Assaults on officials raise doubts about the future of youth sports

THE FUZZY VIDEO taken by a spectator at a girls’ high school basketball game in Bourbon, Indiana, doesn’t explain why the July 2023 event erupted in chaos, but it does make clear who was the target of players’ and their coach’s ire: referee Jessica Harrison. Running for her life, Harrison is seen on the video being yanked by the hair, wrestled to the floor, pummeled and kicked repeatedly by an angry crowd of players and at least one coach from the losing Ohio team. That’s just one instance among scores of other video examples on social media of violence and threats directed at the people officiating youth and high school sports competitions.

The videos and news headlines from around the country document a major reason game officials are quitting their jobs in droves: The escalating rates of abuse from parents and coaches outweigh whatever rewards officiating might bring. The future of youth sports, with consistent league play and predictable schedules, will be increasingly at risk if deteriorating decorum isn’t held in check. Some local parents’ organizations are forming with the support of officiating organizations to warn that, without a greater show of respect for referees and umpires, the game might not go on.

Officials are quitting at such high rates that the pipeline of experienced officials for higher-level sports could be affected. Even the NCAA is taking note of the potentially negative future effects on recruitment for college officiating. State lawmakers are responding with laws to crack down on anyone who thinks it’s OK to take out their anger on referees.

Already 22 states have strengthened existing assault laws to carve out a special designation for sports officials and boost penalties against those who threaten or attack them. Punishments, depending on the state and the severity of the offense, range from being banned from future sporting events to serving 99 years in prison. The New Hampshire legislature has put the final touches on such a bill, and several other states have bills under legislative debate.

“I’ve been there, and I’ve been harassed as a coach,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a New Hampshire Democrat. “… My family has been harassed in the stands when I was coaching. I was harassed as a player when I played, and now I see that harassment transferred to the officials, and that’s just manifested a thousandfold.”

D’Allesandro introduced a bill this year to impose escalating civil penalties. The proposal would include a one-year ban on any involvement in sporting activities for people who assault, harass or threaten officials. The bill’s 16 co-sponsors are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, reflecting that this is one of the few issues in the country where both parties agree on the need for action.

Kevin Flynn, an official who helped write D’Allesandro’s bill, said he was motivated by “increased hostility towards officials from parents and spectators and coaches. We’ve seen a lot of viral video of officials getting punched out, getting bumped, getting harassed at their cars after a game. And we thought that it’s time to try to put some downward pressure on that kind of antagonism.”

The stresses are taking a particular toll on officiating in football, soccer, basketball and hockey, with games being postponed or canceled because of officiating shortages. The National Association of Sports Officials and other organizations are working to recruit referees while seeking solutions to keep referees safe from unruly coaches and spectators. Surveys indicate that safety concerns and abuse are the main driving forces behind the referee exodus.

In a 2023 NASO survey of 35,813 sports officials, nearly 69% cited a deterioration in sportsmanship as a major concern. That response marked an almost 10 percentage point increase from similar responses in a 2017 survey. More than 40% of the 2023 respondents cited unruly parents attending youth sporting events as the biggest problem.

Coretta Lee, a grandmother and longtime youth sports official, said she loves doing this work because it’s “fun-fun.” But she told a New Hampshire legislative committee in January that the physical and verbal abuse has turned her children away from their one-time goal of following in Lee’s footsteps. “My 24-year-old says, ‘No way!’ She will not officiate. … She will not do it because when they’re sitting in the stands, they hear the things that are said to us.”

In the 2023 assault against Harrison in Indiana, visiting Ohio coach Laquita Carter was arrested and charged with felony criminal battery and felony criminal confinement. Texas, Indiana and Ohio are among the states that do not have laws to specifically protect sports officials. Opponents question why it’s necessary to carve out a special victims designation when existing assault laws might be sufficient.

Organizations like NASO argue that an additional deterrent is needed to send a stronger message to would-be attackers about the legal consequences. They say that game officials need the same special legal status as public servants or health care workers. The 22 states that already have such laws can apply extra penalties beyond standard assault convictions. More than a dozen states — including four that already have referee assault laws on the books — weighed new bills this year aimed at boosting protections.

Taunting and trash talk aren’t new concepts in sports. The 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer popularized the idea of vengeance when fans don’t like the umpire’s calls:

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

Drawing from that theme, the 1950 film “Kill the Umpire,” starring William Bendix, further popularized the chant. There are a few, isolated examples from the past century of people actually taking the chant seriously. But those rare cases pale in comparison to the frightening anti-referee tenor of many youth sporting events in recent years.

Even as far back as the early 2000s, observers warned of a dangerous trend of parents resorting to violence when they disagreed with officiating or coaching decisions.

“This new violence does not involve the young players themselves,” wrote Dianna K. Fiore in 2003 in the Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal. “Instead, coaches, parents, umpires, referees, and spectators have all been contributing to what is now an epidemic of unnecessary violence in youth sports known as ‘sports rage’ and ‘parental rage.'”

She added: “Unfortunately, parents and other adults have committed senseless violent acts with little or no consequence, inadvertently transmitting an example to children that violence wins.”

PART OF THE current problem, said Texas football referee Rodney Allison, is the relative inexperience of coaches and game officials, many installed to fill vacancies created during the pandemic. He characterized them as “just dads that have no training.”

Add unruly spectators to the mix, and the potential escalates for things to go wrong. “It’s just a lack of this civility and decorum,” Allison said. “I see that. We’re easy targets. We’re the guys out on the field making calls.” Allison had played football as a youth and into high school, so the thought of becoming an official and being back around the game excited him, he said. Being on the field was fun, but he said a noticeable decline in respect for officials at lower-level youth games began causing problems not just for referees but players as well.

“These are kids out there playing a game and we’re just officials out there trying to officiate, and I don’t know why people think this stuff is life and death because it’s not,” Allison said. “It’s just so minuscule and it comes down on us a lot.”

Dr. Robert Saul, a University of South Carolina pediatrics professor emeritus, said the decline in decorum reflects a broader, national cultural trend. “I think we have lost our moral compass in our country,” he said. “But I think it’s reasonably straightforward. I think one of the big problems is we don’t treat each other as citizens. Citizens care about each other. Citizens take care of each other. And so it’s become more me instead of us.”

The widely televised, angry antics of politicians at the national level have their own way of conveying to the public that the social etiquette rules have changed, and that brash, bold, in-your-face confrontations are the accepted new norm.

“I think it’s getting worse just because the political climate has really sort of forced us into our own bunkers,” Saul said. “And we don’t like to meet in the middle. Now, sports is a great place for that to happen so I would hope that we’ll continue to do that.”

The violence isn’t directed only at game officials. In August 2022 at a game in Lancaster, Texas, 43-year-old youth league football coach Michael Hickmon was shot to death in front of young players, spectators and coaches. The incident reportedly stemmed from an argument over the game’s score. The moments leading up to the tragedy were captured on video and quickly circulated on social media.

Hickmon’s wife, Kenyetta, said her husband picked up a football from the field and was ready to head home when the confrontation started. According to witnesses, former NFL player Aqib Talib crossed the field and approached a referee in a heated exchange about an officiating call. The argument escalated to a brawl with Hickmon caught in the middle. More people joined the fight. Then gunshots. Hickmon was shot and killed. Talib was not charged but his brother, Yaqub Talib, pleaded guilty and is now serving a 37-year prison sentence.

SOME STATE LEGISLATURES have tried but failed to strengthen their laws, often because lawmakers don’t see the urgency. Others face opposition from groups working to reform prison systems and reduce reliance on incarceration as a solution to crime.

In Ohio, state senators balked at a yearslong effort by Republican state Rep. Bill Roemer to pass protection laws that included stiffer incarceration penalties. He advanced a two-strike process, wherein a first assault against a referee would cost the offender $1,500 and 40 hours of community service, while any subsequent attacks would constitute fifth-degree felonies, the same as would apply to an attack on a public school gym teacher or bus driver. It passed the state House in November but still awaits action in the Senate.

“We’ve seen something like a 60% or 70% — it might be 100% — increase in violence against sports officials in the last five years in Ohio,” Roemer said. “We’ve had games in Ohio canceled because there were no sports officials. We don’t want this, we want the kids to benefit.”

In Massachusetts, 900 people left the officiating ranks in hockey between 2019 and 2021. School football games had to be rescheduled because of a referee shortage. The shortage coincided with the pandemic, but polling indicates the retention problem persists because of harassment.

Lawmakers are weighing a bill to impose a series of penalties for assaults against sports officials, and game venues would be required to post signs warning of the legal repercussions.

Testimony by officials reflects their nervousness at how quickly violence can escalate at games. In the NASO survey, more than half of respondents, male and female, said they felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of abusive behavior. Among new referees, 80% of respondents said they decided to quit within two years because of rude or abusive parents or coaches.

“I think that there are some nights where you walk off the field questioning why we do this,” said North Texas football official Julien Tagnon, 23. He added that newly hired referees “are not staying on” and “that’s the issue. It’s retention more than anything.”

Former Texas youth football referee Brock Price, 22, is a good example. He said he needed only one season to realize this job wasn’t for him. Price played football in high school and college. His father had spent years as a referee, so the transition to officiating seemed like a natural fit, Price said. But it was hard enough to balance the demands of his full-time job as a construction superintendent with game schedules, long days and tiresome drives to and from games.

He lasted 20 games. The angry taunts and threats from coaches and spectators solidified his decision to finish the season and never return. “I understand we’re not perfect,” Price said. “But it wasn’t worth my time to deal with coaches and their attitude towards us officials.”

That is what particularly worries authorities at the college level. A shortage hasn’t materialized yet, according to Ben Brownlee, the NCAA associate director of officiating, but the NCAA does keep an eye on the pipeline. He met recently with several state referee associations to strategize on recruitment and retention.

“When you’re only retaining 20 to 30% after three years, then obviously that’s a trend that can’t be supported,” said Michael Fitch, executive director of the Texas Association of Sports Officials. His association has developed new retention plans, including policies to keep referees safe during games and mentorship programs to help guide new referees who may benefit from the guidance of veterans.

Recognizing the exodus and the danger it poses to the future of youth sports, the St. Louis Sports Foundation launched a program called Let ‘Em Play to remind parents why civility is important to the future of youth sports. On the Let ‘Em Play website and signage on the field, the reminders state that “games cannot happen without referees” and ask adults to think twice before “shouting angrily” at them. A similar program has been launched in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

The NASO survey cites parents, followed by coaches, overwhelmingly as the main sources of abusive behavior. Whatever their reasons for lashing out, authorities say, the adults are sending exactly the wrong message to young people about the proper way to resolve disagreements.

“Is this really what you want to be modeling for your kids?” asked Rick Weissbourd, psychologist and senior lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. He added that it is the responsibility of parents to police themselves and not be afraid to speak up when other parents are behaving badly. “I think they just need to realize that we’re just normal people,” Fitch said. “We’re moms, dads, brothers, sisters, just like everybody else.”

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