The 13-year-old footballers in Cincinnati had been pulling at their opponents’ shirts throughout the game. Rhiana Garcia kept raising her flag, signaling fouls. However, one coach took issue with her officiating that October evening in 2020.
The insults he directed at the then 14-year-old Rhiana intensified throughout the game; She said he accused her of being color blind and yelled expletives and racial slurs at her. The coach was sent off before the final whistle. And Rhiana held back tears, texting her boss: “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
Such unruly behavior is the driving force behind a nationwide shortage of youth sports officials, according to umpires.
The shortage has existed for years as rowdy parents, coaches and players have created a toxic environment that drives umpires away and hinders the recruitment of new ones, umpires say. The pandemic only made matters worse: the cancellation of games and entire seasons over the past two years hastened an exodus of senior officials who decided they didn’t want the low pay, the angry shouting – or a possible infection.
Now that youth games are returning, many referees are deciding they won’t.
From 2018 to 2021, an estimated 50,000 high school umpires — about 20 percent — quit, said Dana Pappas, the director of official services for the National Federation of State High School Sports. New Hampshire lost a quarter of its hockey umpires between 2018 and 2022, while New York City’s Public School Athletic League said Brooklyn is short of about 90 officials.
“It’s a nightmare for all sports,” Ms Pappas said.
Hundreds of hockey games across Massachusetts were canceled this spring because no one was available to referee them, said Eugene Binda, who manages and assigns juvenile umpires in the state. In Indiana, parents were asked to fill in and referee football games. And in New York City, post-season basketball tournaments have been suspended because of the shortage, said Angela Halasy, who directs women’s basketball umpires for the city’s Public School Athletic League.
John Shield, president of the San Francisco-area Peninsula Soccer Referees Association, said that prior to the pandemic, Northern California’s youth referee pool was growing by about a third each year. He recently said: “What happened is that for two years we quit umpires but no new umpires came in because the pandemic brought things to a standstill.”
Most people who do this work say they are not in it for the money, which can range from $35 per game for beginners to $150 for more experienced officials. Many have full-time jobs and take time off to referee games in the evenings and weekends. Gene Steratore, who was an NFL umpire for 15 years, spoke to youth umpires at a symposium on Zoom earlier this year, saying they are “guardians of the game.”
The referees thanked them, but repeated a frequently asked question: How do they deal with the hostility from parents and fans that has supplanted so many of their peers?
Rare instances of umpires being hit by parents, coaches or players during a game have drawn attention to the problem. This year referees have reported being followed to their cars, attacked by players on the pitch and hit by objects thrown by spectators, Ms Pappas said. Mr. Binda, the refereeing officer in Weymouth, Mass., said one of his officials was hit by a player and thrown onto the ice during a hockey game in February. And just this month, a basketball umpire in DeKalb County, Georgia, was chased, kicked and punched by multiple players, Atlanta-based WSB-TV reported.
“It puts a lot of people out of business,” Mr Binda said. “We’re really in a bad, bad, bad situation in terms of retention.”
Officially Human, an organization that promotes respect for referees, conducted a survey of nearly 19,000 officials in 2019. When asked what their main reason for quitting was, 60 percent cited abuse from parents and fans. According to a 2017 survey of more than 17,000 referees by the National Association of Sports Officials, 39 percent said parents cause the most problems with sports behavior. (Coaches came in second at 29 percent.)
“They think they have a right to berate these young officials,” said Chris Rousseau, the New Hampshire Amateur Hockey Association officials supervisor. “In some cases, I’ve watched them make these kids cry.”
The problem is that families “come to these sporting events with professional expectations” as parents devote more time and money to children’s sports, said Jerry Reynolds, a professor of social work at Ball State University who studies the dynamics of youth sports and parent behavior. A 2019 Harris survey found that one in four parents said they spend about $500 a month on youth sports.
That level of expectation has impacted retention, said Dr. Reynolds and described it as a vicious circle: A new, younger referee is yelled at for not getting every decision right. This referee stops. A new referee walks in, gets yelled at and resigns.
Some who have not yet resigned, like Tyrek Greene of Dayton, Ohio, are more selective about their jobs. Mr Greene, 21, recalled working as a referee at a football game for 9-year-olds when a mother was upset that he didn’t call fouls on her son. He said she got up from the stands, walked onto the field and yelled in his face, before turning to her son and telling him, “Then you kick other players too!”
“I refuse to make games for young children just because parents are absurd and take the game way too extreme,” said Mr. Greene, who has been a referee for five years.
Referee organizations are looking for solutions. Soccer referees in San Francisco are considering giving introductory speeches before games to humanize themselves and inspire empathy from viewers. The Nebraska Referee Developmental Program ran a public campaign this year with the slogan “Who are you yelling at?” to highlight the abuse of referees and to emphasize that 60 percent of officials are 17 years or younger. Officially, Human works with leagues and teams to run sports etiquette courses for parents and coaches.
Kamal Hossain, of the East Central Soccer Officials Association in Lee County, Alabama, said he tried recruiting college students in his area to become umpires while convincing his current officials not to give up that experience will boost her confidence.
“They always want to leave,” he said. “And I try very hard to keep her.”
In Cincinnati, Rhiana, now 16, is still a referee this year. She said she’s adjusted to the hustle and bustle of the job and is getting better at blocking out the abuse, though at times she still “gets trapped in my own thoughts because I think everyone is praying for my downfall.”
A friend stopped refereeing after one season, she said, and her cousins also moved on. But Rhiana said she would continue, at least for a season or two.
Still, she warned, “there is only so much a person can endure.”