leave for a variety of reasons, although “poor sportsmanship by spectators” was cited most frequently after “career/job demands.”
Survey respondents said that comments from youth sports fans have the most negative impact on them (compared to fans of high school sports, college sports and professional sports). What’s more, 36 percent of respondents indicated that sportsmanship at the competitive youth sports level is worse than at both the adult recreational (21 percent) and high school (15 percent) levels.
A bill working its way through the Minnesota House of Representatives would allow the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission to fine unruly youth sports fans $1,000. The bill’s lead author, State Rep. John Huot of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, has officiated football and basketball games for 20 years.
“We have tough skin. We’re OK hearing we have bad calls,” he told Fox9.com. “This is more than that. This attacks us personally.”
Under the bill, which Huot says has bipartisan support, high schools and sports leagues would be required to report to the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission incidents in which fans assault an official, throw things onto the field, enter the field of play, or interfere with a player, coach or official during or after a game.
At the first NFHS Officials Consortium in Indianapolis earlier this month, veteran NCAA basketball referee Chris Rastatter explained why many people act in a negative manner toward officials.
“First, he said it has become commonplace for individuals involved in covering sports — radio and television announcers and other media — to dissect and judge the work of officials,” wrote Karissa Niehoff, chief executive officer of the NFHS, in her weekly “The NFHS Voice” column. “As a result, with human nature being what it is, the coverage is often slanted in a negative manner. As this type of repetitive negative coverage has continued over time, it has empowered those watching sports to be judge and jury as well. If the person broadcasting a game can criticize the officials, why can’t the spectators do the same?
“Second,” Niehoff wrote, “the boorish behavior of fans attending sporting events is being normalized. What used to be good-natured heckling has turned mean, insulting and violent. National surveys have shown that almost one of every two officials have felt threatened after officiating a game. Unfortunately, this type of behavior is almost anticipated at sporting events.”
Niehoff noted that nearly 70,000 people have expressed interest in officiating over the past for years via the association’s #BecomeAnOfficial Program. But that’s not enough.
“The criticism of officials and bad behavior of fans at the college and professional levels has a trickle-down effect,” she concluded. “The negative perception of officials did not occur overnight and cannot be changed instantaneously, but a shift in a more positive direction must begin now. Everyone must be involved in these changes — students, parents, coaches, administrators and those in the media. Bad behavior has been handed down and become anticipated and expected, but changes must occur.”